What does accessibility look like in Peterborough’s cultural life? Recent research by Jessica Scott, a Catherine Parr Traill College student pursuing an M.A. in Canadian and Indigenous Studies, has highlighted the importance of accessibility in Peterborough’s arts scene. Despite the United Nations' recognition of access to arts and culture as a fundamental human right, Jessica's research reveals that the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) falls short in achieving meaningful accessibility. Through interviews with people with disabilities in Peterborough and thematic analysis, Jessica found that community-driven efforts have been the most impactful form of accessibility
“A good example that one of my participants gave was attending shows at the Gordon Best Theatre,” Scott recounts. “He has a physical disability and cannot take the stairs, so when that happens, his friends will come to help him up the stairs and essentially piggyback him up. That’s an example of people coming together to make somebody feel comfortable in those types of spaces. When you feel that somebody wants you to be there, when you feel like they're trying to make you feel safe and welcome and like you belong, that really goes a long way.”
This kind of person-driven accessibility and its importance to the disability community shows the limits of the AODA, which develops and enforces accessibility standards in the public and private sectors of Ontario. Even though accessibility is legislated, it doesn’t mean that organizations, staff, and audiences are welcoming, nor do they tend to think of accessibility in sufficiently broad terms.
“A key misconception is that accessibility is exclusively for people who need physical access,” says Dr. Nadine Changfoot, a political studies professor at Trent and Scott’s thesis supervisor. “I think that within the public imagination at this moment, disability may be immediately understood as a person using a wheelchair or using a mobility device. But disability covers a diverse range of conditions and impairments, some that are visible as well as some that are invisible. Once accessibility is understood to include the social, cultural, and economic, there's a more aesthetic and creative process involved in thinking about accessibility to the wider public.”
Addressing the gap between AODA and meaningful accessibility
Though both Scott and Professor Changfoot believe that Peterborough has standout organizations leading in accessibility, they have also observed that there is room to imagine accessibility in ways beyond eliminating the primarily physical barriers outlined by AODA criteria. Through research, they have assessed that there is a significant gap between what the AODA legislates and what people with disabilities see as meaningful accessibility. It is therefore important for organizational accessibility standards to be informed by disability-centered knowledge.
Through her research, Scott found five dominant themes:
The importance of community-based care, as explained above.
That Peterborians with disabilities are often on the fringe of art-based spaces, feeling marginalized or tokenized.
The presence of access labour, where instead of having information available to them, people with disabilities must put in their own labour to find accessibility standards and policies within an organization. This can often be time consuming and draining.
The new wave of virtual consumption that provided an elevated level of accessibility for people with disabilities.
The idea that inaccessibility often transpires through practices that center ideologies of individualism and personal freedom.
Scott will present her findings on stage at the Canadian Sociological Association (CSA) Conference in early June at York University as part of the Livable Futures Pursuing Radical Imaginings session.