Saturday, November 19, 2011

Dealing with ignorance and idiocy

Sometimes it is hard to fathom the kind of ignorance and idiocy that people have when it comes to disability issues. I'm not talking about people who never graduated high school or anything like that, but rather people who are well educated and are otherwise smart. But for whatever reason, when it comes to disability, people tend to lose their manners, common sense and sensibility.

I have come across several conflicts this month and they all involve some sort of ignorance about disability issues or just plain idiocy. Some of them are outright unbelievable to most people but for those familiar with life with a disability, these should come as no surprise.

The worst part is that most of these incidents are not opinion-based but fact-based; actually, all of these incidents are pretty black and white.

And here we go...

The great parking debacle

One of the more recent incidents involves someone on Twitter talking about possible ways to forge and create counterfeit disability parking permits. The person in question does not have a disability and is interested in finding ways to be able to park in one of those spots for convenience.

It is obvious what is wrong with this situation. It doesn't matter that he was only talking about doing it; creating counterfeit disability parking permits for your own convenience (instead of need) is simply a very asinine thing to even consider. Despite several other people blasting him about this, he defended his suggestions (claiming they are merely "ideas" even though it is apparent that he has either considered doing it or is already doing it); he continues to defend them, using personal homophobic insults to "strengthen" his position.

He really does NOT understand the whole point of accessible parking.

Paraplegics can't use computers

I had a phone interview with a potential employer's recruiting agency not too long ago. It wasn't so much an interview as it was an interrogation about my abilities; even "interrogation" would be an inadequate term.

I was asked about my physical abilities first and foremost. Despite my repeated answers that my upper body is unaffected, the agency pressed on for one reason -- they were not convinced that I could use a computer. This is despite my resume being full of computer- and internet-related experience (with an 80-WPM typing speed, no less).

After about 30 minutes of futilely trying to convince them that I could use a computer, the interview was over. Obviously, I didn't get the job -- all because one recruiting agent did not understand the difference between someone paralyzed from the neck down and someone paralyzed from the waist down.

I thought that was stupid, until...

Failure to rise above mediocrity

I applied for a call center position for a famous multinational Vancouver-based exercise clothing company (which I shall not name publicly, but you can take a guess). The job itself is simply helping clients on the phone and online. My background fit the role quite well.

I was contacted for an interview with one of the company's suburban call centers. During the phone conversation, I made it painfully obvious that I use a wheelchair and did my share of diligence in asking and making sure the location was accessible (to which they replied, "Yes, no problem").

Then I got a call mere days before the interview informing me that the interview and work locations were atop a flight of stairs. Providing accessibility accommodations was "not feasible," despite being a multimillion-dollar company. The interview was promptly canceled.

I was pretty sure that this was illegal, so I contacted the head office for an explanation. I was promptly offered a replacement interview at their world headquarters (which is here in town). I was given specific instructions -- park at the visitors' lot atop the parking garage and take the building's entrance from that level.

I got there and immediately realized there was no accessible parking anywhere (in addition to all the spaces being full). ZERO. I drove back down to ground level and looked for street parking. Quickly, I realized it wasn't going to work -- the ground level's public entrance has a flight of stairs on the outside.

I got back to the visitors lot where a spot opened up. Carefully, I parked so that there was JUST enough room to get out with my wheelchair. I got to the entrance on that level -- only to find that there was a flight of stairs on the INSIDE of that entrance.

My interview time was coming up and I didn't want to be hard to find so I stayed outside and waited in the freezing temperatures. Finally they realized something was wrong and sent someone. We found out that there was ONE accessible way to get in -- descend 33-degree slopes, 4 stories, all the way to the basement's loading dock.

So I dodged traffic for 4 stories through a busy parking garage. The loading dock was locked by a garage door, which had to be opened by security. I was met with another 33-degree slope until I got to the freight elevator.

Bear in mind -- this is the world headquarters and offices for a multi-national and multimillion-dollar company.

The interview was more or less standard but I knew right away that I had no chance for the job. To nobody's surprise, I wasn't hired due to 2 of the most random reasons ever. (Not that I'd want to work there and have THIS type of daily routine!)

After the interview, I had to go UP the 33-degree slopes for 4 stories to return to my car. It was lucky that I am very active in wheelchair sports; "regular" wheelchair users would not survive the return trip.

The worst part about that was how in both cases, nobody seemed to understand what "accessibility" meant and made no effort to understand, resulting in one of the least dignified and most embarrassing job application experiences I have ever been a part of.

Ironically, this famous Vancouver-based clothing company prides itself on promoting positive values, healthy lifestyles and treating each other well. (They even hand out bags to customers with these values written all over them.) My experience was the opposite of that and contradicts the core values they use to promote their image to the public.

"I can hook you up with a job"

I have had well-meaning friends offer to hook me up with a job -- as a waiter, coffee store clerk, construction worker, etc. "The place I work at is hiring," they often say, before suggesting those positions.

To that, I always ask them, "How can I safely do those jobs from a wheelchair?"

It is amazing how many people don't think before they suggest these ideas. The frustrating thing about having a disability is that while you would LIKE to have a minimum-wage job to get some income, it is not possible.

Wheelchair users cannot get minimum-wage jobs even if they hold a university or college degree; we are funneled into blue-collar jobs, which face even fiercer competition.

And many wonder why people with disabilities are often not very rich.

In conclusion

It is easy to build ramps and elevators but the social attitudes towards disability are sorely in need of improvement. I have been to countries where attitudes are even worse but there is one thing that those countries have that the above situations don't seem to have -- sympathy and benevolence.

It appears that people are oblivious to how they are acting yet feel like they are doing all they can. The fact is they're not; otherwise, the above situations wouldn't be so unsurprising to people familiar with disability issues.

People in North America are so content with the idea that we live in an "inclusive" society that there is no desire to improve upon these attitudes. In the above situations, the latter three are from people who genuinely believed that they were doing all they can or trying to be helpful. Ultimately, the utter lack of understanding shows and re-enforces the stereotypes and attitudes people have about disability.

The latter situations above are especially problematic because they involve unemployment. The harsh truth is that people with disabilities are always in an economic recession. Among those with disabilities with the qualifications to work, a huge chunk of them remain unemployed. The employment situations I outlined are only the tip of the iceberg -- despite equality laws, people with disabilities are still locked out of the workforce, either through attitudes or physical barriers.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Batgirl: kicking ass and taking names

Yesterday, actress Teal Sherer (, @TealSherer) released a video addressing DC Comics' decision to "cure" Batgirl, effectively ending her run as one of the most well-known paraplegic superhoroes out there.

While I am not a fan of comic books or superhero stories, Teal raises a very interesting point here – do people with disabilities need to be "cured" or "fixed"?

Yes, it would be nice if there was a cure for things like spinal cord injury. But instead of repeatedly focusing on finding cures, why not focus on reachable goals? The disability rights movement focuses a lot on accommodating and including those with disabilities. Sounds reachable, right? After all, not every disability can be magically "cured."

That leads to DC Comics' treatment of Batgirl. I think "curing" her is a big mistake. It seems like it was meant to be a feel-good decision by DC but instead I sense a hint of ableism; is physical ability a standard for being a hero? Think about real-life "heroes" such as the police force or army. The real brains behind their operations rely not on brute force or strength but by intelligence and investigative work – without those, it wouldn't matter how much muscle you have. Of course, those are also certainly things that someone like Batgirl can do.

So does she need to be "fixed"? I don't think so. A character like that can add an extra dimension to any story and could play a vital role in apprehending ANY villain.

I'm done ranting, but to finish things off, I'd like to give some examples of characters who have played vital roles in "superhero"-like movies and TV shows without the use of brute physical strength:

  • Rupert Giles (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
  • Chloe Sullivan (Smallville)
  • Walter Bishop (Fringe)
  • Adrian Monk (Monk)
  • Madeline Westen (Burn Notice)
  • Moz (White Collar)
  • Auggie (Covert Affairs)
  • Nate Ford (Leverage)
  • Chloe O'Brien (24)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Unisex disabled washrooms "discriminatory"?

"Discrimination" is a word that people with disabilities throw around quite often. It is not without reason – we face it in employment, social activities, transportation and so on. We face a constant struggle to gain an equal status to people without disabilities.

But when is it not discrimination but, rather, common sense?

A friend of mine alerted me to an article from the Korea Times, an English-language newspaper from Seoul, South Korea. In the article:

'Unisex toilets for disabled discriminative'

Unisex toilets for the disabled in subway and train stations are discriminative, the nation’s human rights watchdog said Thursday, recommending their operators improve the situation.

“We concluded that unisex toilets in subway and train stations in the metropolitan area are discriminatory against disabled people as they fail to offer due convenient measures to them,” the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) said in a statement.


The decision came as four organizations for the disabled such as the Network of Accessible Environments for All and the Institute of the Disabled for Independent Living filed a petition last year, arguing the disabled experience difficulties in using the facilities in many subway and train stations.

According to the NHRC, the ratio of unisex toilets stands at 26 percent, 45 percent and 24 percent at stations of Korail, Seoul Metro and Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit Corporation, respectively.

The NHRC said it reached the decision on the grounds that the non-disabled use separated toilets and unisex toilets can make the disabled feel a sense of shame.

Upon the decision, the three operators pledged to renovate their toilets for the disabled, but expressed financial difficulties and space problems.

I have been to Seoul before. It is not a wheelchair-friendly city. Their subway system definitely tries to be accessible but faces many structural challenges. Unlike Vancouver's SkyTrain system, having washrooms at stations is quite common. Some of them have accessible stalls, some do not.

If they don't have room for accessible stalls, then they have the above-mentioned unisex washrooms instead. While I realize that they wish to maintain the sex segregation for accessible stalls to maintain equality, I also think it's somewhat stupid.

Let's face it. Without the ability of many mobility-impaired folks to stand properly or stand and maintain balance, it makes little difference whether someone is using a urinal or a toilet – we're more likely to use the toilet no matter what our sex is.

Also, personally, I've found that accessible stalls that are in regular sex-segregated washrooms tend to be used a lot by able-bodied people. They cherish the space and whatnot; I was once able-bodied and I get that. But in unisex washrooms, it seems much more of a rarity that an able-bodied person would be using it (unless he/she has a baby in a carriage; that is understandable). It is also often cleaner than the "regular" washrooms, which is a big plus for people with disabilities whose wheels roll through God-knows-what in "regular" washrooms.

Sure, sometimes it's weird to be separate from everyone else while you're doing your business, but it's nice to be able to catheterize or empty your legbag/Foley bag or whatever you do in peace without people rushing in and out only mere metres from you. I was never a pee-shy kind of guy but personally, I find it comforting.

I don't find unisex accessible washrooms discriminatory. I actually kind of like them.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Follow-up: Staring, people's assumptions

Yesterday I posted a blog entry about the issue of staring at people in wheelchairs. Today, I came across another interesting viewpoint, from Tiffany Carlson (@TiffCarlson).

It is from the EasyStand blog, in a post entitled "We Can Live The Good Life Too":

Sometimes I get the feeling that everybody is staring at me. Not because I’m in a wheelchair, and not because my hair is brighter than some car headlights. They stare because they’re surprised – they’re surprised to see a woman in a wheelchair who doesn’t fit the typical “wheelchair person” mold, and they do a double take.

Someone in a wheelchair should be pitiable, helpless, unable to “truly” live fully, but when they see me whiz by, or especially once they get to know me, the people who’ve NEVER known someone with a disability, and if asked – would probably say our lives could never be fulfilling – find an overwhelming blanket of confusion settle in. Crippled yet accomplished…and possibly enviable? Brain does not compute.

This ties into what I mentioned in yesterday's blog entry about hanging out with friends and how both my friends and I are stared at in public as if it's an alien concept for a person in a wheelchair to have friends and hang out with them. I don't know if it's the archaic notion that people in wheelchairs are "supposed to be" shuttered away from the public and other people, but it certainly seems to befuddle a lot of people.

In addition, I am more mobile and agile than people assume. On more than one occasion, I've had people make surprised remarks about how fast I am and how well I can get around. At one recent job interview, the person on the phone was doubtful as to whether I can do the job (it's in retail) but the interviewer quickly saw that I had no problem getting around even in a wheelchair, and said, "Yeah, you move around pretty well. It might not even be a problem in this job at all."

They don't know that I am capable of things like wheeling at full running speed for 3 kilometres along the False Creek seawall without stopping, and then some. They don't know that I've done more things in a wheelchair than my time out of it. They don't know a lot of things that would surprise them because it's assumed that if you can't walk properly, your life... well, kind of sucks.

Those things really give a new spin on the idea of the "typical" wheelchair user. I have a habit of doing things that are not expected of wheelchair users, such as go around independently or hanging out with people I know. After all, this kind of thing is expected from other people, so why not us?

Tiffany ends her piece by saying:

You can’t stop people from jumping to assumptions and throwing their old school stereotypes on you. At the end of the day you just need to live your life without care of what anyone thinks.

It's definitely true. When I was adjusting to life with a disability, I found that people tended to help a lot, sometimes to the point where they are actually being UNhelpful. An example is holding a door open while standing right in front of the doorway, or opening the other double door (which I use for leverage when opening the first double door). I don't need or want the help sometimes but what can you do? The assumption that people in wheelchairs are helpless is something that doesn't disappear overnight; the only thing to do is ignore that and do whatever you would do if those people weren't there.

I may be ranting by now, but I think Tiffany touched on a very big topic that is often overstated but under-analysed. Assumptions permeate our lives more than it should, but they certainly make life interesting.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


As someone in a wheelchair, I tend to stand out. It's unavoidable. You're different. Your inability to walk distinguishes you from the general population and it leads to things like pity, prejudice, assumptions and so on.

In Western cultures, we are taught that staring is impolite. This rule enters a weird gray area when it comes to people with visible disabilities. Most commonly, either people will stare at you intensely or avoid looking at you as if looks could literally kill. Both of these extremes can be a little annoying, though it's the staring that bugs me sometimes.

A few days ago, I came across a video interview with Paralympian Chelsea McClammer from neighbouring Washington state, who received an L-level spinal cord injury when she was a small child. She was asked about whether it bothers her when people stare at her. Her answer was quite interesting (and amusing):

Her answer was not at all what I expected. Personally, I hate being the centre of attention in a group (outside of spectator sports, where I often cheer for the enemy team). I get uncomfortable when people give me attention only because I'm in a wheelchair. I'd rather be noticed for something else – ANYTHING else – other than that.

However, my answer is not all black and white. I don't mind it if a child stares, because they are merely curious. But when the child's parents usher him/her away and order the child not to stare, that also bugs me because it re-enforces the idea that people with disabilities are to be feared or ignored.

Yet I don't like grown-ups staring at me. Go figure.

Also, not staring can lead to ignorance. I don't mean "ignorance" as in "lack of knowledge" but rather as in "ignoring someone." I've been in situations where I would enter a store and the clerk would completely ignore me to the point where if I needed help finding or getting something, he/she would be totally oblivious to my presence. That's not good either, so perhaps conditioning people to not stare (or even look) at people with disabilities is a problem.

This question is more loaded than it seems, so I posed a question on Twitter:

I asked this question a few days ago & would love to get some input: As a person with a disability, do you mind others staring? Why/why not?less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

Some of the answers I got were quite interesting:

@NextStopOrBust I hate it, but what can we do? I can't get angry about all of them...less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

@NextStopOrBust Vent-dependent quad here! I've gotten used to it. I just don't know why I'm so fascinating. Ok I can't breathe on my own? SOless than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

@NextStopOrBust This is - partly - an answer to your question. @Notorious_QRG writes re: disability and metrosexuality. than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

@NextStopOrBust And here's a bit by me, about using my wheelchair on the street. than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

It's a bit fascinating to hear answers going both ways.

I guess the only thing that can please both sides is the often-stated goal of "normalcy" for people with disabilities. Treat them as you would treat any other person, instead of ignoring them or giving too much attention (to the point where it is unwanted) to them.

The friends of mine who knew me before I started using a wheelchair have definitely noticed the staring because they get stared at too, by association. This ties in to the idea of "normalcy" – it should be normal for someone in a wheelchair to be able to hang out with able-bodied friends. Instead, it feels like my friends and I are a bit of a curiosity when we're out.

Hopefully there will be a day when a person with a disability will get stared at for having some food stuck on his/her face instead of his/her method of mobility.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Sappy media stories about "walking again"

I am going to get a lot of heat for saying this, but I really hate sappy news stories about paraplegics being able to "walk again" due to some miracle machinery.

It is in response to this story that came out a few months ago. A student, who acquired a spinal cord injury in 2007, is set to walk across the stage at his graduation at Berkeley, with the help of a robotic exoskeleton and forearm crutches.

While I am not against a cure for spinal cord injury (quite the opposite, actually), I really don't like the emphasis that some, such as the media, puts on the ability to walk.

This may sound bad, but hear me out. Read the news story. It puts so much emphasis on walking and portrays people who are able to walk as somewhat "better" than those who cannot. It is totally ableist -- its basic message is, "You're more worthy as a person if you can walk."

That kind of thinking is what propels millions of dollars into developing these exoskeletons, which are cumbersome and not useful for regular use anyhow. As it is right now, nobody is going to a) be able to afford them, b) use these regularly, and c) use exoskeletons as the "band-aid solution" to paralysis. With these issues, all those millions can be better spent trying to find a cure for spinal cord injury, don't you think?

I find that stories like these serve a "feel-good" purpose for able-bodied people more than anything. Not being able to stand and walk is the most visible complication of spinal cord injury, and this story makes people think, "Hey, we're making progress!"

That is not progress. Progress is not only finding a cure for paralysis, but also finding improved ways of managing the complications of spinal cord injury. Many (but not all) people with spinal cord injury say that the ability to walk is a secondary concern to other complications such as skin breakdown, pressure sores, bladder and bowel control, body temperature regulation, muscle atrophy, autonomic dysreflexia, and so on. I'd rather see improvements in handling those problems first, because some of these problems can be fatal if not treated properly! Meanwhile, nobody dies from not walking.

I'm sure this blog entry is going to create a lot of controversy for whoever comes across it. And to be honest, I don't know how many people would agree with me. But those are my thoughts and I'm sticking with them.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Equal opportunity employers. Kinda. Sorta. Maybe not.

"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

--Animal Farm by George Orwell

I'm a pessimistic person in general. A lot of people are surprised when they hear it, but it's true. In my view, at the root of every person (even for me) is greed and selfishness, whether the person realizes it or not.

The same holds true for business. At the root of every business is greed and selfishness. Some businesses may have certain commitments or charitable goals, but at the end it is all about the bottom line.

Which is why they can't take a risk on workers with disabilities.

"We are an equal opportunity employer" is one of those things that ring hollow to me, right up there with the infamous cliché "We will keep your resume on file." It's something that a lot of companies have to say for one reason or another, whether it's true or not. I don't believe either one of those commonly-used sayings.

I have been actively looking for work for nearly a year now, with little success. Some recruiters and head-hunters have seen my resume and have noted that I have a lot of marketable skills. Some were actually quite shocked that I haven't had more luck.

I've landed several interviews. Except for one interview, one of the things that seemed to bug employers a lot (based on either their questions or their reactions to me) is the fact that I'm in a wheelchair. Some of these have claimed to be an "equal opportunity employers."

I remember one interview where the concern was not so much with the job itself but rather how I'm supposed to get to my job. Granted, it is in the Fraser Valley (which is a 45-minute drive away) but I repeatedly assured them that I can drive and have made the commute many times before.

Eventually, the interview contained about two questions about the job itself and about ten questions about how, as a wheelchair user, I would be able to perform my job. The funny thing about it is that the job is almost completely computer-based; I have the use of my arms, so it is strange that they would perceive my walking ability to be the biggest factor!

Now, some of you are probably asking: "Isn't it illegal to ask that kind of stuff?"

Technically, it is illegal to ask something like that in a job interview if it does not relate to one's ability to do the job. Some may ask about those things for the purpose of determining what accommodations (if any) need to be made, but that's about it. My use of a wheelchair does not affect my ability to do a job that is online- and computer-based.

Theoretically, I could raise a stink and turn this into a big deal. It would be a big black mark on the company. It would definitely get the interviewer in huge trouble.

But the problem with that is the same problem as going through border customs -- like a customs officer, the interviewer is your judge and executioner in many ways. They are the thing standing in your way to a job and career. You need to impress and please that person more than they need to impress and please you. If you cause a raucous, future employers will see that you like to rock the boat and cause a disturbance, and will hesitate to have a loose cannon like that in the company.

That's why I did nothing about it.

It's not right to have this happen, by any means. The fact of the matter is that discrimination in general is hard to prove, especially when it's often a "he said/she said" situation. If accused, the person could make up something about the job needing some manual labour better fit for an able-bodied person, whether it be lifting a stack of papers or whatever. There are so many ways to weasel your way out of a discrimination accusation.

Sometimes it's more subtle. I've had employers in the past act extremely uncomfortable at the fact that I'm in a wheelchair. I know it's not a good thing to do, but I purposely don't inform them about this fact unless I'm concerned about the accessibility of an interview location; I used to inform employers ahead of time but that often backfired on me so I stopped doing it.

Anyways, some employers act so uncomfortable that they would be in a huge rush to finish the interview early and rush me out of the room. Again, these are jobs that don't require the ability to walk and some were from "equal opportunity employers." For these, I knew I was ruled out as a candidate as soon as the interviewer saw me.

Is it any wonder why I don't buy into the whole "equal opportunity employer" statement?

Not all of it is bad. The one bright light I've seen so far is the University of British Columbia. I was interviewed for a position there. There was the initial surprise but that blew over quickly and I felt throughout my interview that they were taking me seriously. The only issue that came up was accommodations (mostly wheelchair accessibility) but they immediately said that it would be no problem. So far, they have been the best so far at backing up their "equal opportunity" statement.

Despite the progress made to breaking down barriers for those with disabilities, there is still a lot of work to do. There's a reason why stories like these and these and these keep popping up. It is easy to build a ramp and break down physical barriers, but the social and psychological barriers are still strong as stone and just as cold and unwelcoming.