Mobilize March -- Travel Blog

Day 43 — A sobering taste of reality

I’m in a really strange mental space right now. As I sit in my hotel room tonight, scrawling out this blog post and yacking with a few friends on MSN, I genuinely do feel different than I did 43 days ago. For better or worse I’m not really sure, but I don’t feel like that really matters right now. In what feels like a blink of an eye, I blazed a trail across this province in my feeble little wheelchair, defying most logic and common sense, and while my chair didn’t quite make it all the way, I made it…relatively undamaged at that, despite a bit of a tweaked shoulder. When asked by the Ottawa Citizen upon my arrival whether or not it was worth breaking my chair to make this trip, all I could do was smirk and respond, “You cannot put a price tag on someone’s freedom.”

Yes, the trip may be complete, but I received a cold reminder this morning that the journey is only just beginning. It was announced today that despite the desperate pleas from the disabled population, the City of London has decided to only license another 9 accessible cabs in the city. While this is an improvement from the 9 currently licensed in the city, it does not appear to mandate that all 18 cabs should be on the road at any given time and explains that the bill hopes to “allow the taxi industry the opportunity to voluntarily increase the number of accessible cabs in the City” (quoted from here). While I appreciate the gesture, I believe the individuals who attended the May 5th public meeting on accessible cabs have a pretty good idea on the Taxi Industry’s willingness to voluntarily become accessible…

To be honest, I feel a bit like we’ve been thrown under the wheels of the bus.

Ultimately, the rights of the disabled have once again been broken down to dollars and cents, our needs turned into a “market” where profit matters more than humanity. While the increased number of cabs will certainly help, I must remind the City Council that by adding another 9 accessible cabs, this translate to only 18 individuals with disabilities who can leave their homes at any given time, rather than the alleged “9″ currently able to get access (although they rarely have more than 2 cabs on the road at once). To put this into perspective, there will now be enough cabs to get one hockey team of wheelchair users out to a game, but unfortunately, the opposing team will have to wait a few more hours before their rides arrive.

More than anything though, I’m just sick of being treated like an entirely separate part of the population. This bill merely perpetuates the segregation between the disabled and the nondisabled population–separate systems for seemingly separate people. Why is it okay to look at accessible cabs separate from “regular” cabs and yet it would be completely offensive to begin licensing a set of cabs for women and a set of cabs for men? Where is the line drawn? Where is the distinction?

As I read the report, I could see the metaphorical quick sand creeping up a little higher, continuing to threaten those I know and love. Well, the quick sand may have gained another inch, but by no means have we lost the battle. I’ve still got a lot of spirit left in me and I will not quit until things are better–if nothing else, this trip has only emboldened me more (scary, I know).

But I have good reason to be feeling good about how things are going. Making it to Ottawa has sent a clear message to individuals across this province that things are changing, the tide is turning and the disabled population are on the move. During this trip I have met some incredible people, friends and allies who are behind me in this fight. No longer must we suffering in solitude, no longer will our voices be muted, because together we have the power to raise our voices and collectively demand fair and equal treatment. Together we can demand freedom. Together, we can get people moving. More than that, I’ve seen solutions in action. I’ve seen communities making accessibility work through partnerships with municipal government, the disabled community, and private industry. There are solutions out there to the accessible transportation question, answers that can be profitable for everyone–no longer does this have to be an issue where one group wins at the expense of another. It is from all of these things that my optimism is fueled, because I know the future is going to be brighter and yes, it may take a lot of work and it may take a long time, but we are no longer alone and there is solace in that.
Although the report bore bad news this morning, I think it was a blessing in disguise. These past few days have been a bit of a blur, but for a moment there I was beginning to get it in my head that this thing was all wrapped up. I was sidetracked by the congratulations and the exhaustion and I began to let myself believe that the job was done and it was time to go home, ready to prematurely host the “Mission Accomplished” Banner, and for that I want to humbly apologize to everyone who has supported me throughout these past few weeks. By losing this focus and objectivity I’ve let you down, but I promise it won’t happen again. The job is not done, there is much to do, I just needed a little reminder. It’s time to get back to work and I couldn’t be happier.
So first thing was first this morning–I needed a new phone and a new wheelchair. I half-expected in the back of my mind that this trip would have some causalities, but I never expected my cell phone to be one of them. Unfortunately, it too fell victim to the horrible rain and is now randomly ringing and beeping at all times and attempting to call Celebrity Cab in Toronto…I know, it’s a freaky coincidence. Luckily, there was a phone shop on the way to the Shoppers Home Healthcare depot, so I was able to get two birds with one stone. After getting my phone situation sorted out, we were off to Shoppers to try and get this paper-weight of a chair sorted.

Luckily…LUUUUUUUCKILY…and part-amazingly, the motors on this wheelchair are still chuggin’ along fine! After running a quick diagnostic, the Shoppers rep, Pascal, explained it was the joystick that had fried, a freak result of the rainstorm. He popped my joystick off and threw on a new unit and, low and behold, I was back in business! It’s crazy, but I never realized how disabled I really am until I couldn’t drive around by myself. Even Pete noticed how much I was struggling, saying how funny it was to watch me try and figure out what to do with my hands while I was talking to people (usually they’re occupied by driving around and emoting with the chair). It’s definitely weird to feel so completely reliant on those around you (even to do the simplest things like turn to look at who is talking to you) after being so independent with the electric chair for so long. Heck, I drove it across the province and in the blink of an eye I was reduced to talking paper-weight status. Definitely an interesting extreme to go from hyper-active to completely-passive overnight. But I’m back in action now and I’ve been very nice to my chair today–I have been holding it close and cooing to it lovingly. I’m pretty sure it knows how happy I am to have it back in working order.

After getting back from the service depot I was greeted with more good news! Here in Ottawa, the disabled population are worried about losing Paratranspo, their equivalent of London’s Paratransit (thanks for showing us up Ottawa…your name is way cooler…along with my “Horse Thief Road” initiative I now want to change Paratransit to “PT-Po”…take THAT Ottawa, now who has the shortest, hippest name). As a result, a snap-rally has been planned for Wednesday, one of the few days this week that is suppose to not involve tornadoes, rain, hurricanes, and brimestone falling from the sky. Honestly, I blame this all on Al Gore. Anyway, I received a LOT of emails from people here in Ottawa who wanted to come out yesterday but for obvious reasons were not able to make it, so this rally is being organized to show support for accessible transportation and draw attention to the meeting on accessible transportation happening later that afternoon here in Ottawa. I’m really excited to be a part of it all and I just hope I can lend a hand to community organizers here to bring people out and make a difference–although it looks like these crazy cats don’t need much help at all!

If this wasn’t enough, I also received word that Minister Steven Fletcher of Manitoba would like to sit down and chat with me on Thursday. That’s right sports fans, Mr. Jeffrey Preston is going to the Parliament Building! Minister Fletcher is the first wheelchair-using MP and I’m really excited to meet up with him and chat. It is going to be a fun meeting and a great opportunity to talk about how the federal government can get involved in my initiative and what better gateway to the federal world than through an individual like Minister Fletcher.

Before I know it I’ll be heading back home, but as I mentioned early, I’ve shaken the cobwebs out and come to my senses–yes it was nice to celebrate the completion of my drive, but now it’s time to get back to work.

And just think about the rip-roarin’ party we’ll have when that journey is complete! It will be a barn burner for sure!

In solidarity, back on track and ready to roll,

– Jeff

By Jeffrey Preston

Born with a rare neuromuscular myopathy, Jeff has spent his life dedicated to advocating for himself and others with disabilities. With a PhD in Media Studies from Western University, Jeff's research focuses on the representation of disability in popular and digital culture. Jeff is currently an Assistant Professor of Disability Studies at King's University College @ Western University in London, ON.