(This blog is the one that appeared on Canada.com. A number of readers have emailed me to ask me to put it here on the blog to make it more accessible to them. Here it is.)
I think one of the problems in living in Canada, or in downtown Toronto specifically, is that history is just so 'yesterday'. Modern life races by at the speed of Internet and we are caught up, as I suppose we are supposed to be, in the business of living. I have reached the age where I can no longer really place things in time. When someone asks me a question about when something happened in my personal journey, I can no longer really place it. My stock answer is 'a couple of years ago' - I've said this so much that I now realize that I've lived nearly sixty years in merely two.
But being here in England I am surrounded by history. I've spent the last couple of days in London and everywhere I look I see buildings older than Canada. Here, history rises up and smacks you in the face. Like it did yesterday at Tescos, a large grocery chain, where we were having a tea in their cafeteria. I was sitting at a table waiting for Joe to come with the tray of treats. As I waited an elderly gentleman, now I'm just shy of 60 so when I say 'elderly', I mean 'elderly'', rolled in on a sleek power chair. He parked at a table near me and pulled a newspaper out of the bag at the back of his chair.
He glanced over at me and I felt a chat coming on. I was right. After a few seconds of fighting with the paper, he said 'hello'. I greeted him with a tone that said, 'I'm good to chat'. He shocked me by correctly asking, right off after hearing me speak, "Canadian?" I said that I was. He shook his head and laughed. I looked at him quizzically. He caught my look and said, "My how the world has changed."
From there we went back to his youth, born with a disability, born into life in a wheelchair, he said it was difficult to imagine travelling across the street, let alone around the world. Then for the next nearly half an hour he talked about a world inaccessible and hostile. A world without disabled 'loos' and cut curbs and wide doors and, imagine this, ramps. He said that his entire world was restricted not by his wheels but by barriers. Not natural barriers, but barriers made. He said that he never saw signs painted with hatred 'no Jews, no Blacks,' because in his world the barriers were more than just prejudicial and attitudinal, they were built right into the fabric of society. "If our most important invention was the wheel," he said, "why did we follow up with the stair?"
"I'd like to know the name," he said, "of the person who first thought that maybe people with disabilities should be allowed to feel breeze."
This led to a discussion, which Joe just naturally joined as he set down the tray and sat at the table, about the disability movement. "Lots of us were terrified of it at first, I was very hesitant about people making noise about accessibility. I had grown used to a small world a big one scared me. I was afraid that if people thought we were too much of a bother, well, you've heard of Hitler haven't you? Yes, I was afraid. And now all these years later, I'm sitting in Tescos, having tea and talking to a guy in a wheelchair from Toronto." He almost teared up as he talked.
I left that encounter changed a bit. I forget, because I came into this world walking, not imagine that I would leave it rolling, that there were those working hard and tirelessly to make the world a place where I could get on a plane and leave home, with the expectation that I would find, on the other end, a toilet that I could use and doors that I could get through. I know that I have to prepare for barriers but I also know that I can expect access. I wonder, now, too, who it was that first thought that maybe, just maybe, we as disabled people were citizens with the right to ... breeze.