When Buildings Do the Dirty Work, CanLit Hands Aren’t Clean
January 25, 2018
by Dorothy Ellen Palmer
Like all those of its vintage, my old elementary school in Toronto’s west end had separate “Boys” and “Girls” entrances chiseled in stone. Historically, many Canadian buildings have regulated, or denied, entrance to women, Indigenous people, people of colour, targeted nationalities, and faith groups. But by the time I reached Grade Three, all students used all school entrances. That was 1963. In an era when “whites only” lunch counters and washrooms were being challenged, tax-funded schools began choosing not to let the discriminatory history of a building dictate its use.
In 2018, Canadians like to tell themselves this shameful use of buildings to enshrine and perpetuate discrimination has been eradicated, but this is a self-congratulatory lie. Canada still embraces an architecture of exclusion, one that excludes not just my walker and me, but my entire disabled community. Abled Canada is quite content to let old buildings do their dirty work. Every day, multiple times per day, likely without a second’s thought or guilt, abled Canadians enjoy inaccessible buildings that ban their disabled neighbours. As if the 1960s never happened. As if Victoria still reigned. As if history can’t be rectified. As if accessibility is “too expensive” and “too much work.” As if this discrimination is “just the way it is.” As if disabled people are less deserving of justice than other oppressed groups. As if abled people do not benefit from our exclusion. As if abled people are not using buildings to maintain the benefits of ableist privilege.
Sadly, my beloved CanLit community is but a microcosm of the ableist whole.
Before I detail a case in point — my recent survey of independent bookstores — please let me put my survey in the context of my activism. Like racism and sexism, ableism is structural and systemic, but it is practised by individuals, people who maintain and enforce its rewards and punishments. As evidenced this past year, when privileged, white, CanLit heavyweights used their collective punch to defend two powerful white men and offer a vile “Appropriation Prize,” we have all inherited a deformed cultural formation called CanLit. Some choose to critique and challenge it. Some, like the UBC Accountable signatories, make self-serving choices to benefit from it by defending oppressive past practices, and refusing to see, or to own, the harm they perpetuate. Some choose to stay silent. This is not neutral: silence is cowardly and complicit. It enables and empowers all the oppression of the status quo.
"Too often, even those allies with intersectional critiques of sexism, transphobia, anti-Indigeneity, and racism, still see ableism and the discriminations of inaccessibility as less urgent and less important."
Some folks in CanLit have become consistent allies against ableism in both word and deed. I cannot thank them enough for their on-going support. But only a handful of abled readers and writers have embraced accessibility as everyone’s fight. Unfortunately, in CanLit as in Canada, there is a clear hierarchy of urgency and importance. Too often, even those allies with intersectional critiques of sexism, transphobia, anti-Indigeneity, and racism, still see ableism and the discriminations of inaccessibility as less urgent and less important. Too many in CanLit, don’t see their ableist privilege at all. Complicit in their silence, their abled bodies vote nonstop for inaccessibility: they continue to organize, read at, and attend inaccessible literary events. Each time they make this choice, they excuse, normalize, defend, and perpetuate ableism.
And they reap the benefits. Abled CanLit benefits from the historic exclusion of disabled people the way male writers benefit from the exclusion of women, the way white people benefit from the exclusion of racialized writers. And the loss is enormous. Numbers matter. The abled 80 percent of the population has seized a near 100 percent of the space and resources of CanLit for themselves. In the entitlement of ableist privilege, they do not see themselves as thieves.
For two years, I’ve been “calling out” the inaccessibility of literary events in Canada, and “calling up” all stakeholders to take individual responsibility to change it. Like many disabled activists, my work must occur online. I fully admit that my activism reflects both a principled commitment to my community and self-interest. Given degenerating congenital birth defects in my feet and whole-body arthritis, I’m in unrelenting pain. I’m often housebound. I can count on one hand the number of friends I can still visit in their own homes. I have had to give up beloved hair salons and clothing stores, not to mention dinner parties, and all kinds of celebrations at inaccessible restaurants. But these are losses in my personal life. As a unionist for over two decades, I cannot — I will not — accept this discrimination and exclusion in the workplace. As a writer, readings, festivals, launches, retreats, and all events CanLit are my workplaces.
My practice on social media has been to contact individual workplaces of CanLit and the working writers who appear at them. My consistent, one-sentence request applies to all readers and writers, at all times, whether I’ve ever contacted them or not: “Please do not organize, read at, or attend any inaccessible literary events.” I appeal directly to writers, because, take it from this old unionist and drama teacher: sit down strikes work. If there ain’t no performers, there ain’t no show. If “the talent” refuses to work, the directors must relocate the show.
Requesting individual responsibility is likewise the first approach of national and international disability activists, and of CripCanLit, the organization I founded with two other disabled writers, Bronwyn Berg and Jane Eaton Hamilton. We joined forces because the time, energy, and effort of convincing abled CanLit to address inaccessibility was exhausting and demoralizing. Too many of our colleagues individualized our requests. They saw only one, lone, disabled individual “complaining,” for themselves, about one, lone, inaccessible vent. Too much of CanLit offered nothing but “sympathy,” as useless to us as Trumpian “thoughts and prayers.” We needed each other because when challenged, in a backlash of abled fragility, some blamed the messenger rather than take responsibility for the message and checking their privilege.
When we contact organizers and writers about inaccessibility, although provincial labour law and human rights legislation forbid discrimination by ability, and mandate workplace accommodations, much of abled CanLit still treats our right to workplace accessibility as “optional” as a “negotiation” and a “debate.” We constantly find folks who give their abled selves a seat at the “debate,” then appoint themselves judge and jury. They want to “rule on” if, when, and how, they should “offer” accessibility. They want to “debate” and “negotiate” just how much they should get to limit our careers. They want to rule on when we’re too angry, on which tactics they will tolerate, when we’ve “over-stepped,” and when we should shut up and be satisfied. They want to “debate” and “negotiate” just how much they should get to hurt me.
"One of the first benefits of any privilege is the ability not to see it. But if Hollywood can do it, so can CanLit."
For my response, I take my cue from Indigenous Twitter. I’m indebted to Indigenous voices for all I have learned about struggle from their postings, including this: the role of abled people, like the role of settlers, is to listen. The humanity of disabled people, our equal inclusion, is not up for debate, or negotiation. It is certainly not going to be handed over to be decided by those who have built, and continue to benefit from, our exclusion, erasure, and oppression.
But having lived fifty years of my life pretending to be able-bodied, I also understand why CanLit doesn’t see its ableism as hypocritical and urgent. One of the first benefits of any privilege is the ability not to see it. But if Hollywood can do it, so can CanLit. After three days of tweeting, I successfully got the founders of #TimesUp to correct their ableist erasure, to include “disabled women” in their New York Times letter and their huge legal fund. This drama teacher can admit to the momentary thrill of being thanked by America Ferrera and called “rad” by Patricia Arquette. I respect their very public apology and pledge to do better. It is in that light that I ask the same of our stars of CanLit: independent bookstores.
Beloved independent bookstores play a vital role in supporting CanLit by promoting both diverse writers and small presses. Now let’s correct the erasures of ableism in that sentence: inaccessible independent bookstores, beloved by abled CanLit, historically and currently play a vital role in supporting abled CanLit by promoting abled diverse writers and abled small presses.
To prove I’m not “complaining” about a few, atypical stores, I surveyed twenty Toronto bookstores on “Best Bookstore” lists at TO.com: Type Books, A Good Egg, Sleuth of Baker Street, Ella Minnow Children’s Bookstore, Another Story, Mable’s Fables, Book City Danforth, Seekers, The Beguiling, BMV Yonge, Glad Day, Parentbooks, Acadia, Swipe, She Said Boom, Balfour Books, A Different Booklist, Knife/Fork/Book, Bakka-Phoenix, and Ben McNally.
I phoned all twenty stores, checked every website. I spoke to seventeen stores and relied on website information for three that did not return my call. I phoned even when a phone call was unnecessary, when website photos unashamedly showed steps at their front door, shouting: “No Disabled Need Apply.” In phone interviews, I identified myself by name as writing an article on accessibility for All Lit Up. I asked for a manager, assured them that stores would be listed, but discussed only in the aggregate, and I recorded their answers to the following:
Is your store accessible? How do you define accessibility?
How often do you hold events, readings, or launches? On site or off site?
Please describe your entry way:
- step or no step
- permanent or temporary ramp? - e-button on door both ways in and out?
- flat floor throughout, no steps or barriers? - all aisles wide enough for wheelchair?
- on main floor or in basement?
- has room for wheelchair turning clearance in stall? - has grab bars, accessible sink, soap, and towel?
Is there accessibility info on your store's website?
Any discussion with owner/landlord, or any plan to improve accessibility?
Any comments you'd like to make?
In tabulating my results, I defined accessibility using far less exacting criteria than The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, (AODA): a flat entrance way or permanent ramp, e-buttons on doors, a flat shopping area with all aisles wide enough for wheelchairs, an accessible washroom including a stall with wheelchair-turn clearance, grab bars, and accessible sinks, soap, and towels or dryers. Here are the aggregate results:
Bookstores totally inaccessible given steps at their entrances: 10/20
Bookstores with e-doors: 1/20
Bookstores with accessible washrooms: 0/20
Bookstores with plans to improve accessibility: 3/20
Bookstores with accessibility information on their store website: 0/20
By the above definition, the total of accessible independent bookstores is 0/20.
Let me begin by acknowledging that two stores came close. I got permission from Glad Day Bookshop to report that the only things they’re missing are an e-button for exit, washroom grab bars, and confirmation that a wheelchair user can slide under their vanity to use the sink, soap, and towel, all of which I was told are in the works. Swipe Design | Books + Objects also gave me permission to say they came close: they have one section with not enough room for a power chair and there is no store washroom, but there is an accessible one up the building elevator. These stores are to be commended for their awareness, planning, and on-going sensitivity they demonstrated.
I also want to add that all those I spoke to were thoughtful and polite. All were aware of accessibility issues and saw themselves as doing the best they could. Many wanted to emphasize that they were “almost accessible.” Unfortunately, almost all blamed inaccessibility on their old buildings, as if doing business in them wasn’t a choice. When asked for their comments, they repeatedly said it was “a shame” and "felt bad" but “had no choice.” Many blamed landlords, several saying because they rented, it was out of their hands.
Time and time again, I was told that accessibility was “just too expensive.” As one owner put it, “It’s an older building. I’d happily take ten to fifty thousand dollars from somebody to fix it, but that’s not in the cards.” Another said, “Our landlord has no interest in renovation. Moving is impossible. Any new store would be too expensive. I’d love a modernized building, but that’s wishful thinking.” Many repeated that they were barely making any money as it is, and as one owner put it, “Accessibility is financially too much of an extra burden to bear.”
Would anyone ever argue that saving any amount of money permits organizers the right to ban any other marginalized group? Imagine what would happen to anyone in CanLit who claimed, “But, hey, I’m entitled to use a venue that excludes women because I can save a hundred bucks.” Yes, that is truly offensive. That is my point. I have no reason to respect the profit margins of any store that bans me. I have no responsibility to provide solutions, but I have repeatedly offered some. Many accessibility renovations are tax deductible. Bare minimum, bookstores could still promote authors, still sponsor and sell at readings, but hold all these events off-site, at an accessible venue other than their inaccessible store. Only one store stated they already do this some of the time. When I asked about off-site events, I got the kind of excuses that, like Tim Horton’s owners, put profits first. “But it costs money to go off site.” But we’d have to pay somebody to move the books!” “But we’d have to pay another staffer to work the event, instead of just paying the regular staffer at the store!” “But we wouldn’t get any foot traffic into the store.” “But we wouldn’t get the extra business an event generates.”
Let’s see just how much I’m worth. Although more books may be sold at launches, in my decade of experience, regular readings are lucky to sell a handful books. Many folks come because they’ve already read the book. It’s safe to say the same few books would be bought in any venue, in store or off-site. I can only conclude this: disabled readers and writers are not worth the cost of three hours wages for store employees. To quote what so many in CanLit retweeted about Tim Horton’s reluctance to raise the minimum wage: “If your business model depends on exploiting others, you shouldn’t be in business.” Like Time Horton’s owners, the inaccessible workplaces of CanLit have historically benefited from the discriminating enmeshment of ableism and capitalism. When challenged to change, for too many, their entitled, default position is likewise to defend the status quo and prioritize their own profits.
All but two stores surveyed held in-store promotional events; some a few times a year, some several times a month. All but three said they “couldn’t afford” off-site events. Before anyone praises these bookstores for promoting diversity, please note this: conservatively speaking, these twenty stores collectively total thirty some events per month, or three-hundred-sixty some events a year. That’s over three thousand events over the last decade. None of these events have been accessible. This is how inaccessible bookstores participate in the exclusion of disabled writers, how they play a role in the belief that books by disabled writers don’t sell. They don’t sell because we don’t have equal access to the workplaces that sell them.
"In 2018, we all know peeing is political. Would anyone ever dare to run an event telling any other marginalized group they should be willing to be singled out to take themselves off down the street to pee?"
Only three stores had a plan to improve accessibility. Without one, they have no hope of meeting the AODA goal of full accessibility by 2025. One owner with steps at their front door actually said, “I don’t have a plan because I don’t feel anyone is being turned down. Nobody is coming to the store and saying, dammit, I can’t come in.” No, disabled patrons are being driven to patronize Chapters and Indigo, stores with both accessible parking and accessible washrooms.
The inaccessibility of washrooms is endemic in CanLit. In 2018, we all know peeing is political. Would anyone ever dare to run an event telling any other marginalized group they should be willing to be singled out to take themselves off down the street to pee? Of course not. But that is the degrading “negotiation” I’m repeatedly asked to make, as if the very act of “debating” my right to pee isn’t dehumanizing. Time and time again, when I contact organizers, I’m expected to compromise, to agree that a venue is semi- accessible, because, “everything but the bathroom is accessible” and that should be “good enough.”
With enormous reluctance, I will share a story I feel forced to tell because CanLit refuses to hear a woman until she uses feels as a noun, or until she’s crying. Delighted to be asked to read at a prominent Toronto reading series, after a two-hour drive, I needed their washroom. Proudly advertised online as “fully accessible,” it had a table in it, leaving barely enough room for my walker, and no room for a wheelchair. And it had no garbage disposal in the stall. I was forced to leave my very full, very smelly, adult diaper on said table, mortified at the thought that some poor employee would have to pick it up. From my walker, I couldn’t reach the soap, tap, or towels. I gave my reading with filthy hands. I smiled and pretended. I left early and I cried all the way home. I know many abled people can’t see or hear disabled pain unless we debase ourselves to your pity, but I will never do so again. I will only say this: when I am hired and paid to work there, the provision of accessible workplace washrooms is not a debate. Period.
And this is where I likewise hold the audience accountable. Would a store or publisher pay a few hundred dollars to keep from having their names irreparably sullied by being known for hosting an event in a building that denied transgender readers and writers their washrooms of choice? Hell, yes. But it is precisely because they know an abled audience won’t mind, that their names will not be at all sullied by providing no washroom at all for disabled readers and writers, that stores and publishers continue to shrug and run events in inaccessible buildings.
So, dear colleagues, if on your personal time, you want to uncritically patronize the entire rest of the inaccessible world, stores, theatres, sporting events, bars, and restaurants, I don’t respect that choice, but the disabled community is not currently asking you to boycott them. CripCanLit and I are simply asking you not to work at or attend inaccessible CanLit workplaces.
Please don’t be like UBC Accountable signatories who prioritize their privilege to keep their status-quo slice of status and profits. Please stop saying this: “I liked your last post on accessibility, Dorothy. I did my bit. So, sorry, I’m going that reading next week. Yes, it’s inaccessible and there aren’t any disabled authors in the series, but I’ve got to build my platform. I have the right to network. Do you really expect me to give up career opportunities for you?”
While I find it interesting that these colleagues admit that they are at work whether giving or attending a literary event, I can’t in a bazillion years ever imagine myself looking one of my friends of colour in the eye and saying, “Hey, I liked the article on decolonization you posted last week. I did my bit. But I’m fine with going to, and appearing in, all-white reading series a couple of times a month. Do you really expect me to give up my white privilege for you?”
I feel pushed to this hyper-analogy because I am hyper offended by the fact that too many in CanLit are taking a page from UBC Accountable — continuing to do harm while pretending not to see it, then refusing to own it even when it is pointed out to them. I can count on one hand the abled colleagues who have publicly rejected their abled privilege, and have consistently and permanently refused to organize, appear at, or attend, inaccessible literary events. Most of these are women of colour and I deeply respect their principled understanding that true diversity must include us all. Where are the rest of you?
"The human right to accessibility and inclusion equally applies to all structures of CanLit: to all readings, retreats, launches, festivals, writing programs, journals, agencies, and publishers."
No abled white writers, no abled male writers, no abled agents, no abled publishers, no abled literary organizations, except the Festival of Literary Diversity, no abled publishers large or small, have taken a principled position to refuse to attend inaccessible events. Instead, CanLit smugly continues to reap their abled privilege. This goes far beyond bookstores. The human right to accessibility and inclusion equally applies to all structures of CanLit: to all readings, retreats, launches, festivals, writing programs, journals, agencies, and publishers. It likewise applies to my request of arts councils: tax payer money should not be used to fund inaccessible workplaces.
CanLit needs to hear the urgency of disabled twitter: “Access delayed is access denied.” I’m done with self-appointed “allies” telling me “it takes time.” Who assure me “accessibility is on our radar,” but, “change moves slowly.” It’s ass-saving, horse-poopery. Here’s exactly how long it takes; please read this aloud: “I long ago decided that I will not organize, read at, or attend any racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic events. Because I am not a hypocrite, I hereby decide that as of this moment I will not organize, read at, or attend, any inaccessible events.” Done. Ten seconds tops. Thank you. If there ain’t no ableist talent, no ableist producers, and no ableist audience, there won’t be any more ableist shows.
Is there even one accessible independent bookstore in all of Toronto? A good question. Is there one anywhere in Canada? Another good question. What are we going to do about it? That’s the best question. In short, CanLit, it’s up to you. Inaccessibility is not chiseled in stone. If you want to take your signature off the ableist historical record, if you want to stop letting buildings do your dirty work for you, please do so.
* * *
Dorothy Ellen Palmer is a senior disabled writer, mom, improv coach, retired teacher, and union activist. Set in the summer of 1969, her semi-auto-biographical novel,
When Fenelon Falls (Coach House, 2010) uses her adoption records to imagine the creation story of her disabled teen protagonist. In 2019, Wolsak and Wynn will be releasing her disability memoir, This Redhead and her Walker Walk into a Bar.
All Lit Up is produced by the Literary Press Group and LitDistCo. LPG and LitDistCo acknowledge the financial support of the Department of Canadian Heritage, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Ontario Arts Council.