Shirley Shelby 2017 Canadian Disability Hall of Fame Inductee
For more than four decades, Shirley Shelby has been a passionate advocate for people with disabilities. As both a pioneering travel agent serving special-needs travellers and a tireless administrator of sports for physically disabled athletes, her positive impact on the disability community has been immeasurable.
But like many people who make profound contributions to important social causes, her involvement started almost by accident. Upon retiring from teaching music in Toronto in 1975, Shelby and her husband planned to travel the world. But when her husband suffered a stroke on their first trip, she quickly learned about the obstacles disabled individuals often faced when travelling.
To help address the problem, she began working with Transport Canada, attended special-needs travel conferences and even organized her own conferences in Toronto.
Eventually, Shelby opened a ground-breaking travel agency, Travel Helpers, that specialized in providing services for people with disabilities. Soon she was managing the travel and accommodation needs for a host of disability sports organizations, including the Canadian Wheelchair Sports Association, Canadian Amputee Sports Association, Canadian Blind Sports Association and the Canadian Association of Disabled Skiing.
During her time running the agency, she became a leader in advocating for changes in travel policies and procedures to improve the travel experiences of people with disabilities.
For example, there was once a policy stating airlines could carry only eight people at a time in a wheelchair. Shelby asked, "How is a whole team supposed to travel?" Because of her advocacy, the policy was changed.
Due to Shelby's many contributions, people with disabilities today are, for the most part, able to travel with dignity, and disabled athletes travelling with adaptive equipment can have confidence that their equipment is being well cared for.
Though Travel Helpers is no longer in business, it helped create awareness of the demand for special-needs travel services. Today, many travel agencies operate in this specialized market niche.
In 1981, motivated by the attitude and commitment of the athletes she was meeting through her work, she decided that she wanted to become more involved in sports for people with disabilities. Aware the Canada Summer Games were being hosted in Toronto that year at the newly opened Variety Village, she called up the chair and asked, "What can I do to get involved?"
He replied, "How about you head up the Services Committee."
This was no small assignment, but she accepted and took on responsibility for all the travel arrangements, accommodations and meals for hundreds of athletes, coaches, officials and volunteers.
In the end, the Games were a roaring success, in large part because of Shelby's efforts. This was the beginning of her significant impact on the lives of people with disabilities through her incredible dedication to the administrative side of sport.
In short order, she found more ways to get involved. Notably, she became a founding member of Sport for Disabled Ontario (now ParaSport Ontario) and a founding member and voluntary president of the Ontario Blind Sports Association (OBSA). Nearly 40 years later, Shelby is still an integral member of the OBSA board of directors.
Through her dedicated work in these organizations, she has helped numerous Canadians with a disability realize the benefits that sports and physical activity can have on both body and soul. As an administrator, she demonstrated and exceptional ability to advance programs and athlete development, while simultaneously balancing books and politics.
Some of the athletes supported through her work have gone on to win multiple medals at national and international competitions. Indeed, it's safe to say that her decades of determined efforts helped lay the solid foundation on which the Paralympic movement continues to build.
But no matter what level of success these athletes achieved, all benefitted in some measure from a more accessible and inclusive sport experience.
Shelby's remarkable efforts to eliminate the barriers faced by people living with disabilities have already garnered well-deserved recognition. She is a recipient of both the King Clancy Award (2008) and the Ontario Sport Award (2013), and she was inducted into the Ontario Blind Sports Association Hall of Fame in 2013.