In search of equality and not advantage
Recently I was quoted in a story on the CBC Manitoba website Manitoba wheelchair users left stuck by cheap chairs. The story touched on a number of things, including the quality of the wheelchairs available through the Society of Manitobans with Disabilities' Wheelchair Services Program and ability to have wheelchairs repaired in a timely fashion.
The story took on a bit of a different angle after I contacted CBC Manitoba to express concern about some of the readers' comments that appeared after the story. I was pleased to find out that they already had a lengthy discussion in the newsroom about the comments, and they also found them very troubling.
Many of the comments called people with disabilities "demanding," "selfish," "ridiculous," told to "deal with it," and we had an "over-developed sense of entitlement" and that a functional wheelchair is not a "right."
These comments are hurtful to people with disabilities, but not surprising. They invariably come up anytime a story about a disability issue is published online.
We want the same opportunity to succeed as everyone else. Nothing more. Nothing less.- Allen Mankewich
People with disabilities face these attitudes all the time. I think one of the reasons is that our society often links someone's social value to their market value.
People with disabilities are perceived as having less of a market value, therefore our social value is diminished, and we are seen as lesser by others in society. Because of this, we are conditioned to be thankful for what we get, rather than demanding things that actually help us.
Many people don't realize that we do many of the things that people without disabilities do — pay taxes, hold mortgages, and contribute to the economy as consumers. But we need to have reliable supports that allow us to do that.
Attitudinal barriers harder to change
We live in a democracy where sometimes we pay for more than we use, and sometimes we use more than we pay. Why should a stranger who does not know me help contribute to the cost of my wheelchair? Because that's part of the social contract that Canadians have made with each other when we support various programs or supports that we will never use. I pay taxes towards programs I will never use, but I understand the importance of those programs.
The thing the people should be more upset about is that their tax dollars pay for programs that don't actually help, or fund sub-standard equipment that breaks down all the time.
Manitobans without disabilities voice their concerns about issues that are important to them all of the time, and people with disabilities should have that same opportunity without being called whiners.
We're not asking to be placed ahead of people without disabilities. All we are asking for is to be placed on an equal level as people without disabilities. A functional wheelchair is not a luxury. It is a right.
Most people understand the purpose of a wheelchair ramp. You can use a ramp as a solution to solve an accessibility issue. Attitudinal barriers are harder to change.
Equality versus advantage
When I was asked to write this commentary, I canvassed a few friends to get some feedback about experiences they have had with people's actions or comments.
One friend said that people tell him on the bus that he is taking up too much room with his power chair and taking spots away from non-disabled people. Does he not have a right to access the transit system as other users do?
Another friend mentioned that when she was in Grade 2, she had to do timed math tests. She asked her teacher for a scribe to help her write her answers. She knew the answers, but took longer to write them down due to spasticity. The teacher denied the request, saying it would give her an advantage.
It must have been devastating for that girl to learn at such an early age that she will have to fight her entire life to be equal with her peers. That shouldn't have to be something that a kid in Grade 2 has to even think about. Fighting these systems every day is exhausting, but it's a reality that almost every person with a disability faces.
I face these attitudes too. I work for a local sports team in the summer. One day, a fan told me that it was nice that someone found me a job that I could do. I felt like telling them that I have three jobs, so there are at least three jobs I can do. I don't know why it should surprise anyone that people with disabilities can and do have jobs.
People with disabilities want equality, not an advantage. We want the same opportunity to succeed as everyone else. Nothing more. Nothing less. We are all born free and equal, and it is these systems, attitudes, and other barriers we face that oppress us, not any of our individual differences.
Allen Mankewich is the co-chair of the League for Manitobans with Disabilities.