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Wednesday, 30 January 2013

The Wheelchair Sign

I almost always feel a great relief every time a white stick-figure wheelchair person sits on the door of a public establishment. Especially when entering an average-joe restaurant or a club. It’s confirmation, it's acceptance, the anti-apartheid of the disabled. It says, with all its straight white lines and blue brushstrokes, “We not only thought about you, we accept you, we welcome your business, and for you to do your business.”

Every time I see that beloved sign, I feel not only relieved but proud. “Times of change” I think, happy that I live in the 21st century. Unfortunately, the symbol doesn’t always produce what it advertises. Take today for example:
I was at this quaint little shack of a restaurant, enjoying some Chinese food and ambient mood-lighting with a friend when nature called. I usually hate this part of the day. In my mind, I started mapping out all the near-by accessible washrooms and planning my graceful exit. As I prepared to leave with my friend, I gave the restaurant a one-over, just in case. And to my pleasant surprise, a big blue sign appeared like a trophy, just off of the kitchen. Once inside the bathroom, however, I saw that the sign wasn’t telling the full truth. In this particular instance, the restaurant, though being equipped with ample space and a horizontal metal bar, preferred to use the bathroom as a storage room. Determined not to give up on the truthiness of my favourite symbol, I squished my chair in between a shelving unit (which took up about a quarter of the room’s area), a high -chair, a big, fancy toilet paper holder which was standing on the ground right beside the toilet, and, of course, the toilet itself. Thankfully, given my level of mobility, I was still able to use the bathroom. But I am entirely mindful that many others--say those with bigger chairs or paralysis--would not be so fortunate.

I have also encountered the strangest declarations of accessibility at bars. For any of you club-goers in wheelchairs, you might know that The Honest Lawyer’s accessible bathroom is truly bizarre. In that Ladies’ Room, there is a fourth stall at the end of three, which displays a wheelchair sign. It opens from the side and reveals itself to be impossibly narrow, despite being longer than the others. And when I say impossibly narrow, I’m not exaggerating. My manual chair--which I prefer to use in club situations, is one of the thinnest chairs available to people of my height-- doesn’t fit inside the stall, at any angle. This leaves me with two options I am all too familiar with: 1) Don’t pee--don’t you even think about breaking the seal, and 2) Thank your lucky stars that you have a friend with you whom you trust enough to see your secret triangle without dying of embarrassment. Though I am often blessed with the second option, it hardly means the stall is accessible. This specific wheelchair sign should really be modified to include an able-bodied person helping the wheelie, or just take their sign down altogether.

The second baffling claim of washroom accessibility that sticks out in my mind is in The Grand in The Market. The waiters there will kindly lead you to their accessible side entrance to get inside, and notify you of their accessible bathroom when asked. Both of these things are just dandy, as it shows that at least some employers have received the disability training that was supposed to be enforced by the Ontarians with Disabilities Act. Once pointed in the direction of the sitting stick-man though, things are not so smooth. The stall is spacious, but the toilet is placed very near to the bathroom door, leaving very limited room for a wheelchair, let alone the person inside of it. Much to my dignity’s dismay, I had to pee with the door open that day, a privilege usually only awarded to small children and pregnant women who constantly have nurses looking in on them. Roomy enough for three toilets, but not for one wheelchair in between the toilet and the door is less than accessible, and probably doesn’t meet standard accessibility regulations.
So next time you’re taking a nice little tinkle in the wheelchair stall (you know who you are), check out the logistics. Could Artie from Glee really fit his chair and himself in here?

Saturday, 26 January 2013

My Session with "The Sessions"

In case you haven’t heard, Hollywood took a gigantic leap for Mankind late this past year and created a film centred around a man with a severe disability. The Sessions follows a man completely paralyzed after a bout with Polio, on his quest for sex and intimacy. If you ask me, it’s pretty awesome (albeit long overdue) that those down south finally pulled up their socks and made a movie not only focusing on a person with a disability, but also their sexual endeavor. And, to my pleasant surprise, the brief chronicle, based on Mark O’Brien’s autobiographical article On Seeing a Sex Surrogate, did not disappoint. Instead, it is a raw, witty, depiction of one man’s life, no stigmatism or stereotypes attached. Hopefully, the little blurb I have written here will at least motivate you to watch it and come up with your own thoughts.
For those of you who have boycotted movies in favour of it’s more active cousin, reading books, or just generally live under a rock, The Sessions plot is as follows:
Mark O’Brien (played by real-life, able-bodied John Hawkes), is a man paralyzed completely from the neck down from Polio, who spends majority of his life in an iron lung which helps him breath. Mark decides to consult with his priest about having sex out of wedlock. Knowing Mark on a personal level, the priest (played wonderfully by William H. Macy) decides that given Mark’s specific situation (what, with him being a virgin at 38 and all), can have a “free pass” in the bedroom. Fast forward a few weeks and Mark is in bed with his sex surrogate, (Helen Hunt) whose job is to act as a therapist in helping her clients overcome their physical and mental sexual limitations. Drama ensues, the details of which I will leave up to all those I know will run to download this movie promptly after reading this entry.
Before finding your best bootlegged copy, Google “movies on disabled people and sex”. You’’ll find The Sessions’ summary is one of the first links listed, a fair ways above the links to general sexuality info and some freaky-deaky wheelie fetish info further down. Aside from reiterating that people definitely make creepy sexual turn-ons out of anything, it can also be assumed that The Sessions is a first-of-its-kind movie within the Hollywood scope.
Part of what makes it so original is the way that it displays the most natural parts of the main character’s life, as “normal.” Shots of the Mark in his iron lung, or being bed-bathed and dressed by his attendant move naturally across the screen, with no extra-long shots or pausing for dramatic effect.This film is graciously careful to avoid any subtext of tragedy, courage, or any of those other voice-over themes feel-good movies like to inflate themselves with. There is no dramatic music when we see the man typing his article with the back of a pencil eraser controlled by his mouth. It just is. This is how Mark O’Brien did his thing, and hopefully, how he would’ve wanted to have been portrayed.
Now I can’t be sure that Mr. O'Brien would’ve approved entirely of the depiction of himself in the movie, since the poet and journalist died in 1999 from Post-Polio disease, but I have reason to believe he would not be repulsed by it. Directed and written Ben Lewin, the film takes from multiple legitimate sources to tell Mark O’Brien’s tale, something Mr. O’Brien himself would’ve likely approved of. Shots from Jessica Yu’s award-wining 1996 documentary of Mark O'Brien’s life Breathing Lessons are directly reenacted in Lewin’s film. One shot is wonderfully similar to the documentary, which includes Mark chatting with Faculty and friends post graduation ceremony, while a news reporter chatters about the courage students like mark have, and the overcoming of disability that it entails. If these shots—the real-life one of Mark mingling outside Berkley behind the reporter, and the reenacted one with John Hawkes—were juxtaposed, it would be hard to tell the difference.
Along the same lines, the only voice-over used in The Sessions is John Hawkes’, reading snippets of O’Brien’s poetry, as if to give veiwers an inside monologue and perspective that we would otherwise likely fill with the disabled dogma of courage, inspiration, and other googldygook. Instead, the narration of Mark’s poetry humanizes the movie, allowing veiwers to see O’brien’s life as it was, nothing more, and nothing less.
If you haven’t yet noticed a pattern, I really enjoyed the raw point of view that The Sessions has to offer. If exposure is the best educator, then everyone should watch this film. If for nothing else, then to educate yourselves.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Winter for Wheelies

Being that it’s that wonderful blustery season again, I feel it appropriate to talk about all the stuff wheelies wish they could do, but can’t. Because it’s winter. And their wheelies. Here's my list. Feel free to add to it:

1. Get out the driveway.
2. Get on a bus.
3. Go to the mall. See reasons one and two
4. Go to a bar. Guess drinking alone will have to do.
5. Come back from an attempt to go outdoors without ruining the shiny nice floor and getting dirty looks from the landlord as we trek shamefully by.
6. Get out of bed. Wait, maybe this just applies to me.
7. Go anywhere without hearing the sentence, “Oh, your wheels are squeaky, eh?”
8. Not say the sentence, “That snowbank’s bigger than my body. Let’s give up.”
9. Go iceskating. Crack crack crack goes the ice.
10. Go sledding. Although most able-bodied people seem to fail at that too, with sticking their faces into snow and/or running into trees.
11. Be cool/Spontaneous. Yes, it is all winter’s fault that I’m not super fly.

There you have it. Now put on your best snow boots and ugliest snow pant suspenders, and go enjoy those oppressive snowflakes.