STIJA HOFSINK HAS BEEN A FIGHTER from day one. Born prematurely in the Netherlands in 1961, doctors told her parents that she would be physically and developmentally challenged her whole life. They said she would likely be in a wheelchair by age 40.
“Because of my health complications at birth, one of my legs is shorter than the other, and I have to walk on the outside of my foot,” says Stija. “I’ve had a few corrective surgeries as a child, worn braces and insoles, but I didn’t have to use a wheelchair by 40 as the doctors predicted.”
Stija has defied the odds and is doing better than doctors predicted. But today, she’s fighting a battle of a different kind—against a system that has failed her.
STIJA IS A HEALTHCARE AIDE at a home in British Columbia for people with developmental delays. At the age of 57, the Local 501 member has had to fight through pain every shift while doing her very physical job.
“I’m on my feet all day, using ceiling lifts to get individuals out of their beds, moving them around, getting them changed, doing all kinds of activities with them, and taking them for daily walks to get fresh air,” she says.
When she had to get a physical assessment done for her driver’s license, the doctor assumed she had an office job. When she told the doctor what she did for a living, he was amazed.
“He said, ‘I’m shocked that you even walked in here!’ He pointed to a teenage boy in a wheelchair in the waiting room and said, ‘You see that boy out there? You have the exact same condition as him, so you should be in a wheelchair too. It’s a miracle you’re still on your feet, because you shouldn’t be able to walk!’ ”
He told her there was nothing he could do, and recommended that she get a desk job. But Stija was too dedicated to the people she cared for at her work to heed his advice.
After years of working through the pain, it increasingly became so unbearable that she underwent surgery in early 2017 to fuse the bones in her ankle and properly align her foot.
“I couldn’t handle the constant pain anymore,” she says. “I was taking painkillers, something I don’t really like doing. Now, my leg is straight, but because I’ve been walking in the wrong position my whole life, my whole body has to get used to a different way of walking.”
Stija’s recovery from surgery has taken longer than anticipated. She’s been on long term disability for a year, but wants nothing more than to return to work.
“I love my job and I miss it,” she says. “I love the individuals I care for. This is all I’ve ever done. This is my passion. I couldn’t imagine ever doing anything else.”
STIJA BEGAN WORK AS A CARE AIDE in the Netherlands when she was 16. She was drawn to her line of work observing children with physical and developmental delays in her elementary school.
“That could have been me,” she says. “I saw how they were bullied by other children, but I also saw the care and compassion of their aides, and I wanted to take care of them, too.”
Stija has worked at her care home for 20 years and has never let constant pain get in the way of being an exemplary employee and dependable coworker.
“I never let my pain slow me down,” she says. “I never called in sick. I never said no to any task or said I couldn’t do something. I took all the unwanted shifts and was willing to help out any of my coworkers who needed a shift covered. I went above and beyond what was needed.”
But Stija’s work ethic has not been honoured, and she has had to apply for welfare because her company is unwilling to modify her duties to allow her to return to work. She has experienced bureaucratic delays, setbacks, and opposition at every turn in her fight—from her employer, to her insurance company, to the healthcare system in general.
“There was a manager at my company who was very understanding, but then she retired,” says Stija. “The new manager doesn’t understand my situation and hasn’t made an effort to accommodate me.
“My family doctor also retired, so I was left in limbo and had to wait a long time to get a new doctor—one-and-a-half hours away.
“When I’ve dealt with my insurance company, they have no sympathy, no compassion. They’ve never once asked me how I’m doing. When I pointed that out to one of them, he said to me, ‘But we don’t care how you say you’re doing; we care about how your doctor says you’re doing.’ ”
Stija’s health benefits company is provided through her employer, not through CLAC. As a result, her benefits don’t cover half of the costs resulting from her surgery and rehabilitation. They only cover her for 10 to 12 physiotherapy sessions per year. She’s also started to receive counselling, but she pays for it out of her own pocket because it’s not covered under her employer’s benefits plan.
The government agencies involved in Stija’s case have also let her down. They’re part of a broken healthcare system that has left her battling one agency after another. At every turn, one agency will say one thing while another says something different.
Workers such as Stija—who pay for these agencies—end up getting taken advantage of and not getting the help they need. Unless they have someone advocating for them, they don’t stand a chance fighting the bureaucracy.
Stija’s company has not been very helpful either up to this point. They told her that to return to work, she has to be fully able to do the job, which is not possible given her physical limitations.
CLAC is currently working with her and her employer to facilitate a workplace accommodation for her condition that will allow her to return to work in some capacity. Her only desire is to get back to doing the job she loves so much—helping others.
“My union representatives have been very supportive and understanding,” she says. “They helped me take training courses so I can upgrade my skills and also gifted me with a computer. While we keep fighting to get me back to work, I’ve applied for permanent disability. But I really want to keep working—even if it’s only part-time work.”
STIJA’S FIGHT AGAINST THE SYSTEM won’t stop until she’s been given fair treatment.
“I got to a point where I wanted to stop fighting—I was so just exhausted,” she says. “But if something good can come out of this in the end, then it will have all been worth it.”
Many people in her situation would give up, but Stija is not one of them. She’s endured a lifetime of struggle overcoming pain and physical limitations. It would be easy for her to sink to bitterness and anger at the system. But that’s not her, despite the fact that the system has let her down. Instead, she’s used the experience to learn about herself and grow.
“In this last year, I’ve pushed through things I didn’t think I could push through,” she says. “I’m someone who used to be a people-pleaser and let people walk all over me. But I’ve had to fight for my rights and stand up for myself. I’ve done so many things I didn’t think I could do—researching my rights, making phone calls, and being assertive. Maybe if I fight just a little harder, then things will start to happen.”
Stija has fought the good fight and defied the odds since birth to pursue a career helping others. And with the help of her union, she’s not about to quit now.
Disability Fast Facts
15% – Percentage of the world’s population who identify as having a disability
5.3 million or 16% – Number of Canadians living with some form of disability
49% – Unemployment rate for people with disabilities
19% – Percentage of people with disabilities who have no intention of disclosing their disability to their employer due to fear of discrimination
3 in 10 – Number of small business owners who hire people with disabilities
10 Disability Types
Sources: easterseals.ca, Statistics Canada, Angus Reid
The history of the wheelchair, according to scholars, dates back to as far as the sixth century BC, perhaps as wheeled furniture or two-wheeled carts. Wheeled chairs, along with the wheelbarrow, have been in use in Europe since as early as the 12th century. But it wasn’t until the 17th century that disabled people—at least those who were wealthy—had access to a chair to help them get around.
By the 18th century, wheelchairs began to be used for patients. But they were too fancy, too heavy, and too awkward. Enter James Heath, inventor of the bath chair in 1850, so named because he was from Bath, England. Featuring two large wheels beneath a seat with a small pivoting wheel up front, the bath chair quickly became popular in Victorian Britain, enabling injured, sick, and disabled people to get around more easily.