The Wrong Kind Of Accessibility Advocate

In his current form, Matt Wozenilek is the exact kind of person the accessibility movement doesn’t need. I thought so when I first heard is name a few years ago, and I think so now.

Have a look at the story and accompanying video here and see if you see what I see. What I see is a guy who has the right idea, but is going about it like a complete and total scumbag.

Making buildings accessible to everyone is a fantastic goal. To the level I can possibly understand it, I know how frustrating and sad it can be for somebody to be shut out of a restaurant, store or what have you because of something over which they have no power. When some of the simplest things in your daily life hinge on the willingness of other people to make adjustments, it sucks. That much, as a blind person, I’ve lived. And having been around a number of folks in wheelchairs and the like, I know that my struggles sometimes feel trivial to me by comparison. At least if I want to try out the Baker Street Station I’ve been hearing all these great things about, I can go in and have a burger and a pint. I have friends who can’t, because the only way in is up a bunch of steps. In downtown Guelph, that kind of thing plays itself out over and over and over again because of all the nice old buildings. The same thing that makes downtown Guelph special is the very thing that tends to make it an accessibility nightmare.

The unfortunate reality, though, is that because a lot of these buildings are so old and because they’re grandfathered (rightfully so) into the new standards, there’s only so much that can be done to improve the accessibility situation without demolishing a bunch of them and starting over. The other unfortunate reality is that a lot of these buildings are home to small, local businesses that often aren’t brimming with cash. Without massive municipal funding that doesn’t exist, the renovations required to get these places up to code would likely put more than a few people under. As much as I hated writing that, it’s true. Because of money, doing the right thing can’t happen all at once without defeating its purpose.

And this is where we get back to Matt. Often, what he seems to want is simple enough. Automatic doors so he can get himself in and out. A perfectly reasonable request. So reasonable, in fact, that when he asks for them, businesses have installed them. They’ve shown that they’re willing to work with him and yet, it’s not good enough. Things don’t end because he’s been accommodated, he says. He still deserves compensation!

From what I understand, and I may be wrong here, he hasn’t been disabled for a good portion of his life. So allow me to explain something. Unless advising on matters of accessibility and ensuring that steps are followed through on is your job, the accommodation is your compensation. The adapted life isn’t always the easiest one, which means we often have to fight for things. Whether it’s the blind person having a go round or 12 with the city to convince it not to put a roundabout in the middle of town or you asking for a door opener or some sort of ramp, these things often take time, effort and convincing. And when you win, it’s awesome! Not only did you win for you, but you won for everybody else. You won for people like you and for people you probably haven’t even considered. You’ve improved things for generations. It becomes a legacy of sorts.

What you don’t do is drag folks through Human Rights court even though you’re making progress because seeing a buttonless door or a flight of stairs made you sad. For one thing, it makes it seem to everyone like you’re all about the money. Like maybe access is somehow secondary and you’ve found a way to make some cash on the side. Secondly, and this is important, there’s no better way to make sure that nobody wants to work with you or the rest of us ever again. Results through fear is nearly always a poor strategy. You’re making headway, which is more than a lot of people can say. I admire that. But if you want to bring that forward momentum to a grinding halt, keep doing what you’re doing. It’s ok to get loud and even angry sometimes. But at the end of the day it’s important that the anger come from a good, reasonable place. Acknowledge the good steps these businesses are taking, don’t punish because they’re not enough. Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the saying goes. Real change takes time and patience. And if you don’t reward the start, it’s not going to go well when you bring up the continuation.

I hope that one day Mr. Wozenilek will come to understand this. I also hope that that day doesn’t come too late. With a different outlook on things, who knows what he could accomplish.

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1 comment
  1. I hadn’t seen that article but I completely agree with you. I think this, in a very small way, is similar to braille menus. It’s hard to go and get food somewhere, say you want a quick snack, if you can’t read the menus. So you ask and hope that the place takes that into consideration. I know actually getting into the building is a much bigger issue but it was the first comparrison that came to mind.

    I like that he’s asking businesses to put these doors in place, it will make access better for people in the future, but forcing them to give him money makes me feel really uncomfortable. It sounds horrible but it’s not their fault he’s disabled, if they’ve made adjustments there is no way he should be getting money off them as well. He actually makes the situation worse because people will view him negatively rather than looking at the work he’s doing to improve access. It just looks like he’s grabbing for money, maybe he is, maybe he isn’t, but the truth is people will see it that way.

    I live in a city where there’s a lot of old buildings that can’t have changes made to them. There is literally nothing the owners of those buildings can do. I’m not saying disabled people should move out but equally nobody can expect to have all their needs met everywhere they go. If you’re blind you want to look for somewhere with decent public transport, if you’re in a wheelchair you want to know that you can access most of the buildings. It’s just life, sometimes you have to compromise. I really, really don’t like what this guy is doing, he may be campaigning gfor better access but he isn’t going about it the right way.

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