09 August 2008

Wheelchair rights scale Everest

Today, Aaron Shelbourne had an extra-happy birthday. There was the looming possibility that it wouldn’t be so, however, as his party plans involved staging a protest outside Everest restaurant on Queen Street West in response to the discriminatory treatment he allegedly endured while dining there in mid-March. Aaron has cerebral palsy and is confined to a motorized wheelchair. He has to travel with an aide and communicates through Alternative Augmentative Communication (AAC), but is well aware of his surroundings and understands when people talk to him. Even after a few minutes speaking with him through the help of his aide Jonah, it’s easy to see that the words and phrases he chooses from an AAC board using eye movement and nods of his head are just a fraction of what he is trying to express. Though wheelchair bound, he is often out and about in the city, and last week was even in Montreal attending a conference on AAC.

But during his last meal at Everest, as Jonah explained to a crowd of about 35 gathered in front of the restaurant, when Aaron had to use the washroom his wheelchair nicked the bathroom door because it wasn’t easily accessible. Then, as Aaron and his aide were leaving the restaurant, they were asked not to come back. According to a letter that Aaron sent to the owner after the incident, manager Karma Sanchok said that the restaurant was newly renovated and wheelchairs aren’t welcome because they cause damage. The appalling logic of this accusation is almost something straight out of a Family Guy episode.

Aaron returned to the restaurant on March 28 with supporters from the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) and DAMN2025 asking for a public apology, but was met with considerable hostility and a litany of excuses, captured on this (questionably edited) video. With a Facebook group going strong at nearly 1,300 members Aaron was back again today with his simple, but significant request that the owners apologize, or else he would be pursuing a human rights claim.

Admittedly, trying to find a washroom when you’re healthy and able-bodied, just wandering around on Queen Street, can be a bladder-straining exercise in intestinal fortitude. It usually requires standing in line at Starbucks, or sweet talking your way past a sales associate or breaking down and buying something inconsequential to justify your presence as a “customer” — that is if the establishment in question even has a public restroom at all. But try going through this same quest for the porcelain grail when confined to a wheelchair.

This barrier is only compounded by a distinctly Torontonian architectural quirk: most of the great little restaurants that are both affordable and hip have their toilets located down a steep and narrow flight of stairs in the basement of whichever ancient building they occupy. Ironically, Everest has wheelchair accessible washrooms. Aaron was simply unaware of them, and directed his aide to take him to the most obvious one. In a city where accessible washrooms are scarce, I can’t imagine that Aaron would be basing this decision on anything other than reactive instinct to try and make due.

While the exact exchange between Sanchok and Aaron’s aide is still not entirely clear, the restaurateur was willing to apologize today, and even offered for him and his aide to come and enjoy a free birthday lunch any time. Sanchok maintains that Everest is wheelchair accessible and that Aaron is welcome any time. Aaron seemed satisfied with the apology, but expressed frustration with the original discrimination and the way that everything played out in the first place. They asked that Everest take better care to make disabled customers aware of the washroom because, says Jonah, “What’s the point of having one if you don’t make people aware of it?”

This story may have had a happy ending, but it’s still amazing that in running a business of any kind, you could be so ignorant of the very people you are trying to serve. Whether it’s providing wheelchair accessible washrooms or something as simple as communicating with disabled patrons, there should be no need for excuses. But when even extending the basic courtesy of allowing disabled people in the front door is still a step away for many Toronto establishments, sometimes this city seems to exist in some kind of dark age of accessibility. Next time the reaction may be a little more drastic.

1 comment:

  1. so i was doing a school project on disability rights and i happen to come upon many stories like this. But i found this one really shocking to see how he just tried to use the restroom. Its odd how people react to disabled people when there all really just normal. Thanks this story helped a lot maybe people will realize everyone should have equal rights!