Last week I wrote a letter. I posted it here.
I thought the letter was fairly straight forward. I am typically direct. I try hard to keep the sarcasm to a minimum. (If you doubt how hard I work at that, you should read the drafts I delete.) I try to examine the logic of a situation without robbing it of its humanity. I strive to give all involved the benefit of the doubt and assume intelligence and integrity unless and until proven otherwise.
I knew not everyone would agree with my letter or share my absolute stance on accessibility. Life informs me of this every day.
I also knew I was not privy to the back-story.
There is always a back-story. I am not naive.
Still, I felt I knew and cared enough about a principle I believe should be, but often isn’t, considered let alone adhered to when planning public space, that I, as a resident of this city, had a right to contribute to the dialogue.
The following morning I received numerous ‘@’s that both saddened and frustrated me.
Something I try not to respond to is when it seems as though someone is deliberately misrepresenting or ‘misunderstanding’ what I am saying.
In this case the mentions weren’t coming from anonymous eggs – so I tried to reply. Not as patiently as I perhaps should have, but I tried.
And then I stopped trying. I knew when I wanted to reply to this tweet with ‘now look who is ‘co-opting handicap’ it was best to go offline for awhile.
I do wonder though if those who see collusion and hidden agendas around every corner do so because that is how they would operate themselves – a.k.a. projection. Or is it just more a reflection of the fact some can’t imagine a disabled woman forming an idea on her own without someone ‘planting’ it there?
I’m so gullible and unaware of my own safety and accessibility needs I need someone who is not a wheelchair user to explain them to me?
I ‘rolled’ (my version of walked) away.
My desire to respond persists so I will.
First of all, although I think this was perfectly clear in my original letter I will restate it for the record – the point of my letter was to make certain accessibility is a known and honoured non-negotiable when it comes to any and all decisions regarding the design of the Arbutus Corridor now or in the future.
This means accessibility is not near or at the top of a list of ‘things I’d like to see in the Arbutus Corridor.’
Accessibility is a requirement – not a want. It is a must.
The difference between being essential and important is not pedantic; it is the difference between a need and a want – a right and a privilege.
In this case it could be the difference between my being able to go there or not.
People want consultation – but here’s the thing – I can’t go there and experience the place in its current state, so how do I form and share my ideas?
Do my ideas matter? Do I matter?
That is what accessibility is about – and it is why decisions that impact it aren’t on the table.
Things on lists can be moved around and crossed off.
If you are building a bridge then the public can and should have input about a variety of its features – but whether or not the bridge is made to be structurally sound is not among them. It is not something that should be subject public opinion.
The issue of accessibility is the same. You do not get a vote on this.
So yes accessibility is a trump card – deal with it.
In terms of ‘clear-cutting’ I am not sure what to say. This is a railway line through a major city – there is no old growth as far as I am aware. And I can’t help wondering if some ‘natural’ vegetation wasn’t removed to plant and maintain the gardens some people have established there.
Someone sent me a link to a list of alternatives to pavement.
Again, my point was and is accessibility. I do not have a comprehensive knowledge of surface materials.
I am not a civil engineer.
I imagine there are multiple factors involved in deciding on the best, most accessible surface including local climate, amount of use and maintenance.
(Side note: In a relatively short time frame I had three flat – as in punctured – tires – all from loose stones. I am hoping in the future to buy alternate wheels, including some solids. That is a hope but due to cost, it is not necessarily a realistic one for me or many.)
What works for a trail that may or may not be open year round may or may not be suitable for an urban environment with many users year-round.
And this – I think – might be where the rubber meets the road.
Who uses the corridor.
This is also where things escalated from annoying to insulting.
If the argument is aesthetics (which, incidentally, is often the barrier erected to barrier-free design), then say so but I do not appreciate someone using the pretense of concern for my welfare to make their motivations look more noble.
Argue for it. Defend it – but don’t prop your placard on my wheelchair and appoint yourself my guardian.
It is insincere. It is insulting. Especially when…
So – again – the non-negotiable for me is accessibility. Beyond that, I seek to live in a diverse and inclusive community with plentiful- and again accessible-public space where I can meet and inter-act with different people who have different interests and are doing different things.
My photos of Pride 2015, Farmer’s Market at park across from Greyhound station, a high school band playing in front of VAG.
But let me pause for a moment and share a little of my own backstory.
I didn’t go from walking/running to wheelchair user overnight as some do. One day I tired easily – seemingly the next I couldn’t get up from a seated position without help and then I couldn’t get up at all. I used a cane, then a walker, then a walker and sometimes wheelchair and then a power wheelchair, then bed – for months and months – and then back to power wheelchair for years and now a manual wheelchair.
I share this to clarify I have experience with being in public spaces while being unsteady on my feet. It is true I became much more conscious and wary of my surroundings – but mainly it was about what was beneath my feet – the dips, cracks, breaks, bumps that most people don’t consciously register became considered negotiations and sometimes metaphoric leaps of faith for me.
I never felt inclined to ask anyone to not share public space with me . The only thing I would say I wanted more of was level surfaces and benches – places to rest periodically – that should be part of any accessible, inclusive and thus all public space.
(As a wheelchair user I would like a path wide enough to be level and not put me on tilt- cross-slopes often have me pushing with one arm and braking with the other simultaneously. I am still adding to my arm muscles and subtracting my Prednisone pounds so this can be difficult to sustain for long distances. I was surprised to find cross-slopes far more of a problem than even inclines. So a wide, open path has tremendous appeal for me.)
Nonetheless the image of people being knocked down like bowling pins had been planted in my mind.
So I asked a friend who is blind what he thought.
“What do you mean?” he said
“Would it worry you if part of the space is used by bicyclists and skateboarders?” I asked.
“I don’t understand” he said sounding genuinely baffled.
“I think some people think you will (I hesitated, now regretting starting the sentence because I knew how ridiculous I was about to sound)…they think you will be in danger. (Silence) Would you be worried about being run over?”
“You’re not serious. The goal is inclusion.” he said.
To be sure, shared spaces require a consciousness of different needs.
In my own experience whenever there is a collision of users it is a reflection of poor design.
For example, last summer at English Bay Beach part of the sidewalk was often occupied by vendor carts and their customers. I would never want to see them removed – I have been a satisfied customer myself – also recommend a visit to this homemade lemonade and crepe stand.
My photo of Lemonade & Crepe Cart at English Bay
However, I did sometimes find myself forced into the bike path and that could get a little hairy on a busy day. This year the City or Park Board – not sure who – put a wooden platform that essentially extends the sidewalk out, for the carts to sit on. Now there is lots of room for me and others to pass.
The problem was solved not by eliminating ‘a user’ but by designing to accommodate all of them.
And, by the way, pedestrians are generally way more problematic for me than bikes or skateboards. Pedestrians who stand in curb-cuts, swing their bags back while standing an inch away hitting me in the face, smokers whose cigarettes I could easily take a drag off as they pass by practically landing on my lips – and all those butts – asses to the left of me, asses to the right – there I am stuck in the middle with all of you.
The one demographic that is most consistently conscious – noticing when I’m struggling with a door, a broken sidewalk, a blocked curb cut – homeless people. They move their shopping carts, ask if I need help and respect my reply whatever it is. And no, they aren’t seeking money – I have offered and it is always declined.
The next group that is almost always considerate – teenagers.
The rest of the population is hit and miss – with me being the one that takes the hits (gets walked into) and making the effort to miss.
Many of our city sidewalks are town-size and people don’t see me and well, if you have kids, they deserve your respect because let me tell you, it is a different city at this eye-level.
I would like to be part of a plan for making public space better. First I have to be there. My neighbour with her two dogs has to be there. The skateboard dude who offered to practice curb jumps with me needs to be there. And, yes, people on bikes are there too.
When I first transitioned from power wheelchair to manual there was a lot to learn.
Week two and it was almost five o’clock on a Friday when I realized one of my tires had virtually no air in it. I had not thought to buy a pump. I called around trying to find a store that would sell me one over the phone. Mountain Equipment was willing but it had to be processed via a central number and then it would be day or two before it would be ready for pick-up. In the meantime I was stuck. I had already called Phantom bicycle courier (didn’t have an account just found them on the web) beforehand to see if they could pick it up when I found one.
Now, I called him back to let him know not to wait around – the stores all refused and thus there would be no delivery needed.
“Wait. Are you telling me your tire is flat?”
“No way. I will send someone right now. I got a guy in the area. He will be there in five minutes. No charge. You can’t be left with a flat tire – especially all weekend. That’s ridiculous.”
I hung up and cried. No really. It is hard to explain how much that moment meant to me. Years and years of dealing with one particular government approved mobility store in this city had worn me out. I would rather put my head in a blender than call for repairs. Every damn time I had to explain why having a power wheelchair that won’t turn on is not something I could wait for someone to schedule me later that week to fix. ‘No – you can not take my wheelchair in for service and leave me with none – for one thing – how do I close the door, use the washroom, let you in again?’
Every single time.
And now, this bike courier with no training in disability, no special knowledge about ‘mobility aids’ – without pity or requiring explanation, understood what needed to be done and how to act.
Of course he understood. It made sense. My problem wasn’t a disability problem – it wasn’t a medical problem – it was a someone in the community with a flat tire problem.
When the courier left I went out. I headed straight for a steep hill I had avoided, certain I wasn’t ready for and went straight up it – not even stopping to wipe the tears from my eyes or deal with my dripping nose.
When I got back home a neighbour stopped me -‘ you look happy,’ she said.
Of course I was happy – for the first time since coming home from hospital I felt I was part of the community.
I will occupy public space – even if it is uncomfortable for me – or for others. If there are problems, (and I am guessing there will be), I am confident we can figure them out.
When we occupy space together we learn from one another. We make the space better and the space makes us better.
Perhaps it comes down to whether you see community as fixed or fluid.
I envision community as alive and adapting. I see it growing and thriving – changing and becoming more diverse and interesting and exciting.
Feel free to disagree. But understand aesthetics are a matter of taste and preference. Accessibility is a matter of rights. Don’t pretend or read in motivations that aren’t there – I know who I am and what I believe and I share these things quite openly. My ‘agenda’ isn’t hidden.
I don’t know how much more clear I can be.
And by the way some disabled people ride bikes too.
Web pics of different accessible bikes
P.S. The first time I heard of HUB was from the people accusing me of being co-opted by them. (100% Truth)