Accessibility and the Animal Law Movement: The Disconnect

By: Deborah Willoughby

“There are only two kinds of people in society: those who have a disability now, and people with disabilities in waiting—i.e. those who will get one later.”

This quote by disability advocate David Lepofsky highlights something I never gave much thought to until I recently became injured and had my mobility compromised for a few weeks. The timing of my injury could not have been worse as it coincided with an animal law conference in another part of the country that I had the opportunity to attend. My experience with how others treated me while I used assistive devices including a cane, wheelchair and crutches while travelling and attending the conference was quite eye-opening and, to my surprise, quite disappointing, especially in settings where one would assume folks would be more compassionate and helpful. 

My trip began at the airport where I used wheelchair assistance since it would have been too tiring to navigate the airport on crutches. Although the airport staff were helpful, when we approached the gate, I experienced my first instance of exclusion: the way my wheelchair was positioned at the front of the line at the gate and away from the seating area where most of the passengers were, placed me in an awkward spot where I felt isolated. I know my experience is not unique, as other travellers with wheelchairs are often positioned in such a manner at the gate. However, this type of exclusion — social exclusion — is an unfortunate and angering reality that many people with disabilities experience. It was something I dealt with throughout my trip.

My colleague and I were staying at a hotel and on the first day of the conference,we asked the hotel staff to call a taxi to take us to the conference venue. When the taxi arrived, the driver told us that we should call another taxi as he did not want to put the foldable wheelchair in his trunk. This immediately made me feel angry and also guilty as I felt that I had placed my colleague in an awkward position. Even though I was not responsible for the taxi driver’s response, he made me feel like a burden in that moment. To exacerbate the situation, he began questioning why I was using a wheelchair when he saw that I was able to stand on one leg when I was trying to get into the car. He then had the audacity to tell me that since “I could walk,” I should ask the hotel for a walker instead of a wheelchair because it would be easier for him to put in his car. I could not believe what he was saying; who was he to tell me that I could walk just because he saw that I could stand on one leg? He did not know my level of mobility or pain. Why should I switch from an assistive device I was comfortable using in order to accommodate him?  According to the Ontario Human Right’s Commission’s policy on ableism and discrimination based on disability, service providers have a legal duty to accommodate to ensure that people with disabilities have equal access to services. However, the Ontario Human Rights Code includes certain exceptions and defences that allow behaviour that would usually be discriminatory and to use such defences and exceptions, organizations must demonstrate “that the needs of the person or group affected cannot be accommodated without undue hardship.” I believe that putting the foldable wheelchair in his car was more of an inconvenience to him than undue hardship.

This was the beginning of a quite disheartening weekend in terms of navigating around with a physical impairment. At the conference when I was using the wheelchair, I felt so invisible: people would have conversations literally right in front of me but exclude me from them. Other times when I was sitting at a desk with other students, I could not participate in the conversations amongst them as I could only stretch so far in the wheelchair and it would have been difficult for me to readjust the chair to hear them. I also felt like it would have been awkward for me to ask them to reposition themselves or speak up so I could also be included in the conversation. Instead, I sat quietly looking around and eventually went on my phone. Upon discussing this with a person with a visible disability once I returned from the conference, they explained that they had experienced, and knew other folks with disabilities who have as well, a certain attitude that suggests if you have a disability ‘it’s not worth engaging you in a conversation’.  Shockingly, I also had people physically stepping over my feet and my wheelchair while walking across an accessible seating area instead of using the clear walkway which was behind my chair and provided more than enough space to walk. By contrast, when I used crutches for the last two days of the conference, I found that people were more likely to engage with me and socialize compared to when I was in a wheelchair. Having inclusive spaces really should mean making an effort to ensure that everyone is included in every way.

Even though I experienced some shocking and unpleasant treatment while using assistive devices, most people were helpful and treated me with respect. I was also fortunate to not have people help me without my consent, such as grabbing my wheelchair. A recent hashtag “#JustAskDontGrab” has highlighted this issue where people may have the intention of helping but do not ask for consent, and instead can make persons with disabilities feel out of control of their bodies. Disability advocate Bronwyn Berg says that her “wheelchair is an extension of my body… [Having your wheelchair pushed without consent] is just a complete loss of control and it’s a very vulnerable position to be in.” The hashtag speaks to the prevalence of the problem, and not just for those who may use assistive devices.

The attitudes of the taxi driver, those stepping over me and those disengaging with me were disheartening, especially since the individuals were attendees of a conference comprised of academics, lawyers, professionals and students. Because the nature of the conference was about advocating for the voiceless, including animals in the meat industry, animals who are exploited in entertainment, experimentation, fashion, etc., one would think these folks would be more compassionate to people with disabilities, yet their actions were dehumanizing. It is interesting how some within the animal advocacy community can have such strong feelings about animal welfare and contrastingly different responses to human disability, whether their feelings or actions are unconscious or not.

Ultimately, my experience provided me with a unique perspective on navigating the world while temporarily using assistive devices and also how others perceive and react to that in certain contexts including day to day settings, professional environments and ultimately spaces within a larger movement. The experience also opened my eyes to bridges that could be better built between animal advocacy and the disability rights movement. All forms of non-human and human oppression are interlinked, therefore, in order to combat speciesism, animal advocacy will need to address human oppression and ensure that spaces within the movement are inclusive. “The animal advocacy movement may never achieve widespread change without engaging broader swaths of the population and building coalitions with other justice movements.”

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