Name: Anna-Karina Tabunar
Claim to fame: Creator of the documentary film Talent Untapped
Wise words: " I think that once we’re in tune with our bodies and listen to our gut and how our bodies react, I think it can really lead us in the right direction."
For Anna-Karina Tabunar, life in 2010 was looking pretty darn great.
A journalist by trade, she was thriving in a challenging new career outside of the newsroom. At home, she was surrounded by her loving husband and three happy, healthy kids. An active woman, she regularly practiced yoga and was even starting to jog.
By all accounts, she was living the kind of life that many can only dream of.
But one day, Anna-Karina suddenly found herself unable to walk, see properly, or stand. She had contracted a rare viral illness that temporarily robbed her of her most basic functions.
For some people, that might be the end of the story, but for Anna-Karina, it was just the beginning.
Her story is not only one of resilience, but one of grace. It is a story about taking the life lessons you never wanted -- and never asked for -- and using that wisdom to make the world a better place. It is a story about finding out what you are made of, and using that power for good.
Today, I am honored and humbled to bring you the story of Anna-Karina Tabunar, journalist, TV host, entrepreneur, documentary filmmaker, wife, and mother.
Whatever challenges you are facing in life right now, it is my hope that reading this story will help you realize that you, too, are stronger than you know.
The Not-So-Calm Before the Storm
For over many years, Anna-Karina Tabunar’s career could be described using words like “fast-paced”, “high pressure”, and “demanding”. A journalist by trade, Anna-Karina spent more than a decade years working in some of the most respected newsrooms in Canada, covering some of the most important political events in the country’s history.
She began her reporting career at CBC Montreal, where she was offered a coveted role in the newsroom at a time when Quebec was in the middle of a political crisis. She was young, she was ambitious, and she was often the only woman and the only person of colour in the scrum -- two facts that made her work doubly hard.
“In my mind, people were thinking ‘oh yeah, she’s just here because she looks different’, and so I worked so hard to prove everybody wrong”, she said, “I don’t know exactly what they thought, but in my mind this is what I thought that they thought so I worked extra hard.”
"Working in news makes you 'on' all the time."
A few years later, after establishing a track record of success in Montreal, Tabunar made the move to Ottawa to join the much lauded CTV newsroom, where she spent the better part of a decade.
Although she looks back fondly on that time in her life, Anna-Karina acknowledged that working in such a high-pressure did present some challenges for the busy wife and mother of two. “Working in news makes you ‘on’ all the time,” she recounted, “being on vacation was never really being on vacation because I had to keep up, I had to keep reading the newspapers and stay plugged in. If I got back and there was a development and I wasn’t on top of things, I’d be falling behind. It meant that I was always on, so even being out and about with my kids, there was another level of awareness that was always there, and it can be exhausting.”
So when a friend sent her an email with a job posting in the government, Anna-Karina kept an open mind, “I hadn’t really given it a whole lot of thought, I just thought that it was interesting and it intrigued me.” And, she thought, perhaps a job with a more regular schedule might be a good thing while her children were still young.
To illustrate just how jam-packed her newsroom days were, Anna-Karina explained to me that she had to squeeze in writing the job application during breaks in her kids’ bathtime. “I would get the bath water going and I would write the lede, then I’d go check the water, and I’d write the body of the text, then I’d go soap up the kids and dry them off and put them to bed and finish writing the news release,” she laughed, “it was kind of insane!”
The chaos of that hectic bath time turned out to be well worth it in the end, because Anna-Karina got the job.
But don’t take that to mean her schedule suddenly eased up -- shortly after taking the new position, she found out that she and her husband had their third child on the way. After the birth, Anna-Karina took 6 months of maternity leave and then was promptly back at work and piloting an innovative new telework program in her department. Over the next few years, Anna-Karina settled into a new, post-TV rhythm, enjoying both her career and the time she had with her young family. By all accounts, life was pretty good.
But when her youngest was about three years old, Anna-Karina’s life took a sudden and unexpected turn.
One day, she got sick.
Adjusting to a “New Normal”
“I had woken up one day with a big headache. I was doing yoga, I was starting to jog, I considered myself pretty healthy, but I was experiencing these very odd symptoms,” Anna-Karina explained to me. At first, she brushed it off as stress. But when she almost fell out of the bus her on way to work because she couldn’t see the ground, she knew it was time to see a doctor.
“She did a bunch of neurological tests on me and found that I had no reflex arcs,” she told me, “no sensation in my limbs, in my face, my eyes were not able to move properly or focus, and I couldn’t walk in a straight line without falling over.” At that point, Anna-Karina’s doctor took her off of work effective immediately, an order that Anna-Karina did not resist. “When your doctor starts using terms like ‘neurological’ and saying that they need to rule out big brain things like tumours, that’s when you say, okay I’ll stop.”
But old habits die hard, and it took weeks for Anna-Karina to stop getting her kids to check her Blackberry for her. “Looking back, boy was I ever goofy!” she laughed, “I was just a creature of habit and I felt tethered to work because that’s what I did. Even though I couldn’t read off of my Blackberry and couldn’t type because I couldn’t use my fingers properly, my kids knew how to use it and would tell me who I got messages from.”
What she initially thought would be a one, two, maybe three week break from work turned out to be a three year-long recovery.
During the first few years after her diagnosis, Anna-Karina was often told to “pace” herself. But for a mother of three who was used to thriving in high-pressure work environments, the phrase didn’t mean much at first. “I had no idea what that really meant, so I thought, ‘yeah, sure, I’ll pace myself,’ but anybody who deals with chronic pain or chronic illness knows that you only have a certain reserve of energy, so I learned how to pace myself,” she explained. “So I know that if I’m going to need to be alert and if I’m going to be moving my body, I know it’s going to take up a lot of energy, then that’s the one big thing that I’m going to do for the day, and then I rest for the remainder of the day. Otherwise, I can knock myself out for a couple of days, which I really don’t want to do. It’s because now, I honour my body, and I want to use it for a very long time. I want to be able to enjoy my kids and see them grow and do a lot of fun things with them.”
If nothing else, these changes have made Anna-Karina more intentional and discerning with how she spends her precious time and energy, “I want to make sure that my energy output goes where I want it to go, where it’s going to make a difference.” When she had the opportunity to return to her stable government job, Anna-Karina found that the position that had once brought her tremendous satisfaction no longer had the same meaning -- and now completely exhausted her.
“The thought process behind launching my own business was ‘okay, I can go back to security and a government job that didn’t really resonate with me, that was setting off these alarm bells with my body, or I could do something different’,” she shared, “but in the end, I listened to my body. Again, I think that once we’re in tune with our bodies and listen to our gut and how our bodies react, I think it can really lead us in the right direction.”
These days, although she is busier than ever managing family life, a business, and her documentary debut, she is also more energized than she has been in recent memory.
“This Kickstarter campaign [for the documentary] took a lot of energy, but it also gave me energy. Getting all this feedback from the people that I know this project is going to help strengthened my resolve and made everything so worthwhile. And this is why I do the work that I do. ”
Telling a Different Story About “Disability”...Her Own
“I never really gave much thought to ‘disability’ [before the illness] because it wasn’t something that was in my life,” she admitted, “when it happened to me, I could not reconcile me, Anna-Karina Tabunar, disabled. It just didn’t work for me.”
During Anna-Karina’s recovery, in addition to having the support of her husband who she refers to as her ‘rock’, she was surrounded and supported by remarkable individuals who themselves had disabilities, and it was then that her understanding of the term began to shift.
“When I use the world disabled, I use it to refer to a car that doesn’t work, or a machine that doesn’t work, people are not disabled,” she argued, “they work differently.” And, Anna-Karina argued, it is precisely these differences in the way that people with disabilities move through the world that make them some of the most innovative people you’ll ever meet.
This newfound insight into what it means to be “disabled” -- both as a result of her own experiences and the people that she has met along her journey -- inspired Anna-Karina’s latest project, Talent Untapped, a documentary film about the employment challenges faced by individuals with disabilities -- and the opportunities that this untapped sector represents for our economy.
Anna-Karina chose to focus her documentary around the topic of employment because she considers meaningful, well-paying work to be an important stepping stone towards a happy, healthy, fulfilling life. “When you give someone with a disability a chance to work, you open the door for so many other possibilities in their life,” she explained to me. To underscore her point, she shared with me the story of a young man who she met while he was working as a dishwasher in a restaurant, who happens to be deaf. He explained to her that if he didn’t have this job, he would probably just be at home in his parent’s basement, collecting benefits and wiling away the time playing video games. Now, he has work that he excels at and is getting ready to marry his fiancee -- a colleague of his who also happens to be deaf.
“All of this because he had the opportunity to work and broaden his horizons and develop a social network,” Anna-Karina said, “this is what I want to see.”
“People need to know that disability is just another facet of diversity, that’s all it is. People with disabilities are often not given a chance, because people tend to see the cane, the wheelchair, the hearing aid, and that person is going to work three, four times as hard to prove everybody wrong,” she shared, reflecting back on her time as a woman of color working in very white and very male newsrooms.
It is Anna-Karina’s hope that this film will help employers at all levels understand the value in hiring individuals with disabilities on their teams and take steps towards diversifying their workplaces.
“The backbone of my documentary is not just to get people to empathize and sympathize, it’s to get them to see the hard business value,” she emphasized, “there are dollar figures attached to why people should take the next step and hire from this talent pool.” Ever the powerful advocate, Anna-Karina walked me through the numerous additional benefits that come from hiring individuals with different levels of ability, including increased retention rates and lower onboarding costs. Beyond the business world, gainful employment for people with disabilities reduces health care spending and increases the amount of disposable income circulating around our communities.
“This is a golden opportunity to bring people on board for something remarkable, for something that will significantly change lives,” she said, “I know this because of the feedback that I’m receiving, and I feel so, so privileged to be able to be on this journey.”
Anna-Karina explained to me that, although the journey to making the film has been a long one, she wouldn’t go back and hurry the project along even if she could.
“Now, looking back, I think that everything happens in time. I needed the extra time to really flesh out the theme and where this was going and to give more time for the right people to join me,” she explained. In its first incarnation, the film was a series of other people’s stories that Anna-Karina was struggling to weave together into a narrative. It wasn’t until her friend and journalist colleague Shelley Page suggested that Anna-Karina’s own story might be the missing link that the big picture came into sight.
“As a trained journalist, it’s uncomfortable for me to inject myself into a story because that’s not my job, my role is to tell your story, she explained, “the time that it’s taken for this project to evolve has been the time that I needed for me to shift my own mindset and be more comfortable being able to tell my own story.”
In hearing Anna-Karina recounting the process of learning to embrace her powerful story, I am reminded of psychologist and author Brene Brown’s often-quoted words: “loving ourselves through the process of owning our own story is the bravest thing we’ll ever do.”
Anna-Karina explained to me that, for the longest time, she simply identified as someone who had gone through a rough patch with her health, only letting a very small circle of friends and family know what she had really gone through. “But now,” she said, “I realize that by being more open, it brings more people in.”
“It’s not bad to be vulnerable. This is what somebody said to me: when we talk about people with disabilities, we refer to them as the ‘vulnerable’ sector, but not because they’re ‘at risk’, but because they are fearless and because they invite more love into their lives. That’s the beauty of being vulnerable.”