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.