Here in Canada we have a lot of struggles to secure access for disabled people. Some of us put our energy behind legislation and governments, pointing to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the United States as an example, but no legislation can achieve social justice.
The following is from a conversation with Laurence Parent, a disability activist in Montreal. She travelled to New York for a month looking at issues surrounding access to space as part of her PhD research. Laurence documented her experiences in her blog, Wheeling NY City. Over the course of the conversation it was easy to see that access has less to do with legislation, and more to do with position in terms of physical location and class.
One of the key components of access Laurence focuses on is attendant services. In her blog post on Alejandra and Nick, she writes about how Nick moved to New York hoping to have access to the care he needed and to live with Alejandra. But things didn’t happen that way. They had to fight for a whole year to get the services Nick was legally entitled to. Alejandra, who is also disabled, was considered unfit to be Nick’s respondent in case of an emergency. They made a video about all the setbacks they have encountered on their road to 24/7 home care. He eventually won the fight, but not before spending time in a nursing home.
In Quebec people who need services are struggling to stay in their homes. It is a very political thing. Activism around attendant services doesn’t get enough attention. As Laurence said, “it is political, but it’s not made political…people are scared to lose the services that they have…they won’t really want to talk about it. The media doesn’t get it right. It is still seen as normal if disabled people live in rehab centres rather than at home.” People who don’t need services don’t tend to know they exist. Nursing homes don’t have the same negative reputation in Quebec as they do in other provinces; there is not the same history of disabled people fighting to live at home.
New York is one of the only cities in the United States with 24 hour attendant services; this is a significant factor in why physically disabled people move there, but at the same time there is less access than other cities, and people who make this choice are less mobile.
Despite the difference in legislation, there were some shared experiences with regard to transit and access to space as well. Laurence has visited a couple of cities in the United States where the ADA seemed to be changing the physical accessibility of the city, but this was not the case for New York. There are still only 25 per cent of transit stations with accessibility; primarily in the tourist areas. “You need to live in cities to get a good picture (of access),” she says.
Laurence was able to find out about the accessibility of voting stations during the American election in November. For people who are not activists, voting is how most people exercise their political agency. We might assume these would be accessible because of the ADA legislation and the role that voting plays in American culture. In Manhattan, where access was better, there were signs everywhere indicating accessible stations, but this was not consistent across New York. Laurence reflected on how class divisions affect disabled people: “There are so (many) inequalities (in the US) and this is reflected in access.”
Access to spaces is a major component of Laurence’s research; though often we don’t think of access in terms of right to space for disabled people. In her blog she mentions a fine that’s being discussed in Quebec. A rule forbidding people to wheel their mobility aids side by side on sidewalks, could dramatically impact the way disabled move and communicate with each other. If it passes, people may be subjected to a $60 fine. She doesn’t know if this is will actually come in to effect, but she is surprised by the amount of money researching and reporting on it. Often disabled people are told that it is a privilege for us to access space “because we use a vehicle, as if it was something separate from our bodies.”
There are a lot of challenges to fighting back against these types of legislated ableism. There are physical barriers occasionally, but social media cab counter this and build connections between people. The bigger challenge is that there remains a perspective in society that disabled people are still people that need to be cared for; and it can be difficult for people to break though that to find their voice. “It is hard to be an activist, sometimes people just want to get on with their lives…be acknowledged as human beings.”
Laurence sees history and community as important factors in the development of disability activism. We know very little about the accomplishments of disabled people throughout history. We should be worried. We need more disability history. We need it to be able to better fight for our present and for our future. This allows “the access and culture to inform each other” and she hopes that as more people learn about disability history “(They will develop) a sense of pride and a sense of community that disabled people don’t have in Montreal and Quebec. Maybe a sense of hope too.” People don’t often recognize that they can use their existing skills to fight ableism.
There is much to be done; there’s always the big fight for access to transportation, and we need that in order to do everything else. Budget cuts and austerity are impacting disabled people harder, and this is often overlooked. We have to connect with unions and left groups, but we also still face a lot of ableism from those areas. As Laurence says, “it is a lot about learning and being open to learn from each other…I really feel that it is the key. Some people working in disability activism seem to believe they know what access means. I believe it is dangerous to claim such a thing. What really matters is to be open to disabled people's needs, thoughts and opinions.”
There are many disabled people across Canada who recognize the need to work together towards access, and to stop waiting for those in power to do it for us. Laurence’s trip to New York shows us there are many opportunities for solidarity; we need only to reach out to each other.