Culture | Diving into accessibility

Disability activist Aimee Louw discusses her new multimedia project, Underwater City

In February 2014, Montreal activist Aimee Louw began a trip across Canada in search of the country’s most accessible city. In her recently published zine, Underwater City Zine 1: Searching for the most accessible city in Canada, Louw sheds light on ableism and the realities of living with limited mobility in today’s cities. Louw takes readers along on her tour of five Canadian cities, zooming in on the accessibility of each one with reports on accessible infrastructure, interviews with locals, and personal narratives. She uses the image of an “underwater city” as a utopia in which all spaces are fully accessible for all people. She develops this ideal throughout the zine in her own personal journal-like reflections and in conversations with other people with disabilities encountered along her journey. The Daily sat down to talk with Louw about her inspiration for the project, accessibility in Montreal, and hope for the future.

The McGill Daily (MD): Can you tell me a bit about the Underwater City Project in general?

Aimee Louw (AL): The Underwater City Project is a multimedia research and documentation project. It started when I was in the pool one day, and I was kind of swimming around and fantasizing about how it would be to get around if everything was underwater. Rather than having to worry about transit, I could just swim wherever I wanted to go. When I was a kid, the pool was a really pleasant place for me, and I swam a lot, so I have all these really nice associations with water. I had been thinking a lot about accessibility before that – I knew I wanted to do some sort of creative project, but I didn’t know exactly what. Often when I get an idea, I end up working around a theme.

[Next], I did a research trip last spring. I left in February and went for a number of months. I went to Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Calgary, Victoria, Halifax… I only focused on five [cities] in the zine, but the research I was doing was in a lot of different cities.

MD: What kinds of things did you look at in the different cities, as far as looking at accessibility? How did you go about doing that?

AL: Well it’s not a scientific study, I’ll tell you that. Mostly I just experienced it. I talked to people, interviewed people, I took transit. The zine was kind of the product of some of the writing I did on that trip. It’s by no means an [evaluative] comparison, but more like my experiences and other people’s experiences in those cities.

I always look at transit because it’s such an integral part of life in the city, and it’s such a daily frustration for me here. I fantasize about [public transit] being so much better in other cities. [Sometimes I wonder] is it really, or am I just building it up? But yeah, it is actually better. So much better.

MD: Which city was public transit the best in?

AL: Vancouver. It’s completely accessible, actually.

MD: What kinds of features did Vancouver’s public transit system have that made it the most accessible?

AL: Everything is accessible for a lot of different people. The SkyTrain, which is their underground metro system, is 100 per cent wheelchair-accessible. They have raised panels next to the train tracks for people with visual impairments, so that it’s well-defined. They have trails in the different stations with different textured ground, so that people using canes for visual impairments can tell where they’re going. The buses are 100 per cent accessible.
Of course, all buses break down sometimes, but they are proud of their accessibility, whereas here [in Montreal] it’s seen as a service or a charity. In terms of structural accessibilities, but also in terms of interactions with employees of the system, Vancouver has an openness of spirit [toward people with disabilities].

MD: What is your goal for this project?

AL: I originally took that trip to research and scout out filming spots, and to find people I wanted to interview for a film. But it turns out I did a lot more writing, which is why I wanted to first publish a zine: so I could get some of the stories out there and kind of spread the word about the project. As I said before, it’s a multimedia project, so my goal is to eventually produce a short documentary. […] In the meantime, I want to put out another zine, or another publication of some sort, looking more specifically at Quebec. It’s kind of interesting because accessibility in urban spaces is one of those areas where as soon as you look at one thing, there’s a million other questions that need to be looked at.

I really want to focus on Quebec and Montreal specifically for the next publication that I’m going to do. One of the reflections that I have about this zine is that I would really love to look at more subtle questions of accessibility in addition to structural [issues]. I would like to talk to people living with other sorts of disability, like economic backgrounds. Something else that I really wasn’t expecting when I was writing the zine was that sexuality was a big part of it. I really want to explore writing and work related to sexual freedom, because it’s a huge issue and with a lot of barriers.

MD: Would you say that’s something you found universally?

AL: I have to do more research to talk about it more, but it’s interesting because it’s something that came up in all the interviews that I did with artists and activists in the cities. For example, in Toronto, the gentleman I interviewed was talking a lot about how hard it is to access gay spaces. He was a gay man, saying, “I can hardly get into any gay bars.” He was saying that he can’t get into the spaces that he wants to, and of course that affects his opportunity to express himself sexually. He made the point that if people aren’t used to seeing you in bars, when you do go, you get stigmatized. […] And [sexuality] is something that’s so integral to every person in one way or another.

MD: So your inspiration for this project came from the pool?

AL: Yeah! It came from the pool. That’s the little nugget where I got the idea, but it also just came from daily experiences – feeling isolated and ostracized, feeling like I can’t get into places. It’s written about in the zine a bit, but my mobility changes a lot. Some days I can get into this café, and other days it’s not gonna happen. Whatever, it’s not like a huge social injustice not to get an expensive latte. But at the same time, almost every single [store] that I and other persons with limited mobility try to access, we can’t. Like, where do I go to buy socks? All these experiences made me think “I need to do something about this creatively.”

MD: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

AL: I would say if any of your readers have read my zine […] the writing that I did about Montreal was very negative, because it is easily the worst or the second-worst city in terms of accessibility. But there are some positive things to Quebec in terms of social programs, so that’s something else I’m going to address in my next publication. There are still places that we can plug in and improve.

MD: Yeah, there’s work to be done.

AL: Oh for sure, but it’s not impossible, it’s just going to take a lot of people – a lot of people who are aware and care and can do things about it.
That was one really cool thing that one of the people I interviewed in Edmonton told me. She was talking about the queer scene in Edmonton, and how a lot of the queer-friendly spaces aren’t accessible for a lot of people. They’re not free, they’re not wheelchair-accessible, the lights affect people with neurological [issues], and they’re also sometimes really expensive. She was telling me that they started raising awareness in their city, and that people started cancelling events if the spaces weren’t accessible. So the venues started thinking, “Oh shit, we have to do something if we want business,” and things slowly changed. I would love to see some of that cultural work happening here in Montreal, because the arts and culture scene is part of the reason people want to live here. That’s somewhere people can plug in, you know?

– This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


To find out more about the Underwater City project and zine, visit: underwatercityproject.tumblr.com and facebook.com/UnderwaterCity.


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