Maz Smyth was rolling along one day in her manual wheelchair, as one does, when her front wheel got caught in a pothole and snapped off. Understandably annoyed by this turn of events, she approached the Toowoomba Regional Council to ask them to fix the pothole and pay the costs associated with fixing her chair.
Neither of these things is particularly unreasonable, wouldn’t you agree? It’s pretty standard for local government to maintain roads, and when I discussed this case with Lauredhel, she pointed out that most councils pay medical expenses when things like this happen, and that awareness of how potholes and other hazards contribute to injuries is on the radar in many regions of Australia. The Council failed to maintain the roadway properly and her chair was damaged as a result. She could have been seriously injured, just as any other wheelchair user, or someone who uses a cane or walker, could have been injured. Potholes are things that need to be fixed, and since the Council failed to take timely action to fix the pothole before someone was injured and/or property damage occurred, Smyth was, I believe, justified in requesting that they pay to repair her chair.
She went to the Council every day for a week, asking that they pay the costs of the repairs. They informed her that she needed to file an official claim and it probably wouldn’t be honoured. She demanded to talk to the Mayor. And then this happened:
[she was] told by a council staff member “perhaps it was your weight that caused the wheelchair to break”.
There are a whole lot of attitudes about fat wheelchair users that get reinforced on a pretty regular basis, like that fat people are lazy, or that using a wheelchair makes you fat. I wish I didn’t encounter them all the time, but I do, and this case was just another instance of casual fat hatred combined with ableism. Wanting to disavow responsibility for damages caused by inaction, the Council staff member decided that the best way to get rid of the Angry Crip would be to tell her that she’s clearly ‘too fat’ and what happened was her fault.
These attitudes are dehumanising, and it comes as no surprise to me to read that Smyth felt ‘downtrodden’ when someone told her this. It was yet another reminder that fat people and wheelchair users don’t belong in society, shouldn’t have equal rights to access public spaces, and should just stay at home and feel sorry for themselves.
A local paper, The Chronicle, decided to cover her story. While they were doing a photoshoot in front of City Hall, the Mayor evidently saw them, raced out of the building, and agreed to pay for the repairs. He said:
“I’m not sure how (the wheelchair was damaged) but we’ve had it fixed to help her out.”
Yeah. She told them how the wheelchair was damaged: She was using it to navigate the street, there was a pothole in the street, and her wheel snapped off. It wasn’t until the presence of the media shamed the Mayor that he decided to take action, and this is something I see with a lot of other cases of discrimination.
A solo voice can be easily ignored. A thousand tiny cuts like this happen all over the world every day and we never find out about them, because a single person usually cannot raise enough of a ruckus. It isn’t until a larger entity like the media, a disability rights organisation, or a famous person steps in that action is taken. Even here, the Mayor didn’t acknowledge her humanity or her right to access. He made it seem like she was getting a favour by having her chair fixed.
Commenters on the article noted that accessibility issues are actually a chronic problem, that there are a number of streets and paths with potholes and other obstacles. Clearly, access has not been made a priority, as illustrated by the fact that while Smyth’s chair was fixed, the pothole was not. The problem here is being treated as individual, rather than structural, and people will continue to experience accessibility problems as a result.
This case could have been treated as an opportunity to hold an accessibility review, to evaluate the town to see how safe and accessible it is, but instead it was treated as yet another opportunity to tell a fat, disabled woman that she didn’t belong in public.