Sunday, June 08, 2008

Not Here, Not Yet.

When I first heard that there was going to be an exhibit on disability history at the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) I was excited. As people with disabilities are still only on the cusp of being considered a legitimate minority - the suggestion that the 'people' who have disabilities have a specific history goes a long way in establishing the arguement for the concept of a 'disability community'. I knew that it would be several weeks before I could attend as my travel schedule has had me away for much of the time.

But this weekend I had time so we hopped into the car to head down to Toronto on what we were jokingly calling "an outing". We arrived at the museum and Joe set me down at what we later discovered to be the old entrance. When he, and the friend who had come along, parked the car and came and got me, I had been enjoying sitting in the shade and watching people go by. We wheeled around to the front entrance and our experience began. Several tourists in the line up seemed absolutely shaken by my existance. I don't know what language they spoke but pointed fingers and staring eyes are a universal way of saying, "Look FREAK."

The fellow taking our money was also discombobulated by the disability thing. He first charged us 60 bucks, that's 20 each, then looked at me and said, "You have a disability?" Um, yeah. Then he explained that my 'attendant' didn't have to pay so he reduced the cost to $40. Well, OK. He then told us that we should consider going to see the Darwin exhibit and some other exhibit (didn't catch the name). I said, proudly actually, that we were there to see the disability exhibit. I swear, really I swear, he almost rolled his eyes. Why he mentioned those two exhibits and didn't mention the disabiltiy exhibit is beyond me. But he dutifully, and only after we asked specifically, drew a circle on the map to show us where the exhibit was.

We went into the foyer as Joe had to hit the washroom and then I asked the two of them to come round and see the old entrance to the museum. I told them the story of the ramp there. Years ago when I worked as a classroom assistant for kids with physical disabilities, I was an attendant on a trip to the ROM. We went up the long ramp outside only to find that there were three or four stairs and no ramp inside. So the outside ramp was really only for decoration. Instead we had to make our way around to the back entrance of the museum. We got back to the school and instituted a letter writing campaign and ... ta da ... got a ramp. We were there for disability history, after all, and I wanted to share a bit of my own.

We noted an elevator in the old lobby so we took it up to the third floor. After exiting the elevator we rolled along a few feet to a set of six or seven stairs up beyond which we could see the exhibit but there was no way we'd be able to get me up those stairs. So we took the elevator back down and rolled over to the 'MAIN ELEVATORS' and took those up. Exiting those elevators we were faced with a choice, turn left, turn right. We turned left and found ourself, now, on top of a set of stairs. They had an elevator there but it was one of those 'for disabled only' elevators that are never left on - always need someone from the staff to operate. I sat there as the other two went in search of the way to the exhibit.

Joe came back and said he'd discovered the way. It was an extrordinarily long walk, poorly marked, but we stumbled upon the exhibit. We noted, with some frustration, that there was an elevator right there, right beside the exhibit. After touring the exhibit (which I will write about in another post) called 'Out From Under' we went over to watch a video about the installation. The video was fronted by a long bench, with three sections that took up the entire viewing area. They had left no space for a wheelchair so I sat behind the bench while my companions sat on the bench. No sense in having a disability themed exhibit have space for wheelchairs to sit as equal participants - what need is there of this?

We then rode the elevator down, curious to see where it came out on the main floor. It was just off to the side of where we first rested when we came in while Joe went to the washroom.

I had some questions ...

1) Why weren't we informed about the disability exhibit as a possible choice upon entry to the museum?

2) Why was the ticket taker almost dismissive of our desire to see the disability exhibit over the Darwin exhibit?

3) Why didn't the ticket taker tell us that access to the disability exhibit was through a specific elevator?

4) Why wasn't there signage to alert wheelchair users that the disability exhibit was access through a specific elevator?

5) Why wasn't there space left for people with wheelchairs to sit alongside their friends, oops, attendants at the video programming?

6) Why was the person who was manning the disability exhibit not a person with a disability?

7) Why did I end up feeling like a second class citizen at my own event?

The exhibit was called "Out From Under" to that I say, "Not here, Not yet."


Anonymous said...

I really, really wish that I could say I was surprised by this story. But I've heard of incidents like this one (and, yes, observed them as well) so frequently I just sigh when I hear yet another one.

I've given up counting, for example, the movies and television episodes with a deaf-related theme or with a deaf character that are NOT captioned for deaf audiences.

But on a more positive note, did you ever get a chance to see the "Through Deaf Eyes" exhibit while it was on display? It was at the Smithsonian in DC for a while and also toured a number of different cities in the US. They later made a PBS special based on it. About the history of the culturally Deaf (note big D) community.

That exhibit not only was ABOUT us but was also partly BY us (some people from Gallaudet helped initiate it and Smithsonian worked with them and the Deaf community to help create it; Deaf people contributed some of the artifacts used in the exhibit etc). And, yes, it was accessible, at least to Deaf people, and at the Smithsonian location it was also wheelchair accessible. (Less accessible I think to blind people unless there were accommodations that I missed seeing.)

Stephen Pate said...

It's like going to the Canada Day event last year, in the designated disabled area and being told by security that I was blocking the view and in the way. Who was I in the way of? Why regular folks who wanted to use the area. People need to be trained.

FridaWrites said...

This is the ultimate irony, an inaccessible disability exhibit surrounded by stereotypes like the one that we want to sit by ourselves.

qw88nb88 said...

Ye gods and little fishes, irony measured in tonnage!

Ettina said...

Well, him not mentioning the disability exhibit could be OK - after all, if he automatically assumed every disabled person at the museum wanted to see that exhibit, that would be stereotyping.

Anonymous said...

I went to this exhibit on the night the addmission was free. It was myself, my co-worker and the four men who live in the group home where we work.
We live about an hour away, we went in the evening. Our journey there (and home again for that matter) was rather eventful, so by the time we got there, it was later than we planned and we were all a little tired.
Two of the men are "older" and they were a little unsure of the walk through the museum, arthritis making long walks difficult for them.
We asked someone if we could rent wheelchairs. He did not direct us to where we could borrow them, he walked over there to help my co-worker get them and bring them to where the rest of us waited.
He asked us if we were there to see something specific as we didn't have a lot of time left until closing. We told him we were there to see Out From Under, he simply nodded and told us he would show us the way.
He took us through the maze to the elevator, (it was the one that the staff had to operate) and sent us up, telling us the exhibit would be on our right as we exited the elevator.
When we were finished looking around, we wondered how easy it was going to be to get someone to take us down the way we had come.
We walked towards the elevator and there he was, standing there, directing other people to other exhibits.
He saw us approach, asked us if we were leaving, we said yes and he let us on the elevator. I tried to say thank you as the doors were closing, and he just smiled and raised his hand a little.

You are right there should have been signs. There should have been easier ways to access the exhibit. There should have been adequate seating. But we were lucky to find someone that worked there that treated us with what I believe would be the same respect he would have treated anyone.


liz said...

Holy guacamole, that is absolutely outrageous.

Anonymous said...

CAM, people with disabilities shouldn't have to depend on the kindness of strangers to get around. You made Dave's point in a way. Obviously you had to access the exhibit through a staff elevator with the assistance of a staff, that doesn't say a lot about accessibility.

imfunnytoo said...

I am just shaking my head...

The placement of the exhibit surpises me more than the oddly rude behavior of the docent...

Anonymous said...

I was actually agreeing with Dave, saying that it should have been more easily accessible, I was just pointing out the difference that can be made when one person offends, and the other at least tries to make a bad situation a little easier. The same issues were there when both of us visited, but when I went there was less frustration because the staff member tried to be helpful rather than avoiding and rolling his eyes.


Lisa b said...

The ROM is the least accessible museum I have ever tried to navigate and I am only dealing with a stroller!
Good questions. I look forward to your answers.