I know a lot of people skip titles of posts. Please read the title of this one.
I had an argument with someone at school on Thursday and it's still sitting with me. I think this is because we'd had an earlier argument on a similar subject on Tuesday. As you can probably imagine, it was about disability, or more specifically, about how disabled people have existed and advocated for themselves since long before the mainstream folks started paying attention, and well before I ever started paying attention.
The argument on Thursday was about my colleague's disagreement with the abstract for a master's research paper on disability discrimination in the Montreal Metro System. I'm not from Montreal, so the place this system has in Montreal was a bit much for me to grasp. Apparently it's a big thing, a progress
thing. A thing about how Montreal has been advancing into the future. When it was opened in 1966, it was opened to everyone
Everyone, of course, except people who can't walk up and down stairs.
The presentation and follow-up short video talked explicitly about ableist constructions of public spaces. She called it out very bluntly: this is discriminatory. This has always been discriminatory.
The part that others tend not to get, the part my colleague at the university didn't get, is that the people at the time knew this
This is one of the things about disability-based discrimination that drives me up the wall. The theory that many people express is that no one in the past could possibly have been expected to think about disability as a category because this whole disability rights thing didn't start until [the speaker learned of it, whatever time period that is] and obviously not a moment before. (See: many feminist responses to disability-based critiques online that ignore even something as simple as the presence of disability activists at the Beijing conference in 1995
. I've been told again and again and again that disability only became a "thing" to consider in the past few years and it's mostly "oversensitive" types at that. Arg.)
So, let me lay some facts on you:
The late 1960s and early 1970s, when the Metro was being built to be inaccessible to many people with physical disabilities, was also the time when people with disabilities were getting out of unwanted institutional settings. It's called "The Great Exit," and I'm pretty sure you haven't learned of it. The Great Exit didn't happen spontaneously, and it wasn't an austerity measure. People with disabilities campaigned for it. They fought for it
. Just like they fought for employment and education in the 1800s and early 1900s in Nova Scotia.
Once they left institutions, people with disabilities fought for employment rights and to live free from discrimination. To some extent, they won. The Quebec Human Rights Act included disability as a protected class, passed in 1975.Except for transit users
. Explicitly, transit was not included, you could not sue for a human rights violation for not being allowed on a bus if you were disabled
In 1988, ADAPT (a US-based protest group) came to Montreal to highlight how inaccessible the transit system was. This PDF has some of their information [in English] about the protest
. It was all over the news, and people were arrested for crashing through barricades with their wheelchairs.
And still, the Metro remained inaccessible. In fact, it wasn't until 2004 - Sixteen Years Later
- that the law saying that you couldn't sue for inaccessible transit was struck down, and it wasn't until 2006
that a Metro station was made wheelchair accessible. And even then, it was a debate, and one that apparently was won because it "looked bad" that the Metro was still inaccessible. Not that it was
bad, that it looked bad.
The Metro in Montreal is currently being retrofitted to be accessible. The current rate is less than one transit station becoming accessible per year. Again, The Montreal Metro System will be fully wheelchair accessible in 2058
My colleague argued that it is wrong ("presentist," the worst thing to accuse an historian of being within the discipline) to chide people in the past for not thinking of people with disabilities when they made the Metro. "They didn't know better then. We know better now."This is a lie
. They knew. Disability-based historians and disability rights activists know how far back the fight for equal access goes. It didn't spring, fully formed from the head of Hephaestus, in 1995 in Beijing. It didn't suddenly arrive the day you first learned of it. It's always been here. In ignoring that, in assuming that his ignorance is in fact the truth, my colleague (and many others like him) are betraying their own attitudes about disability, about history, and about what matters.
Don will be 78 years old when he can physically get into every Metro station in Montreal. The lifespan of people with Don's disability is less than that.