Now for something completely different!

Recently, I was asked by the good people at Optimal Performance Consultants to take part in a series of presentations to a group of professionals from various walks of business life about the AODA (Acessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act). It was a unique chance to talk to some real decision makers about what life has been like as a working professional (stop…I know I barely held a straight face calling myself professional too) who has made the transition to wheeled life. I was one of three speakers, with the first being an expert on the AODA and how it works with business interests, the other being a design professional with great experience in accessible spaces. Then it would be…me. A geek and IT consultant who just happens to be in a wheelchair with the value of my own experience, observations and most importantly…perspective.

What the heck did I get myself into?

I have to admit, I was quite nervous going in the first time, even though it was only about 12 people. These were professionals and experts in their various fields and I’m just a guy who brings his own chair everywhere (I’m so entitled). I had been asked to discuss “A day in the life…” as my angle for the talk, but even that was a bit of a brain bender for me. No one needs to hear about the hour it takes me each morning to get my legs to switch from pretzel-like twist to being convinced they can straighten out. Do they need to know how anti-spastic meds force me to start my days later than most? No wait…stop…it isn’t just about my hatred of all things morning related. So what angle to take on it? Well what about the perspective of a man who spent 38 years a 6 foot 2 inch beanpole, looking down on everyone (heightwise!) and now is…well…lower. Damn I just realized I have no clue how tall I am in the chair. Pardon as I go annoy my wife and wake her to find a tape measure.

I realized my blog actually gave me a good starting point. That my cathartic rantings about how I came to this and my experiences since became the basis of a…shudders…powerpoint presentation.  My goal turned into giving a brief explanation of how I came to be on wheels, how many Canadians suffer from a spinal cord injury and discuss how many of them can make good clients and employees if workspaces are improved to meet and exceed the standards of the AODA. I shared some stats, and then showed the things I’ve seen that make life difficult for anyone who is trying to work full-time in a chair, or really with any disability. It worked out well and seemed well received, but it was in the feedback, and some commentary that I was able to give that seemed to offer the best context.

For instance, when discussing the requirements of space for lineups (or queues) a designer asked why chairs, power or manual, can’t just stick with a standard turning radius. At this point, I put up my hand and rolled forward. I kind of take the idea of custom chairs for granted now, but I realize that most people just don’t think about what “custom” really means. Turning sideways, I showed them the front to back length of the chair and the difference there would be between someone my height versus someone 5 feet tall. That’s not even counting people with obesity issues, or the wider radius of any power chair or scooter. This was news to most and I really couldn’t blame them for it.

At a later session, a design firm brought up the valid point that the lack of a national standard for accessibility causes major issues for companies like TD or Royal Bank…basically any fully national company. What to do when BC demands one thing, while Ontario demands another? Worse is that quite often the demands of the AODA don’t match up with what is required in the building code. It isn’t even about the cost in that case, it’s about the confusion of what to do. In that case, I admitted I am not an expert enough in either to provide specific fixes, I could say that just thinking about what actually works in the real world would help. Step back to look at how it is supposed to work and quite often you’ll find you don’t need an Act or a Code to make it work. No Act or Code is required to know NOT to install grab bars backwards!

However, as I went through my talk about buildings that claim to be accessible but aren’t, two key ideas emerged. The first was the challenge of figuring out how to propose accessibility renos to the head honchos of any company or (even worse) property managers. There is an obvious cost involved, and there has to be a return on that investment to drive the need home. If a restaurant sees only one person in a wheelchair in a year, the cost of accessibility renos is something they can’t justify. When you reframe that to consider that people with disabilities take note of places that ARE accessible and tend to visit them more often, and let others know…then there is more value to be seen.

The second brings this full circle: perspective. People don’t think of the needs, and in all honesty that isn’t their fault. I was just as guilty of not seeing the issue before this hit me. Most people don’t think about how bathroom stall doors have to open in a certain way, or that powered doors with buttons are actually worse to use if the buttons don’t work. Designers and architects may know the technical minimum requirements for what counts as accessibility, but they haven’t ever tried to use their facilities from a chair, or using a walker. This in turn led to a few architects starting to discuss among themselves an idea of creating an “empathy” day that would start at the schooling level. This is something I would love to see, as I challenged all of them to get in a wheelchair, duct tape their legs together and then try to navigate their own buildings through a normal work day. Oh the duct tape? Totally needed. If you are just sitting in a chair and wheeling around as an able-bodied person, you won’t realize how often you’d be cheating to do certain things by bracing with your legs, or shifting your bodies in ways that no para or quad could do. That’s a discussion for an entirely different post.

I never thought that advocacy of any sort would be a route I’d go down when this change happened in my life. Special thank to Jane, Jamila, and Carla at OPC for the opportunity and to Kim for sharing the stage with me. We’ll see where this leads and perhaps…just perhaps…if we can open some eyes along the way.

Oh and it’s about 4 feet 7 inches in the chair from wheels to top of head. And yes I did find the tape measure on my own, no waking the exhausted wife tonight.