Nfld. & Labrador·Access Denied

Life in the 'Blue Zone': A look at segregation and solutions

Ashley Martin-Hanlon dissects what it means to be a person with a disability living in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Ashley Martin-Hanlon dissects what it means to be a person with a disability in Newfoundland and Labrador

Ashley Martin-Hanlon said a few years ago, she started referring to disability-related "stuff" — triumphs, frustrations, humour — as 'Blue Zone.' (John Pike/CBC)

If I were to describe myself at this moment, I'd say I'm a young, urban professional with a disability.

I'm 31 years old and happily partnered, living in St. John's in an accessible apartment where the cat hair sticks to everything but the cat. I use a hot pink electric wheelchair to work, shop for groceries, and hold my precious niece and nephew on my lap. 

I was born with cerebral palsy, a disability that affects movement and coordination of my body. I describe my muscles as constantly "electrified."

Spasticity, or too much muscle tone, affects my whole body, although it is most noticeable in my legs and my left hand. This has always been a part of my life, and my understanding and acceptance of disability is constantly shifting.

Questions about language

There is so much contention around language when it comes to living with a disability. Do we even say "person with a disability?" Most would argue yes. But some (myself included) would argue that persons with disabilities don't need the reminder of our own personhood. 

Ashley Martin-Hanlon uses a hot pink electric wheelchair. (John Pike/CBC)

"Disabled" is often fine, at least when used in reference to yourself. That's not even touching on "person who uses a wheelchair" versus "wheelchair user," or the (always cringeworthy) "wheelchair-bound." 

For me, "disabled" does the job. However, it's always best to check directly with the person you're addressing — everyone's comfort level is different.

'Blue Zone' living

In an effort to sidestep all of this a few years ago, I started referring to disability-related "stuff" — triumphs, frustrations, humour — as "Blue Zone." It was simple, light-hearted, and everyone knew what I meant.

But then I gave it some thought. Is living in the "Blue Zone" another way of saying that I — and many other persons with disabilities like me — live a segregated life?

Disability is the only minority group of which anyone may become a member at any time!- Ashley Martin-Hanlon

Think about it: When I go into your average public washroom, there is at best, one stall I can use safely. Or, I might even have to leave the public washroom and go to another one located elsewhere.

There may be one door in a line of four or five doors that I can open independently by using a button ... but only if that button is working.

There are alternate routes for me to take in theatres, stadiums, universities. There are different buses for me to take, or certain buses on the public route; and only certain places where I can be seated on those buses. 

It's the very definition of living a separate life.

To get around, Ashley Martin-Hanlon can use an accessible taxi (above), GoBus, or some Metrobus buses. (John Pike/CBC)

There are a few universally accessible buildings in the St. John's area: Empower, the Disability Resource Centre, and Easter Seals House come to mind. In places like these, every washroom is accessible, everyone walks up a ramp or uses the automatic doors. That, to me, is true inclusion and equality.

That's not to say that Newfoundland and Labrador hasn't made huge strides towards improving accessibility: accessible taxis, the expansion of GoBus, and the inclusion of accessible Metrobus buses were a long time coming. But it simply isn't enough.

When there is only partial access — when only some people can use some of the things, some of the time — then that limits everyone's independence.

Some estimates say 15 per cent of the population is living with a disability at any one time. Disabled persons are the world's largest minority group, and disability is the only minority group of which anyone may become a member at any time! (There is a reason that one of the nicknames within the disability community for able-bodied people is "temporarily able-bodied.")

Possible solutions

So how do we fix this? 

Step 1: Recognize that the resources allocated to the disabled community are priceless. 

That accessible washroom you just popped into? That's probably the only one. That curb cut you're blocking? It may be someone's only method of getting to where they need to go. That blue zone parking space in which you are illegally parked? Not only will it merit a hefty fine, but your desire to be a few steps closer to the door may completely ruin someone else's desire to shop at all.

Step 2: Allocate more universally-accessible spaces. 

Anyone can use an automatic door; not everyone can open a heavy one.

Step 3: Vote with your wallet. Spend time and money in accessible spaces.

We've come so far, but we have so far yet to go. 

Life in the "Blue Zone" is challenging, frustrating, incredibly fun, and rewarding.

For every inadequate curb cut and every inaccessible washroom I've encountered, there have been at least as many unforgettable experiences.

My first moment in a power chair and the freedom it brought. That singular feeling of belonging at a disability conference that you only find late at night crammed into a common room with half a dozen other disabled youths and swapping hospital stories and shoe recommendations and comparing wheelchair brands.

These things simply would never have happened if I didn't live life in the "Blue Zone." It's a huge part of who I am, and the journey my life has taken. 

When we finally break down the barriers, the only differences will be cultural, not segregation.

Stay tuned for ongoing coverage of accessibility issues and solutions this week online, on CBC Television's Here & Now, and on CBC Radio One. (CBC)