Overcoming the Odds

Biography of woman living with cerebral palsy inspires and educates

By Joyce MacPhee Created: June 16, 2012 Last Updated: June 17, 2012
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Christine Murphy, author and advocate for people with disabilities. (Jean Boulay)

Christine Murphy, author and advocate for people with disabilities. (Jean Boulay)

Ottawa resident Christine Murphy has overcome many obstacles during her lifetime—not the least of which was writing a memoir about living with a challenging neurological condition.

“Defying Disability: Conquering the Challenges of Living with Cerebral Palsy” weaves an inspirational tapestry depicting her struggles and triumphs. With wisdom and humour, Murphy illustrates how she fought the good fight throughout her life and has achieved a measure of acceptance and serenity.

Cerebral palsy is caused by brain damage (often as a result of a birth defect) to a specific part of the brain that affects how people control their movements. It can cause muscle tightness and result in spasms.

The condition affects a wide spectrum of physical and mental abilities, including speech and motor skills (affecting walking) and fine motor skills (affecting tasks such as writing and doing up buttons).

Some people with cerebral palsy, including Murphy, have dystonia, a movement disorder that causes involuntary movements of the arms, legs, and trunk that can happen at any time, but especially when one is under stress.

Twisted Sister

The book traces Murphy’s life as she grows up in the small town of Pembroke, Ontario, with cerebral palsy, receives an education, and launches a career of advocacy and education in Ottawa.

A clever device used in the book is to personalize the physical manifestations of her disability as her twisted sister, Tonia. It is Tonia who takes over in many situations in public, wreaking havoc and causing embarrassing and disastrous situations due to involuntary spasms, jerks, and facial grimaces.

A clever device used in the book is to personalize the physical manifestations of her disability as her twisted sister, Tonia.

“Many times in my life I have felt invisible, awkward, stupid, or worse, rather than being valued as the loving, bright, humorous, and intelligent human being that I truly am,” Murphy writes.

Health professionals recommended that Murphy be institutionalized when she was a child in order to receive specialized care.

Her family chose instead to have her grow up in a loving and supportive home environment where she received a lot of personalized attention and guidance. Fortunately, the small-town primary and secondary schools she attended also accepted and encouraged her.

Against the advice of several “experts,” this accomplished and determined woman overcame enormous odds and received a degree in psychology at the University of Ottawa, graduating in 1987.

Becoming an Advocate

Murphy came to live in Ottawa while completing the latter part of her university education. She progressed from volunteer to paid positions in which she advocated for people with disabilities.

Her advocacy took many forms, such as coordinating and giving presentations to educate professionals and the public about people with disabilities, and creating training programs and related materials.

Murphy also became a passionate advocate for disabled women suffering from abuse, serving on the board of a women’s shelter, advising police officers and health professionals as well as members of the public.

Despite a lack of funding, Murphy forges on, giving workshops, training sessions, talks, and presentations encouraging participants to find ways to help disabled women who face abuse and violence in their communities.

Her role in education is very distinguished. As a guest lecturer at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University, Murphy prepared a course outline proposal called “Women and Disability: Abuse, Violence and Strategies for Change.”

She also guest-lectures in the social work program at Carleton and the victimology and social service worker programs at Algonquin College.

Murphy voices her frustration with the lack of funding for programs for people with disabilities, especially women experiencing abuse. She is often called upon by social service organizations and numerous groups to speak about issues relating to women and disabilities.

In 2008, she received the Celebration of People Citizenship Award “for her years of dedication to improving services and enhancing the lives of women with disabilities who experience abuse.”


How did Murphy endure the more than half a century of sometimes extreme physical pain and numerous practical inconveniences, barriers, setbacks, rejection, and the callous disregard and misunderstanding shown by some people?

One of the keys to her success is simple gratitude, which Murphy expresses throughout the book.

While she is forthright in stating the many problems and barriers that living with cerebral palsy entails, she is just as expressive in showing thanks for everyone she appreciated over the course of her life.

In addition to a loving family and a support system, Murphy asserts that another key is her Catholic faith. This helps her on a daily basis to face the many challenges that confront her.

A special prayer, along with passages on the significance of solitude and how she finds inner peace, reveal more of the role that spirituality plays in her life.

Joyce MacPhee is an Ottawa writer and editor.

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  • Hubert Lagacé, omi

    Christine fréquentait le local de la pastorale et j’ai eu le privilège de partager avec elle ce qu’elle vivait. Je peux témoigner de son courage, de son sourire – même avec des rictus dus à sa maladie -, de sa foi qui lui conférait cette valorisation d’être aimée, cette force malgré les incompréhensions et les peurs, cette ouverture aux autres, en particulier à ceux et celles qui étaient atteints de cécité ou de troubles physiques congénitaux. Elle avait le sens de l’humour. Christine faisait mon admiration!
    Hubert Lagacé, omi


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