Published Thursday, December 5, 2013
KINGSTON – International Day of Persons with Disabilities was just held on Dec. 3 so I thought I would introduce myself. I live in Kingston and use a mobility scooter to get around. Although the mobility scooter is a relatively simple assistive technology for me to move from place to place, it is much more than that. It is also a very visible and stigmatized sign of my mobility, which is only one of the many different kinds of disability.
My disability is a pretty big issue in my life although it is the social and physical structures of the city that are a major part of the problem. While these social issues might feel like they belong to the individual, they do not. It’s taken me a while to learn this. You probably have a friend or family member who is learning this too. I do not fit with the current architecture of the city, which leaves me out of many places and spaces other people take for granted.
Even as two events in consciousness raising about disability just happening – the arts festival, Able Artists 2013 and Kingston’s Access Award ceremony – it still feels like Kingston has not shown a commitment to having people with disability fully networked into the social world. I know this is not just Kingston’s problem, but Kingston is where I live and I am reminded of its inaccessibility daily.
There is cultural ambivalence towards accessibility and disability that is reflected in the way Kingston has a disastrous number of businesses and housing units without legally required accessible entrances.
Let me talk briefly about my own attitudes. For many years I have been trying to pass as able, without knowing this is what I was up to. This means I tried to overcome my physical needs by forging on as if I had no disability. And I managed to do this at the expense of many things that matter to me, including participating in the disability community. By which I mean finding and talking to the people who share the experience of disability and are fighting to make Kingston an accessible city.
In retrospect, as a white, female, able-body, I had a simple and naive expectation of access. And even though these were shattered when I began using the highly-visible scooter to get around I still operate with these ideals floating around in my head. This attitude comes from not fully attending to the difference between structural and institutional barriers that prevented my involvement; and the parts of my personality, which might impede my engagement; while also being slow to unpack the cultural norms I have absorbed about what I think of as my own limitations.
This cluster of phenomena has seduced me into doing very little. Nevertheless, depending on a scooter has politicized what once seemed like personal choices, leaving me no longer able to assume that it is my own freewill to be involved, or not involved, in the social and infrastructural life of Kingston.
And even now after I have begun to recognize my own ableist demands on my own body, I still persist in an able-bodied identity, apologizing for my different locomotion.
So while my differently-able body is complicated and personal and expected to navigate, with grace, a partially accessible city, I would like more for others and myself from Kingston. To change this low access, for wheeled people, is to remove the multiple barriers, such as steps and curbs, by putting in ramps, elevators and curb cuts. Some of this is getting done in public spaces, but private businesses and housing are much further behind.
In the United States the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been protecting people with disabilities since 1990 while Canada does not have an equivalent federal accessibility policy. Canada legislates accessibility provincially.
Ontario’s Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), 2005 adds to the Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2001, which is working on province-wide mandatory standards for accessibility in all areas of daily life.
The AODA’s web page says: “One in seven people in Ontario have a disability. Over the next 20 years, that number will rise as the population ages.” That’s a lot of people experiencing limited social, economic, and political access. And there is almost nothing being said about making retail business and housing, wheelchair accessible. And it looks to me as if the AODA downloads the responsibility for this onto local volunteer committees at the municipal level. Local committees that seem not to have the funding or power needed to push for the basic physical changes that are badly needed.
Without the power and funds, the results are as dismal as you might expect, leaving people with wheels outside many businesses.
I live downtown and can’t access my bank, a nearby laundromat, and the majority of restaurants and shops around the corner from my home. And when I can get in there is often no accessible washroom available.
When I ask businesses to put ramps in people are friendly and sometimes embarrassed but respond with a variety of excuses such as: “You are our only customer needing a ramp; Heritage Kingston won’t let us put a ramp in; we can’t afford to put ramps in; the landlord won’t put a ramp in; the snow plow would catch on a ramp; a ramp would just get stolen, or; ask when you get here and we can help lift you in.”
Attending to these everyday barriers like, stairs and curbs, leaves me feeling alienated and sad. This emotional pain accumulates and feels like body pain. I feel it deep in my muscle tissue, brought on by not having the resources to get inside the places that I want to be, and am expected to go. I can rationalize what is happening to me, and predict it because it happens over and over but this pain still accumulates. And these problems of accessibility are not going to be solved by me working harder to get inside places. Attending to accessibility has to be done, by building the ramps, and that requires everyone in the community to be thoughtful in order for accessibility to become imbedded in cultural norms.
For example by asking questions like why Heritage in Kingston trumps accessibility? It is not a timid project. That is the Kingston I want for others and for myself.