What do ice lattes and throwing yourself out of a wheelchair have in common?
By Stephen Trumper.
I have a fondness for the in-your-face tactics of a Texas disability group, ADAPT, which captured headlines in the 1980s as part of the push for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), landmark legislation that extended to disabled Americans the types of guarantees against discrimination that two decades earlier had been granted to blacks, women and ethnic minorities in the U.S.
To attract attention, those canny ADAPT demonstrators would throw themselves out of their wheelchairs and/or chain themselves to the banisters of public buildings and force police to carry them off.
I am not built (physically or temperamentally) for throwing myself out of my chair or chaining myself to anything. I prefer a quieter advocacy which, I eventually realized, doesn’t have to be difficult. It can even happen over coffee.
In the 1990s, for instance, I served on the Ontario Science Centre board of trustees. One day I arrived extra early so I could sift through the various reports to be discussed later that afternoon.
As I read, I sipped my large, logo-festooned take-out ice latte. At the time, Starbucks was new in town, and I quickly developed a thirst for its bold flavors. After a half-hour, my solitude ended with the arrival of a new board member. We chatted for a while, and I noticed he kept staring at my latte.
Are you a fan of cold coffees? I asked. Yes, he responded, and went on to reveal he was a Second Cup executive. He smiled, then said, I’d like to bring you over to our products.
I smiled back and, in the most diplomatic way I could muster, said that was unlikely to happen.
Why? he responded, puzzled.
I went on to talk about accessible washrooms, telling him of a Second Cup that I used to frequent pre-Starbucks, which did have a wheelchair symbol on the entrance to the men’s washroom door and that the room itself was big enough for a wheelchair. However, once inside, the wheelchair-user could never have privacy because the entrance door opened inward, not outward—in other words, the wheelchair itself became a barrier to completely closing the door.
The executive looked ashen while I went on to tell him something I would’ve thought he’d know: that because of the ADA, Starbucks and others were mandated to make their premises accessible—and as these chains moved here they brought with them their corporate specs for improving accessibility.
Well, he said, we will have to do better. And to his credit, a few days later the Second Cup’s chief architect phoned me.
I thought a lot about that incident last year, which marked the 25th anniversary of the ADA’s passage, when a colleague asked if I would be involved with a new group—Barrier-Free Canada (BFC). Its purpose: “to advocate for the Canadian Parliament to enact a strong and effective Canadians with Disabilities Act…”
I said an enthusiastic yes, went to BFC’s website and signed up.
Recently, wondering about its progress, I talked to Donna Jodhan, BFC co-chair.
Donna is a force, but a weary one of late. A few years ago she led a successful campaign to make all federal government documents accessible. Now she wants Canadians with disabilities to have the same rights that Americans with disabilities earned 26 years ago. It’s worth emphasizing (cue my uncharacteristic outrage): 26 years ago! That’s more than a quarter of a century ago!
Given that there are millions of Canadians with disabilities, Donna admits to being disappointed that more of us haven’t signed up and offered more organizational help and support.
It’s time that everybody who has talked and talked and talked about building a better, more inclusive, more accessible Canada go directly to http://barrierfreecanada.org/home/, read the guiding principles and sign up—I promise, it’s a lot easier than ordering a cup of specialty coffee or throwing yourself out of a wheelchair.
Stephen Trumper serves on the board of the Canadian Abilities Foundation. He is an independent writer, editor and volunteer.Stephen Trumper serves on the board of the Canadian Abilities Foundation. He is an independent writer and editor. He is also a journalism instructor at Ryerson University. One of the many reasons he wrote this particular column was to honor the memories of two colleagues, strong, committed advocates for disability rights, who have recently passed away: Robert Pearson, accessibility officer at AMI, and John Feld, a playwright and activist. He admired and respected them both and will deeply miss their energy, good humor and commitment.