Working for a quadripelegic Mayor for three years was a real eye opener for me. Things that I had taken for granted took on a completely new meaning, almost from day one on the job. One thing that really stuck out was how shabbily our big cities treat people living with disabilities.
In 2006, I had the honour of accompanying the Mayor on a trip from Vancouver to Torino, Italy. As you recall, he was heading over to attend the closing ceremonies of the Turin Games in order bring back the Olympic flag to Canada. It was Sullivan’s finest moment. A time when we collectively celebrated what was possible, and how Canada was such an inclusive nation.
But did all the Olympic hype mask over the harsh realities of daily life in our cities for people with disabilities? The kind of harsh realities that even Sam Sullivan would soon discover were still alive and well in many cities around the world.
For me, what brought home the reality of how cities treat people with disabilities was an experience I had while in New York with the Mayor.
As an able-bodied person who flies across North America on a monthly basis, I have never given a second thought to getting a cab when I reach my destination. That’s because there are normally hundreds of cabs waiting for me no matter which airport I fly into.
Securing a cab for someone with a disability however, can be quite a different story.
It normally falls within the city’s jurisdiction to determine how many and what type of cabs are permitted on our streets. That's why if you’re disabled and living in a major city, you'd better hope you have an elightened council on your side.
On the way to Torino, the Mayor made a brief stop to New York City to meet with government officials about the 311 phone system he wanted to implement. Given the size of NYC, we anticipated that we would encounter no trouble securing a wheelchair accessible taxi. That’s because in Vancouver, there are literally hundreds of wheelchair taxis roaming the streets on any given day.
So how did NYC rate when it came to dealing with people with disabilities? Simply put, they were pathetic.
Due to a flight delay, we touched down a tad later than anticipated, about 1 am. When we arrived I asked airport officials if they could locate the accessible taxi we had secured prior to our departure. Moments later, I found out airport officials had actually told our cabbie to go home because his idling wheelchair van was considered a security risk.
I naively asked if airport officials could call another wheelchair taxi to help me get the mayor to his hotel, only to be told there were no other accessible cabs operating in the city at this time of the night. “They all end their shift around 11 or so,” he told me. I guess disabled people simply don’t go out late into the evening?
After about an hour passed, they finally told me the had located an “accessible” taxi. Relief at last.
As it turns out, it was simply a minivan and in no way equipped to handle wheelchairs. Desperate to get to the hotel, we agreed that we had no other choice but to manhandle the Mayor, and lift him into the back seat.
As for his chair, it took four men to lift the 350 pound beast into the back of the minivan. As you can appreciate, the van's trunk was designed to carry hockey bags and groceries, not a motorized wheelchair.
In the end, we did make it to the hotel. However, both the mayor’s chair and the plastic lining in this poor cabbie’s trunk were badly damaged. It was shocking for me to see this from a city most believe is modern, progressive and worldclass.
I had similar and in many cases more horrifying experiences with the Mayor when we were in other cities such as New Orleans and Ottawa. I’ll post more on that at a future date.
Subsequent to our visit to NYC, a progressive city councilor got wind of the Mayor's story and has since successfully lobbied his colleagues on council to add more accessible cabs at all times of the day.
It’s 2008, folks. The events that took place in NYC with Sullivan shouldn't have to be the catalyst for change. Cities need to follow Vancouver’s lead and ensure that they are truly accessible for everyone, including people with disabilities. If not, they shouldn’t consider themselves 'world class'.