The confines of a wheelchair have not stopped Judy Norbury from living a rich and adventurous life.
If anything, it has opened doors for the Comox Valley writer who is also a musician, thespian, swimmer and accessibility advocate.
Norbury was four years old when she contracted polio in her birthplace of Mussoorie, a hill station in northern India. Her home was in Mirzapur on the banks of the Ganges River, where she would return 43 years after her parents left India for Vancouver.
She has written two books. She co-wrote the first — Come Back, Judy Baba: Memoirs of India — with her mother.
“That was what they always called me, Baba Baby, in India,” Norbury said. “That was what my mother always was going to call it… It’s about me going back to my old home.”
She wrote the second book, Sometimes I Kiss My Feet – Wheelchair Adventures in Pakistan and India, after meeting a man from Pakistan — Nizamani, a fellow polio survivor — at the Disabled Persons International World Conference in Winnipeg. She took him up on his offer to visit the country, after which she revisited India.
“We just hit it off. It was quite fascinating. My trip coincided with December third, the International Day of the Disabled Person.”
In the epilogue of Sometimes I Kiss My Feet, she said many of the most intimate exchanges and experiences in Pakistan and India would not have happened had she been a walking person.
“I am enormously grateful for the circumstances of my life,” she writes.
Norbury has recorded three albums: Gardens of the Moon, Tease for Two — which features Joanna Finch of Norbury & Finch — and Did You Find the Door. The latter again features Finch, along with a host of Vancouver Island musicians.
She and Finch comprised one half of The Fabulous Ms. Adventures, a comedy troupe that also features Hazel Lennox and Linda Safford.
“We officially disbanded in ’99, finishing with the Vancouver Fringe Festival,” Norbury said. “But, every once in a while they wanted us to do something. It was parody songs, political satirical. We’d re-tailor a song for the specific occasion.”
Finch was also with Norbury when she was arrested for blocking logging trucks at Clayoquot Sound in 1993.
“I saw these clearcuts and I thought, ‘I have to do this.’ It was so ugly.”
The protesters who did not want to be arrested were instructed to stand aside. Norbury decided to stay put. She recalls an officer named Doyle squatted down and asked, ‘How are we going to deal with you?’ Norbury replied, ‘You can just pick me up, put me on the bus, fold up my chair and put it somewhere.’
“I made it easy for them.”
The prisoners sang en route to the police station in Ucluelet, where they continued to sing.
“It was a bit of a party,” she said. “One of these grumpy cops comes out and he says, ‘Stop singing, I can’t do my work.’ A few minutes later, a woman cop came out and said, ‘Don’t stop singing, he’s a grump. Keep singing.’ So we did.”
Later, in court, she received a suspended sentence, which angered her because it was granted due to her disability.
“I was furious. I felt so patronized. To me, I wasn’t dealt my proper rights. I was singled out because of my disability, that’s what pissed me off.”
Norbury serves on accessibility committees in Courtenay and Cumberland. She will point things out to elected officials, such as the island at the entrance to Lewis Park, which has a rolled curb, which does not make for a smooth transition for manual wheelchair users. Snow on sidewalks and wheelchair parking spaces can also be problematic.
“It’s not perfect, but Courtenay listens to us,” Norbury said, noting two accessible parking spots had been wiped out by a new bus stop at the Courtenay Museum. “We got very disturbed by that, and they changed it.”
She became involved with the Strathcona Wilderness Institute when members built the accessible boardwalk at Paradise Meadows. She then joined the SWI board, in part to promote increasingly accessible facilities such as the single-wheel TrailRider. Porters, or sherpas, at the front and back power the mobility device, enabling a person with a physical disability to participate in hikes.
“It can go over just about anything,” Norbury said.
Since the onset of COVID, she feels like she’s emerging from a kind of “creative hibernation.
“Swimming is the one thing I have kept up with. I haven’t been playing for a couple of years. I recently pulled out my dulcimer and tried to play some songs.”
The Fabulous Ms. Adventures performed at a variety show at the Weird Church in Cumberland earlier this year.
Norbury & Finch played this summer at the Blackberry Festival on Denman Island. They hope to also play at the Comox Valley Farmers Market.
This story originally appeared in the summer edition of Trio Magazine, the Comox Valley Record’s quarterly publication. For more Trio stories from our latest edition, read our e-edition at: https://bit.ly/3q8DZ4u.