I am a proud resident of Brampton. Three years ago, I launched a festival in the downtown Brampton that celebrates a diverse range of authors and storytellers. After announcing our first lineup for the festival, we received a complaint about the lack of disabled writers in the festival lineup. The complaint was valid and with just six weeks left until the festival, my team discussed how best to rectify the situation. “Let’s get it right next year,” we said. But we knew that this was likely the message that had been used at other festivals and in other sectors. We wanted to be different. As the concerned author pointed out so eloquently in her email, certainly a festival for diverse authors would include disabled voices as well. So we added a session, which we subsequently recorded and translated into French and English -- which we have since shared widely and regularly because the conversation is relevant and important. You can listen here.
The encounter and the conversation that took place changed me. Instead of looking away or ignoring the situation, I had to acknowledge the freedom I experienced on a daily basis and the obstacles that impeded the experiences and basic dignity of the disabled community. I began to more carefully interrogate a world that diminishes the value and neglects the needs of disabled friends and colleagues on a systemic level.
I’m ashamed it took me so long to notice, to look, and to listen, but since then the festival has been building stronger processes for supporting disabled authors and attendees with the support of local residents and prominent writers in the disabled community. We’re not perfect. We don’t always get it right. But for us, it’s about always making improvements and never going backwards. It’s about keeping disabled residents, authors, and guests front of mind. It's about upholding their dignity in the same way I want my dignity upheld. Do unto others...
Recently, I took a public position that I would not speak or present at events where the building and the washrooms were not fully accessible (while there really is no such thing as semi-accessible in the disabled community, able-bodied folks use the term often to present spaces that are still only fully accessible to some, so I’m clarifying that fully is what I mean — bathrooms and entrances, button entries and all). True to my word, I turned down a speaking engagement a few weeks later - a professional development event for Canadian publishing professionals held in a space that was not accessible.
A few weeks later, the issue hit a little closer to home.
In the last days of April, the CEO of the Brampton Library kindly informed me that the Four Corners branch of the Brampton Library — the location where we had scheduled three free events for The Festival of Literary Diversity — was not accessible. The library was also scheduled to host our closing event — to kick off their summer reading program with their One Book One Brampton shortlist, an event would take place at City Hall.
Knowing my position on accessibility, the CEO wanted to let me know about the status at the Four Corners branch of the Brampton Library. She wrote, “Anyone using assistive devices such as wheelchairs or scooters would not be able to be accommodated in the current layout without assistance.”
I was surprised. I had, as many do, assumed all libraries had to be accessible. But I shouldn’t have assumed. I had been there often. Four Corners is my home branch - walking distance from my house. The festival has done events there before too. But I just didn’t notice. I went in and out of the library and in and out of the washrooms and never noticed.
Initially, I thought the inaccessibility was about turning radius, which is a hard thing to fix without a major reno. But it turns out that while the library is “AODA compliant”, the issue is with e-buttons. Folks in wheelchairs/crutches/walkers can’t get in/out without asking someone for help. And while this may seem like a small issue to some, and while AODA’s stamp of approval may seem like enough, to me and to those in the disabled community this robs folks of a basic human dignity able-bodied folks enjoy without thought. Who wants to wait for a staff member to see them, hear them, help them and then know that they have to wait at the door for someone to help them out? This is something we ask of small children, a kind of buddy system. This is not something we ask of middle schoolers or teenagers -- let alone adults whose only "crime" is that they require a mobility device to get around.
When we received the news about the washrooms, the festival was a week away. The programs were being approved at that very moment. I emailed the CEO some questions, some possible solutions (port-o-let’s or a venue change). I received no answer. I emailed our arts museum, which is just down the street. We were having events there in the evening and while there isn’t as much built-in foot traffic during the day as the library and while we would have to pay for the rental, they had spaces that were available. The board and the planning team all agreed it was the best option in a less than desirable situation. Given our position and work as an organization, we could not hold an event in a space that was not (fully) accessible — that did not provide equal dignity for all. The program was updated with the new location and it went to print minutes later.
One hour later, after prepping a short speech and getting dressed, I went to City Council to publicly announce the festival, as I do annually. I finished with a mention of the changed locations on account of the inaccessible washrooms. If I was given a platform, I needed to use it for more than just bragging about an event. I needed people to know what I had not known or realized. I needed people to know that there was an issue of inequity in a public space that as community decision makers they had the power to address. “It’s not okay for us to have a public space that’s not accessible to everyone,' I said.
I sent the email to the library minutes later while sitting in Council Chambers. I thanked them for informing us of the issue and informed them that we had given up our free space at the library to move into a paid space for the sake of our authors, volunteers and participants. I let them know that they were welcome to continue the partnership with us in the new space - one block away at the museum.
The CEO emailed me three hours later to tell me that the library would be pulling their One Book One Brampton event from the festival and that they would develop their own programming to replace the programming that we had moved a block away.
I was shocked.
I emailed back my disappointment. I responded with heartfelt sadness to someone I had thought was not only a colleague but maybe a friend, certainly someone I admired. I expressed sadness over the loss of the additional programming but wished them well. I received no response. There was no mention in any of this of the washroom or plans to adjust their policy. They had taken our actions as an insult, rather than a necessity or an issue of customer service. The Chair of the Board spoke with me. One of our board members spoke with the CEO. We decided to talk later, after the festival, about how the partnership could go moving forward.
A few days later, the library was true to their word and published duplicate programming right over the events we had scheduled. They had programmed storytelling over our storytelling events and a comic book workshop that ran simultaneous to the comic book workshop we had curated, that an author from BC had been flown in to deliver.
I was hurt. I am still hurt by all of this. It felt - it feels - personal. These were people I liked. People I disagreed with on various matters, who perhaps liked me far less than I knew, but who I thought respected me and cared about the books and residents enough to understand what we were doing. I thought that’s why they informed us of the accessibility issue in the first place.
They had spent a week orchestrating simultaneous duplicate events with a festival that takes place once a year, but they had not addressed the washrooms. But the library has known about the washrooms for a long time, and what I have come to understand from their recent response -- the first email back since they informed me they were pulling their programming -- is that they don't see it as an issue of concern, certainly not an urgent one.
After the festival, I sent an email asking if the washrooms were, in fact, not accessible. This was their response: “Four Corners library, as is the case with all our branches, is compliant with current AODA requirements for accessibility. Library staff are available to assist individuals with the doors to the bathrooms at present.”
We as a society have historically overlooked the needs of our most vulnerable population. We have built a whole world that excludes them at every turn, that requires them to ask for help in ways we would never tolerate if the criteria was based on race, ethnicity or social status (ie. ask for help if you’re on social assistance or black or overweight). We create spaces and neighbourhoods where they are excluded or kept out, and many disabled folks stay away or stay home because it’s easier not to fight. It’s tiring and exhausting to fight so hard physically and socially. And maybe that’s what able bodied folks want on some level if we’re honest - for disabled folks to stay quiet so we don’t have to face up to our ableism.
I have thought that perhaps I should stay silent about all of this. I have thought about pushing harder behind closed doors, giving the library more time to realize their position is on the wrong side of history. But the ableism inherent in the response to the FOLD’s move and the lack of action I’ve seen over the last two weeks do not inspire faith that the gravity of this situation is understood by those who possess the power to make a change.
And I can’t help but feel that this is more urgent than they know. A prominent disabled Canadian author recently shared with me that issues of accessibility and ableism are life or death issue - that depression and bullying and neglect contribute to the actual death of disabled folks, that they’re lives are so regularly devalued that many struggle to believe anyone cares. And I believe it. I know it to be true. I wondered that about this very thing in regards to the library over the last week. Do they really care?
The late Richard Wagamese, author of Indian Horse, said libraries saved his life - that when he was homeless he went to his library and read books that changed things for him. I know this is true for others as well. But it can’t be true for all if the space only welcomes and fully upholds the dignity of some and not all.
I know disabled folks who retreat and avoid events because they are not able to enter or use the washrooms - because the organizations in charge don’t provide enough info about whether they’re spaces are fully accessible. Certainly our tax payer-funded, public libraries should be spaces that do better.
The Chair of the Board recently responded to a series of questions about this incident, and has offered me the opportunity to present at the next board meeting on Tuesday, May 22, pending approval. I will be travelling in the week leading up to the meeting, but I’m putting this here and adding a petition for you to sign if you would like to add your voice to the chorus defending the rights and needs of our disabled community members. I’ll carry your names and your comments with me, and I welcome anyone who wants to join me, should my application to delegate be accepted.