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Denise Balkissoon (Kevin Gonsalves)

Denise Balkissoon

(Kevin Gonsalves)

Denise Balkissoon

Immobile like me: The inaccessible truth about public transit Add to ...

The first time I took a stroller onto an escalator, I was at a subway station that I had purposely planned my route around because it had an elevator. When the elevator turned out to be broken, I got onto the escalator. At the top, the front wheel refused to glide easily over the metal lip of the moving staircase and the weight of the stroller began to lean precariously into me.

Panicking, I gave the thing a shove, trying to reach the floor above rather than tumble down. My stomach seized as the detachable car seat, holding my then five-week-old son, flew off the stroller base and landed onto the hard, dirty floor. Sideways. The baby was fine. I was not. I bawled, loudly and publicly and with a lot of tears for the rest of our journey home.

I try to look out for people whose lives have challenges that mine doesn’t. I give up my seat on the streetcar, and hold doors open, and sometimes boss those around me to do the same. Since the clunky, awkward stroller became part of my life, I’ve realized that I had no bloody idea just how inaccessible Toronto is to the nearly one-third of the population who have mobility difficulties (including the very old and the very young), or the frustration and effort involved in even trying. My shopping choices are now limited to stroller-friendly stores. I buy eggs and milk at a fancy organic boutique instead of the corner store (where the same brand of milk is cheaper) because in my yummy-mummy neighbourhood, they’re smart enough to have a ramp. And that’s nothing. The signage next to the elevators on Toronto’s perpetually malfunctioning public-transit system, more or less reads “If this elevator is broken, add an extra 45 minutes and three vehicles to your trip. Actually, just go home.”

On a high school grammar test, this is the difference between sympathy and empathy. In today’s diversity vernacular, I’m showing my privilege. Sure, if someone had asked, I’d say that every place should be wheelchair-friendly. Making that happen was never remotely a priority because it didn’t affect me one bit. Accessibility was abstract, a rational conversation. It was something to afford in next year’s budget – the actual projection is that the entire Toronto transit system won’t be accessible for another eleven years – not a five-week-old baby lying in a sideways carseat on the ground.

Since they’re about touchy subjects like skin colour and gender, conversations about privilege tend to disintegrate pretty fast. Most aspects of privilege are immutable and of the body – deciding what to do about them makes both haves and have-nots defensive and angry, because most of us were born with or without them. They’re hard to see because they seem normal. I knew it was problematic that most of downtown Toronto’s cool restaurants have washrooms in the basement, but the restaurateurs didn’t actually build their spaces, so it wasn’t exactly anyone’s fault. I can’t figure out how to make these conversations easier, but now I know for sure that trying, hard, to at least see the privileges I have is a basic requirement of not being a jerk.

My son’s middle name is Zan, after my late aunt. She was born in the 1940s with a congenital heart defect. The doctors said she wouldn’t live through her childhood, but she did. As a tween, she travelled from Trinidad to the U.S. to get what must have been one of the very first children’s pacemakers. The doctors still said that she wouldn’t make it past 18. But she did. She got married, and travelled around Europe in an R.V., and grew beautiful roses, and worked at Bell Canada wearing a t-shirt decorated with a telephone and the phrase “Stick it In Your Ear!” She was the best, and she lived far longer than anyone would have bet on, to the barely ripe age of 54. It wasn’t until I was pregnant, with a baby squishing every breath out of my diaphragm, that I realized that every flight of stairs she climbed was an amazing accomplishment. I kept her name alive because I miss her weird non-sequitur jokes, but the whole baby experience has given me a depth of understanding of her life that I wish I’d had when she was around.

These days, I exchange commiserating smiles with other stroller-laden parents while we wait for a public-transit elevator to take us to another public-transit elevator to take us to subway level (and why can’t it be just one elevator, anyway?). “Imagine what it would be like to actually use a wheelchair,” more than one has said to me. How long will our imaginations last? In a few years, I won’t have to plan my life around elevators and ramps, and if I let it, the memory of this frustration will slowly fade. That’s my privilege, and I hope that I can rise above it.

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Follow on Twitter: @Balkissoon

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