While I’ve always been conscious of accessibility issues, the recent experience of someone very dear to me has hit me like a revelation of the magnitude of our callous neglect with which we collectively dismiss the needs of those with mobility issues. As I walked next to my loved one, at a pace somewhat slower than I was used to, I suddenly felt all the innumerable little impediments encumbering the path of anyone with less than perfect mobility. Not as mere inconveniences – no, this is malice by indifference. I look all around me now appalled at the myriad barriers preventing our fellow citizens from participating fully in public life, because of our disregard for their needs.
Many people have commented on the horrendous state our public sidewalks were left in during the extreme weather events of the past few weeks, and indeed, they were horrendous – I saw mothers whose walkers repeatedly got stuck in the patchy, trammelled, snowed-over sidewalks; I saw elders struggling to lift walkers over snow drifts; I saw my own loved one stumble on icy paths. More pervasive, but invisible, are all those individuals who were effectively trapped in their homes throughout this period, unable to make routine or even essential trips because of the impassibility of sidewalks in their neighbourhoods.
Sadly none of this struck me as surprising: the majority of Peterborough’s City Council bask in contentment at their own miserliness. Inhumane and preventable suffering of individuals in the wake of the storms was an inevitable consequence of their impoverished view of the responsibilities of government.
Contrary to the Peterborough Examiner’s recent editorial, I don’t believe it should fall to ‘property owners’ to ensure that sidewalks are clear: why should a public sidewalk be treated differently than a public road, which we rightly regard as the purview of government to keep clear? Of course Council (and many residents) clearly do view sidewalks and roads differently, but should they? Both are simply paths for conveying people. The fact that people privilege car over pedestrian traffic is precisely the problem.
I could continue at length in admonishing City Council – but that would be too easy, and there’s a larger, slightly different point that needs to be addressed. Equality does not entail sameness. In order to ensure real equality of opportunity we need to acknowledge and accommodate significant differences in our abilities. Just as much as Peterborough has failed to give equal weight and consideration to the needs of all travellers this winter, so Trent has failed in giving equal consideration to the different mobility needs of all its community members.
Take a moment to imagine yourself differently abled – requiring the use of a wheel-chair, say – and now think of all the areas on campus that would be inaccessible to you. The myriad nooks, tucked away rooms and quasi-secret study spaces that make Trent’s campus so unique, and rightly cherished, are mostly inaccessible to persons with reduced mobility – and that, I believe, is a failing of our collective humanity. We’re a community of thousands of intelligent people: are we really, seriously unable to come up with creative ways to make these spaces accessible to all? No, we’ve simply dismissed it as unworthy of our attention.
Budgets are already austerity-famished, I know, and accessibility retrofits can be expensive. But every space left inaccessible to all of us is a diminishment of the democratic character of public space; every impediment is another barrier barring the already marginalized from participating fully in public life.
No matter how beautiful Trent’s architecture may be – and it is – if it were the case that it couldn’t feasibly be reworked for universal accessibility I’d rather see it torn down and replaced than tolerate the invalidation of the principle of universal accessibility. Fortunately I don’t think it’s really necessary to tear down current infrastructure – but in many places it does need to be substantially altered to ensure full accessibility. That will be expensive, no question. But there is no humane alternative: we either choose to make accessibility an essential principle underlying all we build and design, or we make a mockery and travesty of our pretenses to universal access.