Dorothy Ellen Palmer
LET US NOW PRAISE ACCESSIBLE SUBURBS
In 1941, when James Agee wrote, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, he exposed an injustice that the world knew was right in front of them, but didn't want to acknowledge: the impoverishment and erasure of tenant farmers pushed off their land during the Great Depression. Today, there is another obvious injustice the abled world refuses to admit: their complicity in the impoverishment and erasure of seniors and disabled people being pushed out of cities. Whenever you praise THE CITY, any city, when you extol "funky, hipster neighbourhoods," "downtown diversity," or a city's cultural, artistic, and gastronomic pleasures, you're basking in the smug oblivion of ableist privilege. The urban planning of abled privilege is not "diversity." Cities are the exclusive, restricted playground of abled bodies. Their gatekeepers are inaccessible buildings. Without seniors and disabled people, downtowns aren't "diverse." They're crowded, dangerous, expensive, elitist bastions of youth culture where ableism rules supreme.
For fifty years, I praised inaccessible cities. Unthinkingly. With pride. When I was hiding my disability and pretending to be able-bodied, I raved about my travels in Europe and North America. Today, I'm no longer in denial. I'm sixty-three and walk with a walker. I finally acknowledge what I ignored for half a century: As a disabled senior, the only place that doesn't bar me from play, that I can afford and affords me independent dignity, is the suburbs.
I have congenital anomalies, once called birth defects, in both feet, complicated by whole-body arthritis. Like many my age, I can't ride a bike or take transit and I'm plumb sick of able-bodied youngsters trying to make me feel guilty about it. An environmental movement that throws seniors and disabled people under the bus isn't worthy of its name. We can't fight global warming with ageism and ableism. But for much of my life, I joined the anti-car brigade. I hopped on streetcars and ran subway stairs with gritted teeth. When I reached any destination, I was in too much pain to enjoy it. In my fifties, when I began to need a crutch, limping onto a streetcar or subway, made me the target of pity, and of verbal and physical abuse. People swore at me for moving too slowly, pushed by me, and knocked me down. People helping me back up spoke to me as if I was a naughty child who should know better than to venture outside alone.
In a fast-paced downtown, an old woman on a crutch gets told, overtly and covertly, that she's a problem. An obstacle. An inconvenience. In the way. From eye-rolling to insult, abled bystanders told me that the inaccessible urban design isn't the problem—it's my audacity to think I have the right to access their streets and buildings without hurting myself. If my slow, fragile body is the problem, they aren't complicit. They can maintain the lie of their temporarily abled, under-sixty lives: that ableism isn't a problem because it isn't a problem for them.
Today, on Wenceslaus, my good kingly walker who treads the snow so I can walk safely in his footsteps, transit is out of the question. I'd be exhausted before I even reached a bus stop. I can't stand and wait. In the cold, I stiffen up and can't walk at all. If a rushing commuter knocked me down today, I'd almost certainly break a hip and that would really be game over.
My car is my life line. But when I lived in the city, as my mobility degenerated, so did my ability to park. Abled folks can park blocks away from their destination. They can stay out at parties and bars, because they can run back out to a parking meter. Abled drivers can use street parking in winter, because they don't have to push Wenceslaus through un-shoveled sidewalks. They can stand unassisted long enough to clean off their snow-laden cars. In funky, hipster neighborhoods with charming Victorian architecture, abled patrons can step up and down icy thresholds while opening heavy, old, wooden doors. Abled drinkers can imbibe to disposable-income excess, then run their urgent, athletic selves down a flight of stairs to pee.
Like many disabled seniors, I live alone. I need a life without stairs.
My accessibility must include financial accessibility. In 2015, Wenceslaus and I went looking for a place to live we could afford on a fixed income at the poverty line, $26,000 a year. A place to call home with underground parking and without cockroaches. To live independently, Wenceslaus and I needed affordable stores, coffee shops, libraries, and movie theatres, all with free accessible parking, e-doors and flat entries. We needed accessible washrooms with a stall large enough for the two of us. I needed to be able to afford to eat and drink. In my city, rent has tripled since my youth, while I live on a quarter of my working income. I spent three months looking for an accessible city apartment I could afford and found not a single one.
At the time, I grieved my conclusion: I can never live downtown ever again.
Today, I realize that when I moved out to a post-war suburb, it probably saved my life.
I need car culture and I won't apologize for it. The combination of home underground parking and enormous free parking lots with many accessible spots, makes independence possible and keeps depression at bay. I'm far more active because, wonder of wonders, in suburbia, the accessible parking permit I've had for thirty years actually means I can get an accessible spot. Downtown, accessible spots were both rare and inevitably stolen by a flashy red Beemer without a permit. Some permitless suburbanites do steal my accessible spots. Part of me admires their hutzpah as they leap out of ginormous trucks sporting "Jesus Loves You, Everyone Else Thinks You're a Dick" bumper stickers. But such thefts occur far less often, not because suburbanites are finer humans, but because other parking spots are always available.
Here's something politically correct, lefty me never thought I'd say: I love suburban Big Box stores. Besides big parking, there are no doors to push, no thresholds to mount, all aisles are wide enough to navigate in safety and comfort, all merchandise can be seen and reached. The check-out will have an interact machine up to code: one that tilts so I can pay while sitting on my walker. In independence and dignity, I am never infantilized by having to ask for help.
Only in big-box suburbia can I find the Holy Grail of accessibility: e-carts.
City stores never have them. In downtown stores, especially clothing and bookstores, assuming I can get in the door, aisles are often too narrow for my walker, let alone a wheelchair. In my suburban Shangri-La, within ten minutes of home, are three grocery stores, a bookstore, an electronics store, a craft store, a discount fashion store, and two gloriously flat mega malls. Every single one of them have e-carts.
On bad days, most days in winter, when pain dictates that I can only get in and out of my car once, I need one-stop shopping. Despite life-long political objections to the evil empire of Walmart, like Obi-Wan Kenobi, it has become my only hope. I depend on its twelve, always-shoveled, always salted, accessible parking spots, wide e-doors, e-cart accessible washrooms, and, count 'em, eight e-carts. It has outside personnel who will ride the e-cart out to my car. I don't have to walk to the e-cart, try to heave Wenceslaus into it, and transport him back to my car, all so I can buy milk. I can get all I need at a cost I can almost afford. As a former union activist, I still know everything I've always known about monopolies and unfair labor practices, but today, I can't afford to turn my nose in the air if I want to keep breathing.
I know the suburban lifestyle comes with an ideological cost. Suburban culture isn't hip culture. It isn't woke to much beyond the seniors' deals at Swiss Chalet. In full inspiration porn, suburban cashiers, inevitably well-meaning white women with over-teased hair, will gush all over you, tell you're "their hero" because you can bear to be seen in public. When they ring your diapers through the cash register, they'll say, "It ain't nothing to be ashamed of, poor baby girl," and they mean it with such convicted kindness there is no point correcting them. But they will also give you plastic bags for said diapers without glaring at you as if you are personally responsible for polluting the planet. They will even offer to"call a boy" to take your purchases to your car. I admit that I find diaper-carrying kindness a particularly good lesson for young men.
After three years in the suburbs, here is my new conclusion: I choose to live in place where I will not starve, die of isolated boredom, or risk peeing my pants. This should not be where anyone sets the bar, but it is where many disabled folks have to set it. Especially disabled seniors. Half of those over sixty have a disability. By seventy-five, 75% of us will be disabled.
Any accessibility needs you ignore now, won't be there when you need them.
So, please don't tell me how "ugly" suburbia is. Cinder-brick architecture doesn't ring my aesthetic chimes either, but inaccessibility is soul-crushingly ugly to the 20% of the planet with disabilities. If you are charmed by gentrified, urban neighbourhoods, by houses, cafes, and shops built in Victorian times, you're delighting in a world which erases me. Historically, inaccessible buildings kept people like me shut-in at home, or incarcerated in homes. Post-war suburbs did not purposefully champion accessibility, but the times improved it. When contractors could purchase large tracts of land out in the boonies, it was cheaper to build horizontally. On expensive land, cities grew vertically. In my suburbia, I have yet to encounter an inaccessible entrance or a basement washroom. In"charming," artsy, urban downtowns, they are the norm.
It may be the twenty-first century, but I'm a disabled woman banned from my workplace. I'm a writer at a time when literary culture still values hipster buildings more than they value my attendance. Why is anyone "charmed" when disabled readers and writers can't attend readings, launches, and literary events, all typically held in hipster bars and restaurants with basement restrooms? My lefty urbanite friends who would be horrified by a ban on any other marginalized group, plan an event at an inaccessible location, shrug, and tell me I'll be missed. Just as men profit from the exclusion of women, and white people profit from the exclusion of people of colour, abled folks profit from the exclusion of disabled people. Inaccessibility secures houses, jobs, and culture for abled people. The abled 80% keep the disabled 20% of us out, literally and figuratively, and instead of seeing their complicity, see inaccessible buildings as charming.
They're wrong. I'm disabled, not disposable. My body is not the problem; their abled privilege is the problem. Today, I see cities for what they are and what they are not. As a disabled writer-activist fighting for accessibility in my literary community. I'm proud to say I've done my best to honor my disabled community. I visit the city for accessible events, but would never live there again. In my chosen suburbia, I pull out of the underground parking lot of a home that is both more spacious and costs about half of a city apartment. I drive a traffic-free three minutes through much cleaner air, park my car on the boardwalk of one of North America's greatest lakes for free, and push Wenceslaus into the sun.
Let us now praise accessible suburbs.
Someday, if you're lucky, you'll get to sing in this crip choir, too.
*Portions of this essay will appear in Dorothy Ellen Palmer's memoir, This Redhead and her Walker Walk into a Bar, to be published with Wolsak & Wynn, 2019.