As part of my doctoral work surrounding the built environment (any man-made infrastructure that, in the context of my research interests, makes up our outdoor environment) and older adults’ mobility, I was involved in public engagement sessions that the City of Vancouver was holding last week around the development of the Comox-Helmcken Greenway. Basically, the City is looking to develop a corridor linking False Creek to Stanley Park, and is turning to the public for input. Last week, they were focusing their attention on getting feedback from older adults and that’s how I came to be involved. Well, not because I’m an older adult, but because I’m interested in how the built environment can be modified to enhance older adults’ interactions with it. As part of my work, I joined City folk as they led walks with community members around parts of the area to be expanded. On one of the walks, I spent a great deal of time talking to two individuals in motorized wheelchairs and their input opened my eyes to a whole new way of looking at the built environment in terms of accessibility. For example, how sidewalks that are “aesthetically pleasing” because they’re made of tiles aren’t so appealing when they send vibrations throughout your body as your wheels roll over them. Or how easily wheels get stuck in grassy areas, especially when it’s wet.
This week, I have been volunteering at and attending the Walk 21 Conference in Vancouver. I went to a breakout session this afternoon whose theme was accessibility. First the focus was older adults, then it shifted to those with any mobility aid device, although the focus was primarily those in motorized wheelchairs. Two of the speakers – Heather McCain and Catherine Smart really chained my already expanding perspective of how I view(ed) accessibility. A major theme that I took away from both of their talks was that so many of us are looking at “disabled” persons’ interactions with the built environment from the wrong angle. As a health researcher, I’ve predominantly approached disability with a health lens. But in the context of the built environment, disability is very much a social issue; an issue of inclusion.
I’m not normally a big movie watcher — and definitely not a fan of Disney movies unless they’re from my early childhood — but I really (uncharacteristically) like Disney’s “Lilo and Stitch.” Partially because it makes me think of my (not-so-little-anymore) little sister and partially because Stitch was oh-so-cute and cuddly with those ears and teeth. I just want to hug and kiss and squish him. Then I remember he’s not real and use my imagination to pretend that I’m hugging him anyways. Speaking of anyways, there’s one part of the movie that really resonated and stuck with me all these years and I never really knew why it meant so much to me until today, when listening to Heather and Catherine speak.
At one point in the movie, Lilo turns to Stitch and says, “Ohama means family. Nobody gets left behind.”
That’s it. That’s what inaccessible environments are about — they’re about being left behind. As Heather and Catherine were talking and showing examples of accessible and inaccessible places I started thinking about and feeling what it would feel like to be constantly excluded. Told and shown “no, you can’t do this… this is not for you… or not for you without a lot of effort” over-and-over again. Catherine also spoke about the concept of “one step” and how something as simple as one step with no ramp access is saying, “you’re not welcome.” I sat with that concept. Sat in the essence of what it meant. Sat in the feelings of discomfort. Sat in what Universe was helping me to see. You’re not welcome. Then all these feelings of empathy and exclusion pervaded through my body. You’re not welcome. You’re getting left behind. But nobody gets left behind. I firmly believe what John Lennon meant when he sang that, “I am he, as you are he, as you are me, and we are all together.” We are all together. Or we’re supposed to be.
This week I asked the Universe to help me get a better understanding of how my Higher Self can best contribute to the Greater Good, find meaning in this life, and help fill the world with White Light. I’ve had the feeling that the direction of urban design is where my Higher Self wants to go for a while now. I have been thinking a lot about bridging my love and connection with nature and my Soul’s need to constantly grow and expand and learn and ingest and experience with urban design by becoming a planner in developing countries. Developing countries have so many natural resources and natural environments that need to be saved and protected… and in many cases, developing cities that are being turned into concrete jungles without thought of the impact on the natural environment and on the well-being of residents… without thought of creating green communities that are walkable… let alone ones that still have this beautiful connection with nature that is so integral to our sense of connection with ourselves, each other and our surroundings. Well, building on this, perhaps I should take this vision and add to it a path that allows me to also help create communities that are accessible to everyone. It’s not a far stretch from what I’m doing with my work surrounding older adults and the design of communities that promote active ageing. Time will tell but I’m starting to see the light more clearly. And for this I am very grateful.