A Reluctant Advocate

One of Dalia’s friends recommended we meet her at an art exhibition opening this weekend.  It was of an artist her friend knows, on Granville Street, where Vancouver’s art galleries are concentrated.  We planned to go and I was looking forward to it all week.  When we arrived, we were met with stairs.  No problem, we thought – this is Vancouver; almost everything is accessible here.

Dalia went up to inquire how I could get in.  There was no other way.

I really don’t enjoy being an advocate.  It is not very pleasant to complain and bring attention to troublesome realities. It is especially bitter when irksome issues are not anyone’s direct fault.

I am not sure if Elissa Cristall Gallery, where the exhibition was held, rents or owns their gallery space. From what I saw from the sidewalk, the second level space is quite stylish. In Vancouver’s property market, I am sure it is a valuable spot.

I am not sure what the BC Building Code has to say about accessibility. Access to the Code document is not cheap – behind a pay wall like that, perhaps not everyone who needs to consult it can.

[UPDATE – If a building was constructed before accessibility provisions in the BC Building Code came into effect, it is only required to become accessible when there is a transfer in ownership, or a major renovation AND to become accessible is “practical.” These are very weak regulations.]

vancouver-inaccessible-art-galleries

The gallery we wanted to go to should not take all the blame though.  Sadly, the two galleries beside it, Master Gallery Ltd. and the prolific Heffel, that proclaims itself to be “Canada’s National Fine Arts Auction House,” were not accessible either from what I could tell.

So, I did what I had to do. I waited outside, while Dalia went up and met her friend and listened to the artist speak. They came down afterwards and it was a nice chat. I didn’t get to meet the artist, or see her work in person, but saw some of the photos on the Internet and my phone, taken by Dalia.

Most disabled people and their families have to fight for their whole lives.  We call it being an effective self-advocate. My parents had to fight to allow me to go to a French immersion elementary school instead of an essentially segregated one when I was small. Then they had to fight for me to have an assistant.

As an adult, I am ready to assert what I need, and go after it. It won’t always be easy as I go forward. A good advocate always needs to ask for what they want though. If we don’t ask, how can we get?

So what should I ask for here? Should I travel around with a lawyer on retainer to write threatening demand letters to force public places to become physically accessible?  Should I launch claims in the Human Rights Tribunal? I won’t make many friends if I take that approach.

I don’t have all the answers. I know making spaces accessible costs money and can be a logistical challenge. I know that I might have bought some artwork this weekend if I could have gotten into the galleries. These galleries don’t know how many sales they are missing out on.

I don’t know what the best outcome for this type of situation is. If I do not talk about it when I am explicitly denied access to a part of my community, it will not be dealt with, and others will be excluded too. I am not sure what I want to happen in the specific case of these galleries.

I do know that I wish I did not have to write this article. Being excluded from something that I really wanted to participate in hurt.

  • Josh, that is heartbreaking. Your photo says 1000 words. I don’t know how architects can continue to be allowed to submit plans for buildings that are not accessible and have them approved in this day and age. Clearly things need to change. The only thing I can think of is for more people to become involved in their city’s accessiblity committees. My city has one and I know Burnaby has one. It’s a good bet Vancouver also has one too. NO ONE should have to sit at the bottom of a flight of stairs while their partner visits a gallery and be left out. It’s just not right. I am so sorry you have to deal with this kind of thing on an ongoing basis. It’s just not right.

    • Behind the accessibility committees, court cases, civil rights campaigns, grand posturing for equality and community advocacy are hurt feelings. My heart was only momentarily broken, but Vancouver is one of the best cities in the world for accessibility. The fact that probably 80% of the galleries on Granville St. are accessible does not help much when you want to get into the other 20%.

      • Rebecca Burt

        I’d fight for ya! I’m not an attorney, just a loud mouth advocate. 🙂

        and now…

        (this is an email I just sent to some civil rights group)

        I found you on twitter and am crying since reading about who you are and what you do. My name is Rebecca Burt. I worked for Goodwill of Central Arizona for eight years. I didn’t know anything about people with abilities when I answered an ad for a part time job coach. When I applied I had no idea what I was getting into.

        It turned out to be a miracle. I had never been so happy to go to work every day.

        It was a temp job working with H.S. kids until summer, sorting donated items in the store.

        I used to tell my friends that it was like stand up comedy and aerobics for four hours a day.

        When summer came and the job ended I was heartbroken. But I kept in touch, kept checking in and one day they called because they had a job coach out sick. Well she never returned so I was hired. Ten bucks an hour, full time.

        Shortly thereafter they needed a job developer and coming from a long line of sales and recruiting jobs, I was a natural fit. I excelled, I learned, I took so many trainings and became what the VP of Workforce Development called me “an asset to the organization and a champion for those we serve” she added that she used to think “uh oh, what now? I can hear Rebecca all the way down the hall…” but admitted it didn’t take long to know that when I was fighting, I was fighting for them.

        Time goes on and I’ve had back problems for years and occasionally my boss would say, you look bad, take some files home and work there.

        One day my pain was different. I went to my doctor (who usually-about six times a year) would just prescribe three or four days of meds and I’d be okay. I’ve suffered with lower back issues for almost thirty years now.

        But when it was different he sent me for a cervical xray, then called me and wanted me to come in immediately. He sent me for an MRI and called again. When I got there, he sent me to a specialist.

        As I waited in the patient room and saw the film for the first time tears just quietly came from my eyes. I couldn’t believe what I saw.

        Then the surgeon came in, looked at me briefly, looked at the pictures and looked at me again asking “how old are you?” 43 at the time. He said he had never seen anything that bad for someone my age and told me not to fall, get in an accident and that I was really close to never walking again.

        That’s when I had my first surgery. Five weeks in a collar and then back to work.

        THREE DAYS AFTER MY RETURN I was called into a meeting and asked if I heard about the “changes”.

        Yes, I said that I knew they had changed alot of various titles to all fall under one easy title “employment specialist” but that no one’s pay changed and I added that is fine with me, call me what ever you want, just don’t jack with my pay with a chuckle. And they didn’t smile they said “WELL REBECCA, YOU’RE DIFFERENT”

        Bam, all my training and advocating kicked in and they hit me with it, a $5280 pay cut, changed me from exempt to non-exempt, changed my job title but not my duties.

        I was given a small raise a great review and was nominated for one of the employee of the year awards just prior to surgery. I couldn’t believe it. But I kept my cool and filed with DOL Wage and Hour and then the harrassment, retaliation, denial of accommodations occurred. They offered me 10K to shut up and drop my charges and go away or said I could take my chances but “things probably won’t end up well for you here”. I have so many meetings on tape.

        Anyway, (sorry this is so long) I was so stressed out, I lost 30 lbs. rapidly, my neck quit fusing and a second corrective surgery was required. When I called after that surgery and asked if I should report to corporate or to my location when I came back, the said they would call me right back but instead fedex’d a termination letter to my home and emailed the same.

        The EEOC issued one letter of determination, two right to sue letters, failed to consolidate my charges and I talked to different people who never seemed to know what was going on as a whole. I was running out of time so I filed on my own behalf CV12-02712-PHX-JAT.

        It’s been so hard. My car wouldn’t start the other day and I was sanctioned $1500 for failure to appear for my deposition. I only get $1300 a month on disability.

        I don’t think I’d be on disability but for the emotional trauma I have gone through and how different I seem to be. I see a counselor now on top of everything else. This Goodwill had nine locations when I started, they have well over fifty now in the Phoenix area alone. They don’t hire any of the clients in the stores. I’ve had managers say stuff like “well, I’ve never worked with one of Your People before” right in front of the client. They have fired them, I fought and managed to keep a few jobs but retail and HR all avoided me and my clients. They ask workforce development personnel to bring one of your clients to our black tie event and just sort of mingle….like they were exhibits or something. It’s horrific. Anyway, I need help so very desperately. This attorney has refused to cooperate and has managed to sway the judge in her favor. He has said to me, “Ms. Burt, do you have a phone and do you know how to use it?” He interrupted me four times at the last hearing and would not let me finish speaking. He interrupted her once and immediately said “I am so sorry I interrupted you”. I let out a sigh and he glared at me and I said “Your Honor, you have interrupted me at least four times, you have prevented me from speaking further yet when you interrupted her you appologized. Why am I different? What makes me different?” I’m so sad. I just know she’s going to file summary judgement and from all the research I’ve done after all of this, I have no rights at all. It doesn’t matter.

        Well, thank you and thank you for reading and thank you for doing all you do. Please don’t send me a form email. Please.

        That’s all I’ve gotten from all of my inquiries to DOL, DOJ, EEOC, OFCCP and it just hurts.

        Please at least tell me you can’t help me with a real person typing it. Have a super day,

        Rebecca

        • Hey Rebecca, sorry to hear about such a hassle. Sounds like your loudmouth advocacy is pretty effective though – keep at it, and don’t miss those legal deadlines!

  • Jeff Teutsch

    Good on you Josh for writing this article. I know it’s not easy writing this kind of thing. Sometimes even the least confrontation approach such as this takes a lot of courage.

    • Thanks man; you’re right – confrontation might even be the easiest reaction. Vancouver is one of the best cities in the world for accessibility, and I hardly ever have this problem. That was of little solace to me on the weekend though 🙂