Saturday, February 13, 2010

Rick Hansen Carried the Olympic Torch but the Disabled Are Still Second Class Citizens in Canada

Last night was the opening ceremonies in Vancouver for the winter Olympics.  Like many across the globe, I marvelled at the whales and the snow boarder flying through the Olympic rings, but one of the images that meant the most to me was watching Rick Hansen, Canada’s Man in Motion carry the Olympic flame.

image Hansen became a wheelchair user at the age of 15 after surviving a truck accident.  He went on to become an incredible athlete winning a series of international wheelchair marathons and six medals at the 1980 and 1984 Paralympics. Despite these wonderful accomplishments, he is probably best known for his Man in Motion Tour, in which he wheeled his way across 34 countries covering 40,000 kilometres, raising  26 million for spinal cord research in 1985.

Beginning on Mach 12th and running until March 21st, Vancouver will host The Paralympics.  Though world class athletes will be competing, they will receive far less coverage than their able bodied counterparts and this is because no matter where we  go on the globe, people who are differently abled are devalued.

Last night the opening ceremonies was about inclusiveness, which is ironic given the fact that no equivalent of the ADA exists in Canada.  When it suits the agenda of promoting Canada as good an enlightened, the media are more than willing to put differently abled bodies center stage; however, this is far from normal in Canadian society.  Differently abled Canadians are invisible in the Canadian media, and every day tasks are often complicated by the fact that much of Canada is inaccessible.

When it is time to show the world what a great man Hansen is we can cheer him in front of the world and yet when he competed for our country few watched.  Even as I watched Hansen carry the torch yesterday, I wondered how many stores he is unable to enter because there are no ramps?  How many times has he gone to a restaurant to find that the bathroom was on a different floor, only accessible by stairs? How many times has gone to the bathroom to find the only disabled bathroom to be either not functioning, in use by an able bodied person or non-existent? How many times has he gone to park his car, in one of the few disabled parking spots, only to find the space already filled, by people who don’t have a disability?  How many times has he been treated like a burden for simply existing?  How many times has he been forced to “rise above” because someone did not think that they were responsible for making a change? The aforementioned questions reflect the difficulties of being differently abled in Canada.

People like Hansen are celebrated by the media for two reasons: they enable the “super crip mythology” or an opportunity exists to make the country seem accessible when it certainly is not.  Hansen is an incredibly accomplished man who has done wonders to promote sport in Canada, as well as raise funds for medical research.  When he wheeled into that arena last night, I felt my heart burst with pride.  I would love to be able to celebrate his presence, just like I did every other participant in the opening ceremonies but because I am far to well acquainted with the high levels disableism in Canada, I could not help but wonder how many would forget about their joy of seeing Hansen at the Olympics, the next time they decided to engage in their able bodied privilege.

We can cheer and say his inclusion was one step towards a more inclusive and tolerant society; however, when the Canadian differently abled population opened their eyes today nothing had changed.  Praise is fleeting and costs the able bodied nothing, whereas; creating a truly accessible environment would mean a serious consideration of others and a reduction of able bodied privilege.  Pageantry gets us nowhere, if its purpose is only cosmetic and we certainly owe someone like Hansen more than that.