An evening of celebration gone awry

By Stephen Trumper

Life with disability sure can bring perplexing dilemmas: How to react when a stranger, walking toward you and your wheelchair, stops suddenly to ask, “What’s wrong with you?”

What to say when introduced to new people who seem overly impressed that you (a) have a job, and (b) are actually quite good at it, and who then too–loudly or patronizingly say, “Well good for you! That’s amazing!”

And what to do when you show up to an event after receiving assurances that the venue is wheelchair–accessible, only to find the elevator to the “main” floor has died?

The latter was my predicament earlier this spring, on a cool but lovely mid–April evening when colleagues and students gathered to launch this year’s print edition of the Ryerson Review of Journalism (RRJ), a multi–platform magazine produced by final–year students under the supervision of co–instructor Sonya Fatah and me.

At the event-venue entrance a staffer led my awesome daughter and me to the elevator, inserted his key, turned it several times and—nothing. He was embarrassed, apologetic and anxious to escape. He called his superior—more apologies, more key turning, more looks of “I don’t know what else I could possibly do.”

When I momentarily plump up with anger on such occasions I become eerily quiet. Inside, though, I am seething with frustration, cursing the able–bodied world, while a torrent of past insensitivities, injustices, barriers and discriminatory acts rush through my brain, body and soul.

All I wanted to do was leave. But that was not to be. As we tried to skulk away (almost impossible with a wheelchair), we were spotted. News of what had happened spread quickly. Life with disability is full of Plan B’s, sometimes Plans C’s, D’s and even E’s, for those occasions when the veneer of accessibility is abruptly stripped away.

I am used to these times. They happen frequently. Mostly, outside of family, I am the one who develops Plans B through E. But, on this night, my version of the shoemaker’s elves went to work.

Within minutes Sonya and others moved much of the party downstairs to the outdoor patio. Speeches of congratulations and thanks were made. There were hugs, tears and lots of laughter. I met proud parents and thanked as many students as I could for their strong work. Eventually, the colder temperature forced partyers back indoors while I waited for my ride. In all, a much better Plan B than my own.

But what I did not know was that Plans C and D were in the offing.

A few days later I entered the RRJ area, expecting it to be empty since classes were over. Not so. There, around our ramshackle meeting table, was a large sampling of our graduating RRJ class, as  well as Sonya, flashing an impish grin. There was also a large white box containing a cake emblazoned with my name in all caps.

I was surprised and moved. As I was later, when Sonya revealed she had proactively contacted the president of the venue—Albert Rishes of Toronto’s Stirling Club— in an effort to get an acknowledgement that the club’s performance had been less than sterling. On the night, the many apologies had seemed hollow. I had felt much more like an inconvenience than a valued customer. The club clearly had no Plan B for the inevitable—mechanical devices, such as elevators, will break down. The venue’s website makes no mention of “accessibility” or “elevator,” which for a wheelchair–user is handy info to have in advance.

There was lots more to gripe about. There’s always lots to gripe about in a world that remains a humongous distance from full accessibility. But, as I learned growing up, one could be angry all the damned time. But that is not how I want to live my life.

Instead, I came to realize the benefits of controlling anger and choosing battles prudently while selecting the most appropriate form of protest (if any). Able–bodied Sonya was zealously battle–ready, all set to mobilize divisions of the Ryerson army without letting me know at first, thus breaking the disability community’s golden rule: “Nothing for us without us.”

So we talked. And talked some more, agreeing—not surprisingly for two instructors—that this was a teachable moment, that I should write my next column about it.

And, yes, we will send extra copies of this issue of Abilities to the Stirling Club, c/o Mr. Albert Rishes.

Stephen Trumper also serves on the board of the Canadian Abilities Foundation. He would be happy to donate time to help the Stirling Club develop a few accessibility Plan B’s.