Hey London, I’m kind of mad at you right now

Disability protest with famous MLK quote

Hey London, we need to have a little chat. More specifically, social justice and advocate community of London. You know what? I’m going to come right out and say it: You guys have kind of pissed me off…

It has been a whirl-wind few weeks of community activism in London, as outright war has broken out over the proposed cuts in the 2012 London City Council Budget, specifically the $1mil cut from the Affordable Housing fund. There have been heated conversations on twitter and countless blog posts written about the cuts and about some political drama that seems more West Wing then Forest City.

But that conversation is for another day.

This conversation is about an equally important cut that’s on the table: a cut of $500,000 to the AODA retrofit fund. I have spent the past 9 years in London advocating for more funding for accessibility and the answer is almost always the same; “We just don’t have the money right now.” Not only is there no “extra” money to help people get around, but now they want to actually reduce the amount of money being spent on retrofitting this woefully inaccessible city? This is nothing less then a tragedy.

In no uncertain terms, this cut sentences the disabled of London to a life of imprisonment, locked away in our houses with no where to go. This cut is making a bold statement that the disabled do not belong in our community, that we just can’t be bothered to accommodate their right to access and association. I have waited 28 years now to become a full member of this community — how many more years am I going to have to wait? So sorry about your luck, Tiny Tim. Maybe next Christmas.

You may think this hyperbolic, and in some ways perhaps it is, but it doesn’t change the fact that the lives of people with physical disabilities are stinted in London because of limited access. And we’re not talking one or two buildings — the bulk of buildings provide little to no access. You may say we were dealt a rotten hand in life, but the problem isn’t the diagnosis, it’s our lack of response as a community.

And that is what this is really about–response. Perhaps more disheartening then the cut is the fact that so few are talking about this cut. I hate to be that guy, the elephant in the room, but honestly I’m both frustrated and concerned that in our collective obsession to halt the Affordable Housing cuts, talking about it on twitter and on our blogs, we’ve let this significant AODA cut fall into the background. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve even seen it mentioned once in the London Free Press (although a tip of the hat to Pat Maloney for tweeting about it as it happened).

Unfortunately, I feel this whole event is indicative of what it means to be a disability rights advocate–our “issues” aren’t front page news, we don’t rally the masses, and we aren’t significant enough to pack a gallery of pissed off people. Although most of the people talking about the cuts to affordable housing are not homeless themselves, the concept of “homelessness” (or, more specifically, living in poverty) is comprehensible to people–they know or have known the fear of becoming homeless themselves or, at the very least, can imagine what that must be like.

But not accessibility.

For the bulk of you, you don’t imagine what it would be like to not be able to get into a building. You don’t consider how isolating it feels. You don’t think about how many in our community are trapped. And I use the word “don’t” very specifically — it’s not that you cannot do these things, it’s that the thoughts just don’t occur to you.

And, in many ways, that’s my fault. If I’m being honest right now, I’m not even angry with you guys, I’m angry with myself for not doing a better job. If I was doing my job, you would be just as riled up about the AODA cut as you are the homelessness. You don’t get it because I haven’t explained it.

And for that I’m sorry.

Now some of you might be saying “Get off your soap box, gimpy — affordable housing is more important!” And, unfortunately, that’s what they want you to think. In fact, in a recent phone conversation with one Councillor, I was told in no uncertain terms that there are things more important to fund in London than accessibility. As though our suffering just doesn’t compare (or register).

But this isn’t a competition of suffering — the cuts are going to suck equally for everyone. Further, stop making this a “Well if we fund accessibility, then we can’t help the homeless — is that what you want?” Can’t we have both? We can if we give up the fools dream of 0%.

All I ask is that all of you activists who plan to cram the galleries on Tuesday, remember those of us with disabilities. And more than that, know that a vote “yes” on cutting the AODA Retrofit Fund is just as tragic, just as damaging, and just as offensive as cutting $1-million in Affordable Housing.

And should any of these cuts happen, we should all be ashamed.



This letter was just released by the USC condemning the cuts to accessibility.

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.

5 replies on “Hey London, I’m kind of mad at you right now”

Hey Jeff. As one of the ‘loudest’ voices of the cuts to affordable housing, I feel I should drop a reply. As you can probably guess, I’m adamantly opposed to the accessibility cut, both for humanitarian and for fiscal reasons (pay now or pay more later). The one thing I’ve learned though about advocacy through attending the G20 protests and observing occupy, is the importance of messaging and clarity. Of the many decisions from the committee meeting last week I disagreed with, I obviously know the most about housing, so set a goal that the citizenry would at least understand this one issue. This is a really important issue for moving forward though, because there will always be many progressive voices, not one, so we don’t want it to be a competition of who can yell the loudest. Something to consider as we move forward.

I think that is perhaps my biggest fear — an either/or situation. I don’t want accessibility at the expense of affordable housing any more than I’d approve of affordable housing over access. Whether intentional or not, there is a distinct “divide and conquer” technique employed at the municipal level, in part brought about by fiscal constraints we, the voters, place on our representatives.

As such, the conversation is now “What can we get with what we have” and not “What do we need and how much will it cost us?” Obviously City Council doesn’t have unlimited funds, but it’s a losing strategy (and creates an environment ripe for competition between minority groups) when we’re left dividing a small pie amongst a group of important issues rather then ensuring we have enough food for everyone.

Hrm. That was a clumpsy bit of writing, but after we get through this particular budget wrangling we should empower our politicians to begin rethinking some of the fundamental ways we do business at City Hall.

I have a complaint at the HRTO against the city, the LTC and Voyager. The hearing is set for the fall . They have three lawyers while I have no support. Accessibility and housing go together  I think.

The heart breaking (and universal) reality is that new builds are not even guaranteed to be truly accessible. My son uses a power wheelchair and it makes me crazy that he has to drive through a parking lot 300 meters to access a curb cut at the theatre or the mall, only to back track to get where he needs to go. Or to have the only wheelchair accessible door of a school locked for “safety reasons”. I’m tired of people in charge saying that “inclusion is wonderful WHEN we can make it happen.” You are totally right in saying that people just don’t get it. It’s so outside their realm of experience that it is unfathomable for them. I think the only solution is to have them experience it. A campaign where high visibility, public figures committ to using a wheelchair for a one week period would certainly raise awareness to the cause. I encouraged students in my classes to use a wheelchair to get around our school so they could experience the accessibility issues first hand. It worked like a charm. The sad thing was the principal didn’t take me up on the offer.