For the 50th anniversary of the Montreal Métro, dozens of wheelchair users were able to do something they’d never done before—enter the Place-des-Arts station. Only 10 of the subway network’s 68 stations are currently accessible, to the consistent frustration of wheelchair users. For the anniversary celebrations, employees had set up a temporary ramp giving people in wheelchairs access to the station.
Co-organizer Laurence Parent did two TV interviews, one with CBC and one with Global. “We’ve been waiting for 50 years,” Parent said, in her second language. “Accessibility is coming but it’s not coming fast enough.”
“Do you see any French [-language] media here?” a fellow participant asked her later. Radio-Canada and the private French-language network TVA covered the celebration and the announcement of upcoming improvements to the network—expansion of internet access to all stations, for example—but bypassed the protest.
Major consultations on new federal accessibility legislation in Montreal and Quebec City also drew no French-language media coverage, according to activists present at both events.
As the 375th anniversary of Montreal’s founding approaches, putting a national spotlight on the city, disability rights activists are hoping the French-language media will make the city’s relative lack of accessibility more visible, giving a needed push for lasting change.
“The media has a big impact on the way people perceive us, and being involved in the media world is one way to change those portrayals and make people think,” said Maxime D.-Pomerleau, a freelance arts columnist and performance artist, who uses a wheelchair and a cane for mobility.
“When we talk about disability in the media, especially in Quebec, it’s usually in the context of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities or Quebec Handicapped Persons Week,” Kéven Breton said. Breton, 26, who uses a wheelchair, is the cohost of Ça me regarde (“It’s my business”) a community cable show focusing on accessibility issues. He is also the founder of the Facebook page Le capacitisme dans les médias (“Ableism in the Media”).
“When we talk about people with disabilities, they’re either shown as inspiring models of overcoming adversity, or as people left helpless by service gaps in long-term care facilities. That’s basically it.”
“The story is told not from an accessibility perspective, but from a personal story perspective,” said Breton’s friend, Julien Gascon-Samson, a doctoral student in computer science and also a wheelchair user.
For Breton and Gascon-Samson, that portrayal papers over the real problem. “It’s like the way poverty is covered sometimes,” Breton said. “Around Christmas, you see a charity presenting a poor family with a turkey. It’s a moving scene, but it does nothing to address the systemic problems that leave that family in poverty.”
“The media will portray an individual disabled person as overcoming her handicap, going to work, going to the store, but they won’t point out that the store has no ramp,” Gascon-Samson clarifies. “If a person can’t access a place, it’s not because of their illness or injury but because of physical barriers.”
“I’m getting very sick of the word ‘courageous,’” said Pomerleau, who is developing a training module on disability coverage for journalism students. “If we put all the emphasis on the courage of individuals, we take the heat off society. We don’t question the problems around us that are requiring the person to have that attitude in order to just get through their day.”
“For some reason, the French-language media in Quebec seem to see accessibility as a charity issue, whereas in the English-speaking world, especially in the United States, it’s seen as a human rights issue,” Breton said.
On the Ableism in the Media Facebook page, Breton collects clichés. Phrases such as “the handicapped,” “the infirm” and “confined to a wheelchair,” which activists reject as being dehumanizing, are still common in the francophone press. The phrase “confined to a wheelchair” is often rendered as “cloué à un fauteuil roulant,” literally, “nailed” to the chair. “Maybe people don’t realize how ugly ‘nailed to a wheelchair’ sounds…but ‘despite his handicap’ really makes my skin crawl,” Breton said. “You would never say ‘Despite being Native, she has a fulfilling love life.’ I wish people paid more attention to how they spoke.”
Breton also notes that panels on disability issues don’t often include people with disabilities. When Jérémy Gabriel, an aspiring singer with a facial deformity who was born deaf, sued comedian Mike Ward for joking about his hypothetical death, the case made headlines across the country. “We talked for weeks about what was appropriate humour, whether Ward had defamed Gabriel and so on, but except for Gabriel himself, not once do I recall a person with a disability being asked what they thought.”
Pomerleau and Breton also point out the need for more journalists with disabilities. “It’s great to have informed handicapped people speak about disability issues…but I don’t want us to be ghettoized, I want to have more handicapped people as hosts and columnists,” Pomerleau said. “We’re not quite there yet. In the meantime, we need to speak with non-disabled people to send the right message.” The message, in short, that people with disabilities, so often portrayed as superhuman or subhuman, are neither.
“We live normal lives with our conditions, we’re not infirm or inapt or constantly facing adversity,” she said. “Changing one word will change everything.”