Do you ever have one of those moments when you’re utterly humbled by the unselfish acts of others?
Yeah, me too.
Last Friday, I gave up part of my afternoon to collect information on wheelchair access and legislation. This was unpaid work. I’m helping an administrator to comply with the law. Full disclosure: My husband, a wheelchair user, stands to benefit from increased accessibility at this venue.
Here in Ontario, we’re in a years-long process of phasing in legislation that will strengthen the rights protection of people with disabilities. It’s a funny sort of situation, because these rights are already protected – have been for decades, in fact, under the Ontario Human Rights Code.
It’s just that no one seems to know about it.
When people with disabilities go shopping, eat at restaurants, go to the theatre, their rights are routinely violated. They can’t browse in a store, say, because a huge promotional display for maxipads is blocking the aisle. Only people who can stand up can squeeze past. Or they’re told they can’t have a table inside a café, even though there are empty tables available, because their wheelchair would be in the way. Or they’re told they can’t sit anywhere but in the very back row of the theatre. Think this never happens in the 21st century? In fact, all these things have happened to our family in recent memory.
Most of the time, it’s unintentional. And by that I mean that the shopkeepers or eatery owners who don’t treat all their patrons equally are completely clueless that they’re breaking the law.
That’s where the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) comes in. While human rights legislation gives a sort of general guideline – “hey, it’s uncool to discriminate and stuff” – the AODA explains exactly how one must go about providing fair and equitable service to people with disabilities.
This was all very useful in my research last Friday. If I’ve done the job right, the next time my husband patronizes this facility, he will (fingers crossed) be treated fairly. But hopefully this work will also benefit the many others who come after him. And that’s the critical part. Why should these future customers have to experience the humiliation we did, just because they happen to have a disability?
This wasn’t a brief exercise by any means. I got a bit antsy. The other work I’d hoped to complete that day went on hold. Plus I had friends coming over in a few hours, and there was still vacuuming to be done, laundry to be folded, dinner to be started.
In fact, by the time I hit the Send button and looked at the clock, I admit I was mildly resentful of the time I’d devoted to this.
But then I did a reality check. And I was instantly humbled.
How can I complain about giving up an hour or two of my time to look up some laws? The only reason we have rights legislation and landmark court decisions in the first place is because other people, much more tenacious and persistent than me, have devoted hours, days, even years of their time. Not to mention sweat and tears. Possibly even blood. I can’t rule that out.
So, shut my mouth.
Every time we refer to legislation to prove our right to participate in Canadian society, it’s because steadfast advocates have dedicated themselves to fighting for these laws. They’ve fought for enforcement, too, and for awareness.
They’ve done it not just for themselves, but for all those who come after.
We owe them immense gratitude. And the least I can do is blog about it. So for all the David Lepofskys and the Barbara Turnbulls, and all the others who have made sacrifices to make a difference, we’re indebted to you.
And as for all those who don’t consider themselves longtime accessibility advocates… you know what? If you’ve ever made an effort to make a person with a disability feel welcome at your place of business, your restaurant or your theatre, then that matters a whole lot, too.
Milton Berle said: “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.” I’m grateful to everyone who makes that first cut into the wall.