“Here in Canada, we won’t see your disability”…unless we can profit from it.

The Parapan Am Games, August 2015. I was at the Torch Relay a few weeks ago, and one of the speakers, a well-known member of the disability community, and founder of a disability organization said, “Here in Canada, we won’t see your disability”.

My jaw dropped. I wanted to believe that he hadn’t just said that like it was a good thing, but he did. In fact he went on about it for another few minutes with great enthusiasm.

I doubt anyone has gone from shameless fan girl to outraged disability activist as fast as I did in that moment, but it was an uncomfortable transformation that went something like this:

“Wait, what?”… “Are you kidding me?”… “Ok, any minute now he’s going to turn around and tell all the politicians behind him that they need to step up”… “Somebody must’ve put him up to this.”… “Nope, no, please just stop”.

He meant this as a positive statement I’m sure, I mean who wouldn’t want to live in a country where ableism doesn’t exist. I think the PR department forgot to tell the white guy with the microphone that Canada isn’t that country. If that country exists right now it probably has unicorns, wizards flying on brooms…and much better Games.

I want to believe this speaker meant well; he’s a Canadian icon. Maybe he’s just speaking from his lived experience.

Maybe he doesn’t realize that there’s disabled people still fighting for accessible transportation, like RAPLIQ in Montreal. Maybe he doesn’t realize people are fighting to keep their existing accessible transportation, like Save Handydart in Vancouver.

It’s not like Canada’s a country that still euthanizes disabled people, but it does do research to screen genes for disabilities, and let’s not forget the ableism in assisted suicide.

It’s a country were disabled people can move freely…unless you’ve have been forced to live in an institution (another example), or have a suicide attempt on record that prevented you from crossing the border.

It is a country where disabled people have free will, unless compliance with medication is forced on you, someone decides you’re too disabled to parent, or you’re a refugee seeking healthcare.

Perhaps it’s easy to be misdirected by the billions of dollars that was spent on the Games and forget we’re in a province that underfunds social assistance and social housing, still has high unemployment for disabled people despite the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, and the Guy Mitchell inquest.

If I may, let’s take a lesson from our Prime Minister on what not to do, and stop trying to make problems go away by pretending they don’t exist. Disabled people exist in Canada, and not seeing that is part of the problem. Shielding our eyes from oppression is not something to be proud of and it won’t make ableism disappear.

How about we focus on making Canada a country that sees disabled people, and sees them as an asset. That sounds like something to shout into a microphone.

For more on ableism see The Invisible Backpack of Able-Bodied Privilege Checklist.

Support a Barrier-Free Canada.

This election, it’s time for an Canadian Disabilities Act

This election, it’s time for an Canadian Disabilities Act*. From coast-to-coast across Canada, disabled people and organization have been breaking down barriers without the support of or federal government, the individualized “solutions” miss the mark; access to society and quality of life is not created through tax breaks and savings plans.

Now is a time to call for change. It’s time for bold policy that benefits all disabled people living in Canada. It’s time to call on our MPs and perspective MPs for a Barrier-Free Canada.

The following is taken from a letter written by the Barrier Free Canada Committee:

Canada is one of the few developed countries that does not have a comprehensive nationally legislated Disabilities Act. It is imperative to have the rights of disabled people legitimized, recognized, and protected and we believe that an initiative such as ours can make this a reality.

What’s in it for me?

Disabled people who are not currently covered, or who are insufficiently covered by their province or territory; people who care for their disabled family members; people who are forced into poverty because their disability has prevented them from being employed; aging Canadians, Veterans, and the extended family and loved ones of all of the above can be benefited by a national act.

Even the individual who is not affected by disability directly or indirectly can enjoy knowing that as a caring country, we are advocating for all our people.

How will it help?

Enacting national legislation will ensure that disabled Canadians will not be prevented from pursuing goals, achieving dreams and otherwise living independent lives.

What is the end goal?

A streamlined law that defines civil and human rights for all disabled Canadians and that encompasses all provincial and territorial legislation.

We need all the support that we can gather and your participation is crucial in this regard. Our initiative has already obtained the endorsements of such organizations as the CNIB, March of Dimes, the MS Society of Canada, the Canadian Hearing Society, and Accessible Media Inc.

Please take a moment to visit us at http://barrierfreecanada.org/contact-us/ to add your name to the list of citizens and organizations that have already endorsed our cause. As well, we are urging you to contact your local Member of Parliament (MP) to let the Federal Government know that Canadians wish to have this law adopted now.

Follow us on Twitter @barrierfreeca and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/barrierfreeca.

Also make sure you’re registered to vote!

*Note: I deliberately used Canadian Disabilities Act rather than Canadians with Disabilities Act used by Barrier-Free Canada. This choice reflects the inclusion of non-status disabled people living in Canada who would be impacted by this Act as they are currently impacted by Harper’s cuts to healthcare for refugees and immigration policy.

Why Canada needs more Disability Stories

I grew up in a small town of about 6000 people in rural Ontario. There were a few of us with disabilities in the area, but a small enough number that it was possible for those of us within that group to be at least vaguely familiar with each other. One I remember very clearly was a young man I’ll call Ted*.

Ted and I were not friends, in fact we had never met, but he was very much the nemesis of my childhood, by no fault of his own. At some point his parents had met my parents, where they heard all about his story and from that gleaned grand visions for my future. Ted used crutches, had plans for his future, and was a poster child for a disability organization. I was a rebellious, struggling stubborn kid in a power wheelchair. We were not close in age, and we had different disabilities. I was nothing like Ted, and I wasn’t really sure I wanted to be.

My parents just wanted what was best for their child, and with very few stories to draw from I can see why Ted’s story gave them hope. Eventually I carved out my own pretty awesome story, but there’s still something to be learned from Ted’s impact on my parents.

When I did interact with other children with disabilities, it was usually at summer camp. There, for a brief but blissful period of time all labels seemed to disappear. Of course there was still discrimination between kids, but there was also comradery in those shared experiences that I couldn’t find anywhere else. Brothers and sisters who knew what it was like to constantly be seen through the eyes of able-bodied people, and the loneliness that creates.

I moved away from that small town, and into larger urban areas where I met disabled adults who taught me important things about disability history. These were people who started disability organizations, and had protested for disability rights in their younger years. I was fortunate to have them as role models.

Not everyone is so lucky. Recently I saw a post on Facebook, in the picture a mom was sitting next to her physically disabled son in a public transit station, and she was crying. The post explains that she and her son were treated badly by fellow commuters while trying to use a public washroom. They felt her son was in the way and taking up space. It reminded me very much op my parents. What were she and her son to take from this experience? How would she use it to arm him for the world ahead?

The stories we share as disabled people might not be passed down through families, but they are still an important part of disability culture. Sharing stories of our leaders, the people who made it possible to where we are today, is an important part of how disabled people see themselves, as it is for the society that looks back at us.

When all else fails, think of Thestrals

How do you talk to the people you love about privilege? It’s like trying to explain Thestrals to someone who’s never experienced death. It’s not in their reality, and therefore does not exist except as a sort of belief system by those of us who are actually oppressed.

Consider the following:

Quotes like “black and white people are not responsible for the mistakes of the past” (see “white privilege doesn’t mean what you think it means”. There’s also “let’s not take this Confederate flag business out on my favourite childhood show” (I’m paraphrasing here).

Or in a discussion about climate change, and that some of the world’s wealthier folks are taking out insurance against it while denying the existence of climate change publicly. This occurs while others are likely to perish do to events that were cause by the societies those same wealthier people reside in. The answer in this conversation? That “in history there is always been people who make it and people who don’t”.

These are the moments where a try not to vomit. I start a very angry blog post, delete it, take a deep breath, and think about the Thestrals.

How do I explain that my complaints about these comments, are not a claim to righteousness, but an understanding of history?

While we might not be directly responsible for that history, white people benefit from it.  One of the many benefits of privilege is that the people who experience that privilege never have to openly acknowledge it.

The history classes we’re given in school leave a lot out. They’re written by the oppressors, the folks that did the segregating, othering, abusing, and murdering of other people. Our whole society is built on those things, and it would take too much explaining for a public school classroom. Or at least this is what we’re lead to believe. It’s easier to turn the page then let it in.

Ok that was a little dark, and you’re probably about ready to close this page, but please don’t. Or at least if you must, read some history Consider why in 2015 it is still acceptable to overlook the wrongs of the past, and assume that people simply struggle because of choices they made.

Rights on paper are just paper. Rights are not simply granted, they are not earned or given. No legislated measure creates them. They are acknowledged by the people, and that is when rights have power. No justice can come without first acknowledging that or power and easier transition though life comes at the expense of those who are oppressed.

The fact that you’re encouraged not to see this is not a conspiracy, but a maintenance of the status quo, so someone can keep the upper hand.

If you feel powerless, don’t despair, we’re meant to feel powerless so we don’t create change.

Is this the kind of world you really want to leave behind?

A better world comes with a better understanding of ourselves and our history.

Strange Situations – June addition

Between the double-takes in office buildings and people who think they’re “helping” when trying to push my wheelchair without asking, there’s a few amusing/uncomfortable stories that come up. These are real interactions I’ve had, just in the month of June 2015. Aside from the last one, none of these situations involved people who seemed as though they might be impaired in any way.

The Streetlight Guy

I’m waiting for the pedestrian light to say walk so I can cross. I’m looking at the light, just waiting on a nice clear sunny day when a man with his dog, standing a few feet away yells out “I’ll let you know when the sign says walk!”

I look directly at him and say “That’s ok, I’m fine, thank you”

As I’m just about to cross he shouts “It says walk now!”

As far as I can tell, he genuinely thought I couldn’t sort this out on my own unless other people were crossing. I guess that’s how you fail a pay it forward.

 

The Subway Guy

Sometimes when I can’t find an accessible space on the subway I’ll park right up to some empty seats, where there’s a lot of room around me and lots of other seats. People don’t try to sit there, because I’m out of my way and there’s space, so I read my book in peace. Except for this day.

I’m reading my book on the subway and I’m about halfway home when I notice someone staring at me. I look to my right, and notice a man sitting in the seat I’m parked up against. Again, there’s lots of other seats and space, but this guy chooses the one seat with so little space he has to tuck his feet under the seat, which is strange, but the fact that he’s staring at me with a grin on his face is weird. I decide not to draw attention to the situation, stay put, and go back to my book.

A few minutes go by, and then I feel someone poke me in the shoulder with their finger. I look up, and it’s the same guy.

He says “I’m sorry, I was just curious. How’s it going?”

What?! Personal space, it’s a thing, chair or no chair.

The College Cat-Callers

Last but not least, there is no good cat-call EVER, but those guys who whistled and shouted “Hey hot wheels” at around midnight one Saturday; I appreciate the diversity, but it’s no less creepy, sad, and sexist when compared to the next cat-call. Also, a fourteen year old boy thought that one up decades before you.

Just don’t do it.

That’s it for June. I wonder what July will turn up.

Disability…the final frontier for marriage equality?

This week Americans finally achieved marriage equality, and my fellow Canadians cheered (and quietly gloated over the fact that we’ve had it for the last ten years). While this is truly awesome, it also tugged at a small quiet chord of pain for myself and many others.

Amongst the cheers, some quiet whispers: we’re not quite there yet folks, not yet.

For those of us who live in poverty, are disabled people, or are otherwise oppressed, marriage means giving up certain safety, and reassurance that the what dignity we still have will be protected. It is a right that is given to us only if we meet certain normalizing criteria, incomes, or self-sufficiency. It means making ourselves vulnerable not only to our partners, but to the harsh oppressive voices we’ve worked to block out as single people. To join the club, you have to belong in the club.

Now don’t get me wrong, marriage is amazing. I am happy for those I know who are married, and for those who are happily getting married as a result of this recent decision. I believe that if society values marriage so highly, then all those who choose to enter it fully should be allowed to do so without fear.

For disabled people, the fear comes in two forms: society and policy. The society part is what we often talk about. How society still views disabled people as burdens, and how that plays out in our gender roles. For example, when I was growing up I was told that if I’m lucky I’ll find a good man who could see past my disability and take care of me, and when I do, I’d better hold on to him. Now I know that any person I choose better value my disability and see me as an equal partner. The point is that messages like make good partners hard to find, and keeps us vulnerable to less healthy partners.

Even if we do find healthy relationships, social policies still stand in our way. These things are hard to talk about because it involves programs that we’ve been conditioned to feel lucky to have, like social assistance and affordable accessible housing.

This American author had the courage to say what I did not, but it’s still true in Canada, including Ontario. While disabled people can technically marry, to do so they give up already meager social assistance, or certain kinds of accessible housing (like what I live in), or supportive housing. Many programs for disabled people are designed around the assumption that disabled people are not marriage material.

While not nearly as profoundly damaging as an outright ban on marriage, these policies still impact the public view of marriage. It is an injustice to pretend these polices do not exist.

What follows is one of my favourite quotes from the Kennedy decision, taken from Mother Jones:

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

Don’t we all deserve that much?