We need to make this city accessible for everyone.
This article is part two of a series on accessibility in Toronto for a Deaf, queer, non-binary person. Part one is here.
When I graduated from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., a school that prides itself on being “the world’s only university designed to be barrier-free for deaf and hard of hearing students,” it meant it was time for me to leave the “Deaf Utopia Bubble.”
This bubble of a world meant I had access to American Sign Language nearly 24/7.
However, my childhood experiences of being deprived of my culture and community (which I wrote about here) led to a desire to change the future of accessibility for the Deaf community in Canada.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in psychology, I retreated to my hometown for a few months. Of course, I missed having access to my Deaf community on a daily basis. This meant that I didn’t want to stay in my hometown—I wanted to live where I could be around my people: the Deaf community and the queer community. Where was a good place for me to go?
Toronto is one of the few cities in Ontario with large Deaf populations, along with London, Milton, Belleville, Ottawa, and Thunder Bay. By far, Toronto was the most “queer friendly.” For someone like me, Toronto seemed like the most ideal place to live in.
Without a job in place, I took a risk and moved into a shared house with 10 other 20-somethings.
A large Deaf population means there are Deaf organizations and Deaf businesses based here. This meant there were opportunities available, including a job market.
Even though there were no job postings at the time, I decided to give it a try and sent in my resumé and cover letter to several organizations, including the Bob Rumball Foundation for the Deaf, Deaf Outreach Program, Ontario Association of the Deaf, Silent Voice, and Toronto Association of the Deaf .
Regardless of the fact that I was unemployed, I wanted to get the most out of my time. So I began to volunteer at the Deaf Culture Centre to gain some experience and meet members of Toronto’s Deaf community.
Prior to moving to this city, I became involved with Deaf Youth Canada, a youth-based organization focused on advocating for the needs of Deaf Canadian youth. On the behalf of DYC, I attended the rally to call for the development of Video Relay Service. That was my first step into activism.
At the rally, I talked about my experiences using Video Relay Service to make phone calls to hearing people using an interpreter at Gallaudet. In Canada, only IP relay services were available, and this service was inaccessible for Deaf people who are fluent in sign language.
Imagine being able to make accessible phone calls in your own language for four years, and then returning to your home country to face barriers that had been eliminated in the neighbouring country in 1998! This was frustrating.
However, the protests for Video Relay Service resulted in some promising action. From that point, a committee was set up to organize a new nation-wide services under the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. We still had a long way to go.
Despite not having access to Video Relay Service, I was fortunate to be back in an environment where I was able to use sign language. Deaf people and signing people were around on a daily basis. Living in a city with a large Deaf population meant that there were more sign language classes and private tutoring services available.
In less than a month, I got a position with the Deaf Outreach Program as a sexual health promotion director. This job opened up so many opportunities to work closely with different organizations, including the ones embedded in the queer and trans communities.
That same fall, Ontario Rainbow Alliance of the Deaf hosted an anti-bullying panel with spoken ASL-English interpretation, and I was invited to share my experiences as a queer person.
Later that afternoon, the organization hosted their annual general meeting, where it was time to elect a new board.
My access to the queer and trans communities expanded the moment I was elected vice president.
Based on my experiences, most of my engagement with the community was based on outreach. From that point, my network circles really grew.
I learned more about which accessible services and organizations were available in Toronto. Even though it is apparent that organizations and services do try to provide accessibility, sometimes it is just not enough.
Being a part of a queer-based organization has helped me open my own eyes about what “accessibility” means beyond providing accommodations such as sign language interpretation or closed captioning.
On the board were individuals with various identities, experiences, and disabilities—and all of them had a different set of access needs. This was the beginning of my journey to look at accessibility with a new set of lenses and to assess what is really “accessible.”
For myself, being a part of a small community, it is especially important to create spaces and services that are inclusive. After all, my community has members of other cultures, of other communities.
How can you become accessible when you only think of one type of deaf person? Not every Deaf person looks like me, especially in terms of lived experiences, backgrounds, identities, disabilities, and access needs.
Becoming more accessible means you need to consider all aspects of the Deaf communities present in this large, diverse city. This means making spaces safe for Indigenous people, Black people, and people of colour. This means creating queer-friendly and trans-friendly spaces where their identities are respected. This means allowing people of all faiths to share the same space. This means respecting the land that we are occupying, not polluting the Earth.
This means taking into consideration people with all types of disabilities, including Deaf folks, blind folks, wheelchair and mobility aid users, people with mental health issues, and people who are chronically ill. What does this mean?
This means that we need to learn more about the marginalized members of our communities in order to ensure that community spaces are accessible for all of us. Regardless of what our accessibility needs are, we need to make this city accessible for everyone.
Want to learn more about how to become more accessible? Check out the next article in this series.