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Culture | Check your ability privilege

Access needs to be reprioritized in rad event organizing

The author would like to note that they are able-bodied. 

In rad communities, activists try to be as intersectional as possible by being inclusive toward various identities in our organizing. Intersections of race, class, gender, ability, sexual orientation, citizenship, age, et cetera ideally should be taken into account at the onset of planning events. Although oftentimes groups organize around single-axis frameworks (that is, our activism focuses on one particular issue), I believe there is a general sentiment among many activists that it is beneficial to thoughtfully and provocatively engage with the multi-facedness of people’s identities.

In the context of accessibility, this is done by including accessibility information, enforcing a scent-free space, and providing refunds for transportation costs, for example. Too often, however, an effort to be conscious of ableism slips into half-hearted inclusions of access information on event pages, typically starting with “we regret to say that our event will not be wheelchair accessible” as a passive apology.

These apologies are not enough. We need to think critically about how it is that one-sentence apologies are seen as an acceptable substitute for hosting events in accessible locations.

Too often, however, an effort to be conscious of ableism slips into half-hearted inclusions of access information on event pages, typically starting with “we regret to say that our event will not be wheelchair accessible” as a passive apology.

Event organizers often argue that the fault lies with Montreal for being an inaccessible city. It is true that Montreal is notably inaccessible to folks who use wheelchairs. Heritage laws in Quebec that regulate the renovation of buildings value maintaining historical accuracy in old buildings over making those buildings accessible to wheelchair users, for example by installing a ramp.

Grace, a Montreal activist and wheelchair user, told The Daily, “Who do you think notices [that Montreal is not accessible] more? [A non-disabled person] who doesn’t have to deal with these problems on a personal level, or [I] who every day [carry] my wheelchair down three flights of stairs to attempt to get to my job via a public transport system that’s trying to exclude me and a system of buildings that works the same way?”

Grace continued, “It’s up to non-disabled people to take the first steps to [make Montreal accessible]. Yes, it’s a reality that most of the buildings that exist were built in a time where disabled people, and wheelchair users specifically […] weren’t expected to be out and independent, but that’s […] not an excuse for the problem; it’s the original problem. The problem is also that no one has taken any steps to remedy that, except for a small handful. It’s unacceptable.”

“Who do you think notices [that Montreal is not accessible] more? [A non-disabled person] who doesn’t have to deal with these problems on a personal level, or [I] who every day [carry] my wheelchair down three flights of stairs to attempt to get to my job via a public transport system that’s trying to exclude me and a system of buildings that works the same way?”

Inaccessible queer spaces
This semester, several organizations in Montreal were forced to confront their ableism. Queer McGill cancelled two events this semester, “Friendship Universe,” scheduled for September 18, and “Dungeons and Drag Queers,” scheduled for November 21, following community pressure to host events in locations that would be accessible to all queer community members, including trans folks and disabled folks. On the original Facebook event page for “Dungeons and Drag Queers,” the following accessibility information was included:

“Note on accessibility: Due to a miscommunication, the venue does not have an elevator, making it inaccessible to certain folks (as the space we will be using is on the second floor). Queer McGill would like to apologize for this lack of accessibility – this is something we are currently working to improve on as an organization. Please be advised that this event is a scent-free space.”

No information was included concerning crucial details of the location’s accessibility; there was no description of the number of steps, whether there would be a quiet space, et cetera. The event was simply described as “inaccessible to certain folks,” thus essentializing and dismissing the many different barriers embedded into the structure of event.

When asked to comment, the organization informed The Daily that “upon reflection and rumination […] Queer McGill has chosen to cancel this event.”

The event was simply described as “inaccessible to certain folks,” thus essentializing and dismissing the many different barriers embedded into the structure of event.

Inaccessible academic spaces
On October 21, the Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies (IGSF) hosted a talk by faculty lecturer Mary Bunch called “Disrupting the Biopolitical: The Ecstatic Politics of Disability,” as part of its Esquisses seminar series. The topic of the presentation was imagining future worlds through the lens of disability studies. Although the Esquisses seminars are usually hosted on the second floor of the IGSF (a building with no elevator and only a single, steep staircase), the location for this particular talk was changed, due to the topic of disability.

The new room, according to Bunch, was “the most accessible room [the IGSF] could find.” However, as was noted by an attendee of the event, the room could only accommodate around ten people, and the chairs were arranged in such a way that a person using a wheelchair could not have accessed the space to begin with.

It is not enough to simply hold events in locations that could theoretically be accessed via wheelchair. Hosting accessible events also means thinking about how we organize space, and who might be limited by that organization. Alanna Thain, the director of the IGSF, noted in an email to The Daily, “While this is not an issue unique to IGSF but should be a basic concern across the university, we have a special interest in [accessibility] as a teaching and research unit explicitly concerned with issues of social justice and inclusion.”

However, as was noted by an attendee of the event, the room could only accommodate around ten people, and the chairs were arranged in such a way that a person using a wheelchair could not have accessed the space to begin with.

Inaccessibility at Expozine
Most recently, the Facebook event page for Expozine 2015, a zine fair held from November 14 to 15, focused on the “alternative publishing scene,” received over a hundred comments of debate after Grace inquired as to whether the event was accessible to wheelchair users. One of the organizers of Expozine responded to Grace’s question by dismissively saying, “not really, sorry!” in French. In the subsequent days, comments ranged from support for the organizers who “worked so hard” to support for those who bravely demanded an accessible location, or at least sufficient accessibility information.

Writer and activist Aimee Louw, whose work focuses on feminism and accessibility, wrote an open letter to the organizers of Expozine arguing that as an event meant to centre marginalized and “non-mainstream” folks, Expozine should respect “at least […] the very basic tenets of accessibility.” Furthermore, the letter noted that the event’s inaccessibility signals that disabled people are unwelcome, and that organizers “value the participation of able-bodied people more than that of disabled people.” As a protest to the inaccessibility of the venue, Aimee and other activists and allies tabled across the street from the location where Expozine was held.

Melis Çağan, a McGill student, participated in the protest in solidarity with Louw and wheelchair users who could not access Expozine. “People say that they’re creating spaces for marginalized people, but then […] people don’t actively try to make it accessible. That’s something that I think most of us, as able-bodied people, are really complicit in, because we don’t really think about the accessibility of things when we organize,” Çağan said in an interview with The Daily.

Writer and activist Aimee Louw, whose work focuses on feminism and accessibility, wrote an open letter to the organizers of Expozine arguing that as an event meant to centre marginalized and “non-mainstream” folks, Expozine should respect “at least […] the very basic tenets of accessibility.”

When it comes to accessibility, responsibility has constantly been shifted onto community members, often disabled people themselves, to request information or a change of location. For example, Queer McGill cancelled their events only after having been called out by students. In addition, the IGSF’s Esquisses event series website notes, “This is not an accessible space. Please contact us to request a change of location,” leaving disabled folks to actively work for the same basic level of access that able-bodied people expect in their daily lives. Expozine organizers drew on transphobic and ableist arguments to defend their choice of hosting the event in the basement of a church. Days after Grace’s original post, an organizer posted an apology for the “perceived ‘oppression’ or intolerance.” This very blatant oppression continued in the ensuing comments on Facebook as well as in the execution of the event itself, which was, regardless of apology, still inaccessible to wheelchair users.

As non-disabled organizers, we need to make a greater effort to check our privilege when we plan events. We need to take responsibility for our actions, not by giving half-assed apologies, but by actually ensuring that everyone can attend our events. We need to remind each other that organizing in inaccessible ways is blatantly ableist and exclusionary, and that it is our responsibility to avoid perpetuating this oppression in our events that seek to do the opposite. It is not the responsibility of disabled people to constantly remind us about their needs; their needs should be the first thoughts that cross our minds when we’re booking a venue and arranging a space.


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