Disability simulations and disability awareness days are condescending and patronizing towards people with disabilities. Instead of “raising awareness” about the “struggles” people with disabilities face, they end up raising awareness of how difficult it is to be a first-time wheelchair user, open bottles with socks on your hands, or navigate spaces with your eyes closed. They do not actually teach anyone anything about disability.
I suppose it would be wrong to end the post there.
First, a bit of context. Last week marked the third year that some Canadian Members of Parliament (federal representatives) – including my own, Megan Leslie, and the NDP party1 whip 2 Olivia Chow – spent a day on the Hill attempting to do their jobs while using a wheelchair.
Second, important information. This year event is co-sponsored by the Canadian Paraplegic Association as part of Spinal Cord Injury and CPA Awareness Month. While their website refers only to the 2009 event, I’m assuming the relevant information is similar:
Several Members of Parliament and Senators have spent one day in May in a wheelchair. They conducted their normal working day having to make time allowances for simple things like finding wheelchair accessible shuttles and washrooms. They were only allowed to leave their chair while in the House of Commons as there is only one wheelchair accessible spot on the floor for the Parliament Hill event co-sponsor the Honorable Mr. Steven Fletcher.
I think it’s clear that not every disabled person agrees with my assertions about disability simulations, but I have some very strong reasons for describing them they way I do. Some of those reasons are best demonstrated by Olivia Chow’s tweets throughout the day. [You can see this all in context at her twitter. The event took place on May 12. Ms Chow tweeted throughout the day. Ms Leslie also tweeted about her experience, complete with pictures.]
Olivia Chow’s tweets throughout the day really irritate me. She did a series of tweets about the barriers facing wheelchair-users in Ottawa: …lack of curb cuts, bumpy sidewalks, washrooms too small, tables w wide legs…; …hills, doors that don’t open automatically, heavy chairs, elevators shutting too quickly…; Most of these barriers can be overcome by better design, government that understand disability and kind pp willing to help.
Actually, Ms Chow, all over those barriers can be overcome through better design, and while it’s nice if a government “understands” disability, I would really rather they listened to people with disabilities instead.
What Ms Chow’s tweets did is emphasize that, both as an MP and as a former City Councillor for Toronto, she doesn’t trust people with disabilities to actually be telling her the truth about their experiences. Instead, she tweeted
I wish I had this wheelchair experience day while I was a city councillor as a lot of barriers are gov by municipal code. and Maybe I should work w the Canadian Paraplegic Asso …and challenge councillors to spend a day using wheelchairs.
Actually, Ms Chow, I have a better idea.
Why not challenge the City Councillors, and the MPs, and anyone else you know who has government power to talk to people with disabilities about what their needs are, instead of deciding that spending a day in a wheelchair gives you some special insight? (Especially egregious to me is that the nice people playing dress-up in their wheelchairs for a day could instead have asked Steven Fletcher, the Conservative MP for Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia, Manitoba, who is a full-time wheelchair user. He might be able to shed some light on issues of accessibility in Ottawa. Mr Fletcher does support this disability simulation, but this doesn’t actually prevent anyone in Parliament from asking him about it anyway.)
It really disappoints me to see the NDP participate in these so-called disability simulations rather than use their power to highlight the voices of actual people with disabilities when discussing their accessibility needs.
Canadians with disabilities campaign constantly for their voice. We don’t need Olivia Chow, or Megan Leslie, to go around for a day tweeting about how inaccessible Ottawa is. We need our elected representatives to actually listen to our concerns. We need them to take those concerns seriously, and present them to their Party – be it NDP, Liberal, Conservative, Bloq, or Green – and to our Government. We need politicians and policy makers to believe that our voices are the ones that define what our accessibility needs are, not a day-long experiment.
I know that going around for a day in a wheelchair gets attention and kudos from the currently non-disabled. I’d rather that attention be offered to the people who continue to be notably absent from our Houses of Government.
- NDP = New Democratic Party. They’re our more-left-of-center-than-the-Liberals party in Canada. In the UK, they’re like the LibDems, in Australia, I think they’re like the Labour Party (but I’m not sure) and in the US… well, in the US, they’re scary socialists who want universal healthcare and support unions and are pro-choice, so they’d be non-existent in your current political environment. ↩
- The party whip is the person in a political party who ensures that party members are present for key votes and that they vote in line with party policy. The Wikipedia entry looks pretty good. ↩