Monday, December 14, 2015 4
Jeff Preston, local accessibility advocate and Fanshawe College professor in media studies, spoke at a recent event about accessibility hosted by Northeast Community Conversations(NECC) Group.
Special to Londoner
How accessible is London?
This was one of the many questions on accessibility and disability explored at the latest community conversation event hosted by Northeast Community Conversations Group (NECC) at Beacock Branch Library December 3.
NECC is a grassroots collective of London volunteers passionate about community building and transformative shared thinking. The group’s event co-champion, Michael Dawthorne, who also serves as chair of the City of London’s Accessibility Advisory Committee, kicked off the conversation by explaining the significance of the date December 3 has been recognized by the United Nations as International Day for Persons with Disabilities since 1992.
Opening keynote speaker, Kash Husain, an electrical engineer, community advocate and former chair of the City’s Accessibility Advisory Committee, remembered how the very first recommendation on accessibility approved by London’s city council was the installation of a TTY service at city hall. TTY stands for Tele TYpewriter, which is a special device that enables people who are deaf, hard of hearing or speech-impaired to use the telephone to communicate by typing text messages to a receiver.
In 2005, the Ontario Government passed the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) with a vision of a fully accessible Ontario by 2025. Husain, who lost his eyesight in April 2000 as a result of Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative decease of the retina, noted there has been much progress in increased awareness and education on accessibility and disability, acknowledging how far the City of London has come in terms of integrating accessibility in its services, employment, transportation, education and leisure/recreation activities.
But Husain also noted there is still much work to be done in order to meet the City’s Accessibility Plan for 2013-2017 and the province’s goal of being fully accessible by 2025.
New Vision Advocates Adam Vigar and Scott Tennant spoke about their personal experiences in living with a disability. The audience broke into applause whenever Vigar spoke of his positive outlook on life; the love and appreciation he has for his family’s support; and the gratitude he has for being at “the best place in the world to work”.
New Vision Advocates is a self-advocacy group comprising individuals with developmental disabilities who advocate for equal citizenship, acceptance and belonging in the community.
During the evening, 71 attendees were invited to participate in one of four breakout groups focusing on accessibility in relation to education, employment, transportation and leisure/recreation. Facilitators and note-takers led these breakout groups, addressing a set of pre-determined questions.
Participants identified and acknowledged the many accessibility-related improvements in the city, discussed gaps and continuing challenges that still need to be addressed, and what the community as individuals, groups or organizations can do to improve the lives of those with physical, cognitive, and mental impairments or disabilities. Copies of these notes are available upon request.
So what is it like in 2015 to live with disability?
Fanshawe College professor in media studies, Jeff Preston, who delivered closing remarks, spoke candidly about the tremendous disconnect between what it’s actually like compared to what people think it’s like. Preston said he feels weird when people say to him, “you are brave” or call him “an inspiration.”
“It is not what they imagine. They think of it as a tragedy,” observed Preston. “My Congenital Muscular Dystrophy itself is not what disables me but rather the city, the country in which I live. Society is, after all, designed for the normal person.
“But what is normal?”
According to Preston, although we as a society are moving forward, we still live in a world that is disabled with system barriers and with many advocates, supporters and users still waiting for compliance on AODA guidelines.
Participants were visibly moved and inspired by Preston’s personal story of driving his electric wheelchair from London to Ottawa in May 2008 to prove a point that disabled persons do not have a reliable way to move efficiently and effectively across the province.
For example, when flying, his electronic wheelchair is almost always damaged permanently because it is callously mishandled. There is only one accessible seat on all trains running between Windsor and Ottawa and often, someone who boarded the train in Windsor has already taken this seat. Preston also said he has to rely on mindful customer service representatives to book an accessible bus if he travels by Greyhound.
As there was no reliable way for Preston to get around, he decided to get in his chair and drive the 650km to Ottawa, stopping in towns and communities along the way to talk with people about accessibility and disability.
“Access is a fundamental human right so in 2015, there should no longer be community programs and services designed and offered which are not accessible,” Preston stressed. “The disabled community is here; we are present, and we want to be recognized along with other mainstream communities.”
How can we move forward to keep accessibility as a forefront issue?
“Through our voices, standing up, speaking out,” Preston said. “The disabled have waited too long. 2025 is not that far away. The disabled are here to live.
“Speak out for them,” Preston urged.
Jacqueline Fraser is the lead organizer of the Northeast Community Conversations Group. For more information on NECC and upcoming events in 2016, please contact Jacqueline at email@example.com or by phone at 519-453-3198.