I get so frustrated with people judging an entire people or area without actually getting to know those people or the area. For example, the Downtown Eastside is the place I feel the safest in Metro Vancouver, which comes as a shock to many. A few nights ago, around 10 pm, I was double-checking a few measurements for an accessibility audit and a person who was setting up his bed under a business’ awning came over and held a flashlight over my tape measure and paper until I was done.
There is a great community in the DTES. There are so many kind, compassionate, protective people. If I have a mobility aid, I am immediately seen as part of the community, as someone who knows judgement, misperception, and bias, and I am watched over and helped if I ever need it. When I used my wheelchair full-time, it regularly broke down and I always hoped I would be in the DTES if it did as there were always DTES residents who would stop to see if I needed help, who would keep me company if I needed to wait for help, who would help push it into the vehicle if needed. Even when I was not in the DTES, when I lived in Maple Ridge, it was people who were homeless who stopped to help me the majority of the time.
It pains me that people make blanket judgements of people who they haven’t interacted with or who they’ve interacted with in such a condescending way that the experience was not good. I once worked a job doing audits and heard that the other auditors were saying that they needed two auditors to go for safety so I volunteered to audit that area and the management did not want to allow me because I had a disability (the other staff did not) and it took some convincing to get them to believe that that worked in my favour because those of us who are disabled, homeless, living in poverty, and/or using drugs, we have an understanding of what it is to be written off by people who don’t even know us, and there is a community, a bonding, and a watchful eye for one another.
In the work I do, I work with so many great activists, advocates, DTES champions, and people from the Downtown Eastside, they are passionate, resilient people who do the work for themselves but also because they long for a world in which no one else is treated as they have been.
I say this all because it is important for people to think about where they are getting their perceptions and information about communities and people. All too often, people make their minds up without ever having experienced an area or population or they go in with such a negative attitude that they are not going to have anything but a negative experience. Or they make their minds up via biased articles and political commentary. I watch people go into the DTES, who have already made their minds up, and it is so frustrating because there are so many lives, personalities, and intentions that are completely overlooked.
My work is community-focused. Disability Justice is acknowledging that the systems have failed disabled people, specifically those who are queer, trans, black, indigenous, and/or people of colour. Disability Justice is all about building community and people coming together to find the solutions that we know we can’t find or rely upon within the systems and structures that are supposedly set up to help us but which don’t really see us as people, individuals, beings with inherent worth. The DTES is a good model for the type of community building that Disability Justice is all about and I feel that every time I visit it.

New Year, New Name

As part of CAN’s ongoing decolonialization work, we have decided to rename our organization.

When we started in 2005, we wanted the CAN acronym because we believed that “we CAN make change”. I founded this organization after unsuccessfully trying to work through the system via local government and I thought of the word citizens because I felt like it was up to us citizens to take on the responsibility and find solutions when government couldn’t or wouldn’t. As CAN grew, we realized that the word citizen was limiting as the accessibility we create and seek to create is for all people, regardless of citizenship. We helped/help people who are visiting, tourists, here unlawfully, and we help Indigenous people who do not identify as citizens of Canada. Last year we made the commitment to change our name. I, along with our board, and with input from members, thought long and hard about what we wanted our new name to reflect and how it would shape our 15th year. We did the paperwork, the government approved the change, and we can finally announce that we are now Creating Accessible Neighbourhoods.

We are keeping the acronym, CAN, that was so important to the originating board and members. We feel the new name is more action-oriented which fits well with our plans for 2020.

This year is going to be an exciting year for Creating Accessible Neighbourhoods:
• We continue to work with Vancouver Pride Society on making Pride events more accessible.
• We will soon have a brand-new website with increased accessibility (stay tuned).
• We have three workshops we will be doing throughout Metro Vancouver: Intro to Disability Justice, Queer 101, and Imposter Syndrome.
• CAN is working with Growing Room: A Feminist Literary Festival to assess the accessibility of their locations and events and to create an accessibility protocol so that all participants, speakers, organizers, and volunteers know that accessibility is a core value.
• We continue to facilitate Chronically Queer meetings in Vancouver and Burnaby and, this month, we are adding an online version for those who are unable to leave their house, for those not near a meeting, and for those not yet ready to join us in person.
• We are facilitating the Burnaby Pride Community Action Network (PCAN) group to ensure that local residents have a voice in the organizing process.
• And we have a year-long campaign to encourage others to make social media more accessible by including image descriptions, ensuring hashtags and @HandleNames have the first letter of each word capitalized (so screen-readers can read them), and that those who create videos include captioning and transcripts.

And those are just a few of our current projects. We are excited and proud to be doing this work and we will continue to work hard Creating Accessible Neighbourhoods (CAN).

(Image: CAN’s orange logo, the top is two heads with their arms stretching to the side and down to make a half circle, centered between and under the top two heads is another head and arms to the side and downwards, there is another head at the bottom with its arms to the side and upwards towards the other arms, creating an image of embrace. Text: Creating Accessible Neighbourhoods (CAN) (new website coming soon) 604.437.7331))

Disability Justice

As a queer, nonbinary, disabled person, I understand the intrinsic need to recognize and honour people’s intersecting identities. We are never just one identity, just one issue, and yet society often addresses us with one narrow image in mind, leaving many unseen, unheard, unconsidered. My experiences with ableism, cissexism, and anti-queerness are very much rooted in capitalism. An Indigenous’ person’s inability to access the medical system is very much rooted in racism and colonialism. A Deaf person’s failed attempts to interact with a medical system is very much rooted in ableism and audism (anti-Dead/hard of hearing). We never easily fit into only one box.

One of the most important precepts of Disability Justice is the valuing of lived experience, the leadership of those most impacted. Well-meaning people can try to help those who live in poverty but no matter how hard they try to imagine life in poverty, they will not know what it is actually like to live under the crushing weight of poverty, thus they should seek counsel, understanding, and lived experience from those who do live the reality, day in and day out. As a person with a disability, I can tell you that the majority of perceptions I encounter about my life are wildly off track. I don’t want someone guessing what my life is like, I want someone to ask for my expertise and listen to what I say, respect my hard-won knowledge, and work with me to address the issues.

Ableism encourages the centering of “normal” and “productive” and devalues disabled bodies, brains, and senses, seeing them as “invalid”, “unnatural”, and “unworthy”, leading to exclusion, isolation, and oppression. Disability Justice recognizes our inherent worth and sees us as whole beings with differing strengths and needs. People should not have to prove they are worthy of assistance, to jump through hoops set up by people who don’t truly understand what they are going through, in order to access what they need. We need to respect each person for their experiences, history, and knowledge and not because they fit a certain image.

Part of honouring people for their inherent value is working against isolation and this is deeply rooted, for many, in accessibility. We should not exclude disabled people because their body, brain, or senses are different. Currently, society is quite comfortable excluding disabled folk. Even when accessibility is considered, it is often incomplete, only for one type of disability, or offered in a way that expects gratitude or the accessibility is snatched away. Often, a person’s disability is not actually what restricts them from accessing their community, it is the negative thoughts, misperceptions, and judgements of others that keeps them excluded, isolated, and feeling unwanted.

Disability is a natural part of life. One of five people self-disclose as having a disability, that number increases as we age. There has been no point in time when disability did not exist but our current systems of oppressions prefer us to believe that there are valid and invalid bodies, brains, and senses, and we are taught in small and large ways to only honour those that fit a certain image. Did you know that 93% of these disabilities are invisible? Most likely, you did not know this, particularly as the International Symbol of Accessibility is an image of a person in a wheelchair. The system itself is rooted in the notion that disability must look one way and it severely impacts people’s lives, how they are treated, and their emotional and mental health. One place this plays out is the designated accessible parking. There is more need for the spaces than spaces themselves, and some people try to protect those spaces by harassing those who “don’t look disabled”, except there is no one look for disability and so they often harm the very people they say they are trying to help. This is just small example in the much broader scale of ableism that is played out on a daily basis.

Instead of seeking to divide, disability justice, however, is rooted in our interdependence. It understands that no one person ever goes through life unaided, unsupported. We need to strengthen these relationships, these connections, the basic understanding that we are all in this together. We will only achieve liberation by working collectively. We must commit to leaving no one behind. Ask yourself: Who is missing from your work? Who is present with your work but doesn’t have a voice? Who has a voice, but that voice is not valued or respected? We must continually ask these questions. We must seek connections and relationships that expand our part of the collective nature of our work.

When we recognize that everyone has the right to exist exactly as they are, with any or many intersecting identities, we will begin to move forwards. When we join that belief with collective action, we will gain momentum. As we gain momentum, we must constantly seek people being kept from our gatherings, watch for missing, silenced, dismissed, and/or devalued voices and work to do what we can to raise them up so that their existence and voices ring out strong and clear and unavoidable. Together we can utilize disability justice values and practices to work towards building cross-movement organizing that moves away from segregation, isolation, and ableism towards accessibility, inclusion, connection, and interdependence. Collectively we can challenge our way of thinking and fundamentally shift the way we organize and fight for social change.