Accessibility in Elections: Where Were You When Barriers were Built, Maintained?

By Jay Menard

Accessibility is a great buzz word. And having people with disabilities on stage with you or featured on your campaign literature sure makes for a good photo op. But far too often, a commitment to accessibility extends beyond nothing more than tokenism — and if that’s what you’re looking for, you’re missing out on a tremendous opportunity to develop a plan that addresses everyone’s needs.

Today I had the honour of representing the Accessibility Advisory Committee at the Candidate Information Session for the 2018 Municipal Election. My topic was “Running an Accessible and Engaging Campaign.”

Much of the presentation was prepared in a document called “Count Us In: Removing Barriers to Political Participation,” which focused on how to interact and engage with people with disabilities during campaigning. But I firmly believe the majority of the work needs to be done well before you hit the campaign trail. The presentation focused on the campaign, after the fact, but if you’re going to truly embrace accessibility, that inclusion should be undertaken right from the start when you’re developing your platform.

If you were in this room talking with me, that’s a start. But I’m going to ask another question: “Where were you?”

Again, talking about accessibility sounds great. Seeing someone who is visually impaired or in a wheelchair in the campaign photo is a real feel-good moment, isn’t it? But what impact does that person have beyond tokenism? Is your commitment to accessibility opportunistic or sincere?

Looking around the interested candidates, I didn’t see a lot of familiar faces from the five Accessibility Advisory Committee-hosted open-houses. The topic of those open houses was what does the City do well (and do poorly) when it comes to accessibility? It seemed like a relevant discussion for potential candidates — both new and incumbent — to attend.

Of course, when you don’t have leadership modelling the behaviour, what do you expect? Mayor Matt Brown, and councillors Maureen Cassidy, Anna Hopkins, and Michael Van Holst, all attended one of the events — which were held at various locations and times to ensure access — but the remainder didn’t bother to go. It’s hard to buy into the importance of accessibility with that support. And there are plenty of examples to go around.

Where were you?

Or what about when community leaders (both elected and self-professed) make public statements denouncing the value of a group’s participation simply because they’re beyond an “acceptable” age for engagement; or who questions the need for accessibility with, “Do we want to be the first generation that paves the green?”

I would flip that question and say, “Do we want to be the first generation to allow everyone to have equitable access to a cherished green spot with minimal disruption?” or “Do we want to appreciate the contributions of our aging society and value and respect their input?” or “If we are truly building a community for all, why are we perpetuating barriers?”

When those exclusionary statements were made, where were you? Were you complicit? Did you stand up and take umbrage, or is supporting the accessible community not important enough and won’t deliver the media attention you desire?

Where were you?

We have a city that finds it acceptable to expect people relying on paratransit to spend hours on the phone, in the hopes that they’ll be able to book a coveted ride three days from now. We have a city that finds it acceptable to punish people with disabilities for having lives — penalizing them if they have to cancel a paratransit trip because they, or their children, fall ill. Too many cancellations and you’re out! Yet, the governing bodies insist that everything’s fine and, in comparison, we’re doing quite well financially on it!

We have a city that finds it acceptable that bus stops don’t need to be plowed until 72 hours after a significant snowfall. Where were you when this has been an issue? With all the discussion about the much-ballyhooed BRT system, it really doesn’t address the needs of people facing these challenges.

We live in a city that, by its actions, shows that it essentially feels that the elderly, people with disabilities, those in wheelchairs, and those with any other mobility challenge (up to and including people pushing kids in strollers) should hibernate until the weather gets better.

The impact of this? Social isolation, inability to apply for jobs that they’re qualified for because they can’t guarantee their ability to walk or take transit on time, and resignation to living in a community that shows that only certain people are welcome to be a part of it.

Where were you?

Because that’s what you’re representing. Remember, 1.9 million Ontarians have a disability. And as our population ages, a plurality — if not a majority — will benefit from a community focus on accessibility.

And accessibility isn’t limited to just those with visible disabilities. Accessibility reduces barriers for everyone — each and every one of your constituents and potential voters benefit from accessibility. From seniors facing mobility and vision challenges, to young parents pushing strollers through snow-covered streets; from people with dyslexia or unable to read to citizens for whom English may not be their first language; and from search engine optimization to mobile web development, from visible to invisible disabilities — accessibility benefits us all.

You want to say that you’re there to take down the barriers? So where were you when those barriers were maintained?

If you really want to embrace accessibility in your campaign, don’t just pay lip service to it. Reach out to people with lived experience, talk to groups about the challenges they’re facing, don’t just bring people with disabilities onto your campaign for public-facing roles or photo ops, but actually have them involved in your policy formation. Listen, understand, and benefit from the broadening of your perspectives that can come from increased diversity within your core team.

After all, accessibility isn’t about accommodation; it’s about community. And by perpetuating or ignoring barriers of access, you’re essentially determining who gets to fully take part in everything the community has to offer and who has to stay on the sidelines.

And that takes more than just a photo op or lip service.

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