Monday, August 16, 2010

Bridging the Distance

It is both a memory and a defining moment, overlapping and coexisting and still, a decade and a half later, it is as clear in my mind as the day it happened.

I was working for a municipal government, part of the team that implemented Ontario’s dearly departed Employment Equity Act. This was a brilliant and pioneering piece of legislation that mandated workplaces be reflective of their communities, more specifically, that a number of target groups - women, aboriginals, racial minorities and people with disabilities - be represented in the workforce. And contrary to the arguments of the status quo, right-wing or not, this did not mean hiring the unqualified. What it did mean was to remove barriers to employment that had absolutely nothing to do with essential duties of the job. Not surprisingly, what with me being an example of one of the target groups, part of the duties of my job was to work on the implementation of the barrier-free policy, improving accessibility not just to employees, but given that it was a municipal government, the public as well.

And so, on a brilliant fall day, there I was at the head of the room facing somewhere between 40 and 50 engineers and architects, all men, all but a tiny handful white and all very much not happy to be there. Because I was there to tell them about how they were supposed to change the way they did things and if you've ever talked to an engineer or an architect, you know they tend to be fairly confident in their own superiority. Being told to change and told by a wisp of a girl in a wheelchair...? As I looked out over the sea of men, faces closed, leaning back in their chairs with their arms crossed, I felt a little like shark bait.

I took a deep breath and jumped into the deep end. Went through the law (and it's possible my voice shook a little), then covered our policy, made sure I interspersed the dry stuff with the occasional comic on the overhead, talked about the changes to physical structures involved in universal design and then the discussion started. Or, more accurately, the barrage, the hostility and had they been a pack of dogs, I would've said they put all four paws in the ground and refused to move.

And then I mentioned strollers. As in how universal design makes it easier for everyone, not just people using mobility aids and there was the briefest of silences, which somehow paused the world and then an almost audible *click*. And someone piped up and mentioned how much of a pain it’d been having to navigate stairs when his kids were small enough to need a stroller and another one nodded, recounting a story of a door smacking into his elbow as he was trying to wrangle a stroller, shopping bags and a door. And then, blessedly, another one mentioned the time he broke his ankle skiing and how difficult it had been to open a door while using crutches and how an automatic door button would have been really helpful. And very shortly after that, my presence became irrelevant as the group fired into an excited discussion about designing for universal access and how much it could improve the use of that building or this. And they were no longer leaning back, faces closed, arms crossed, instead they were leaning forward, faces animated, hands waving or drawing. I had completely lost control of the room and it didn't matter, because the click had happened. There was no longer an able-bodied versus disabled, an us versus them, two groups so different that they had nothing at all in common for the space between had been bridged. Now, there was only human beings, living in and using the same space.

And it was a defining moment in two ways. First, because that moment of the click, where time stopped and stretched and started up again, a bridge appearing, was when I knew this was how I had to spend my life. I’d always wanted to change the world when I grew up and that room full of engineers and architects allowed me to discover that you don’t have to put the dream away, be "realistic". That you can indeed make the world a better place and for that, I will forever be grateful to that group of men, because they helped create a bridge.

Second, it is this moment I think of whenever the argument is made that we do not need legislation with teeth, that changes will happen without them being mandated by law. That people will be nice enough on their own to make it possible to hire people with disabilities, to make it possible for those of us who travel through our days in a different way than the norm to participate equally, to be fully integrated in our communities. Because the reality of what happened since the repeal of the Employment Equity Act has shown that without teeth, nothing happens.

It is why legislation is so important, because it drives moments like this, moments that bridge the distance, create a whole instead of segregated parts.


Jocelyn said...

That moment of "click" is truly a moment of beauty, isn't it?  You describe it wonderfully, and you're right -- it's world-changing in the most important and fundamental way.  You are also right about legislation, which is something that people so want to believe isn't necessary, but which really makes a huge difference.

k said...

I'm glad you got those people thinking. It really is amazing how much easier things can be. Those door opening buttons are the best. I used to feel guilty using them (saving them for special, I suppose) until I started ripping up my shoulders at work. I use them a lot now, especially on doors I'm used to, especially since the Swine Flu-working on a college campus confluence.

AlisonH said...

They REPEALED it??!! Wow.  I am stunned.

fridawrites said...

The stroller/bikes/suitcase/heavy equipmen/automatic door when needed argument works pretty well for a lot of people. It is upsetting how hostile people can be in initial discussion.

I am glad you had the opportunity to give such input--too often such conversations happen without us, leaving things almost but not quite accessible, though very well-intentioned.

Janet said...

that's one thing I love about engineery-geek types.  They really do like to solve problems.  Granted you do sometimes have to break though a bit of a god complex... but once you do, stand back!!!  You managed that beautifully.