A sign at the march “Make Detroit the Engine of the Green New Deal!” (July 30, 2019) Photo: Paul Becker, Flickr.com, CC

by Tim Kitz

The Leveller recently caught wind of a guide to accessible venues put together by Bywords.ca, Ottawa’s online literary hub – a guide that has since come in handy when plotting story meetings, and which we keep recommending to activists for their events. 

The guide can be seen at bywords.ca/accessiblevenues.pdf.

It’s kind of amazing such a guide didn’t already exist – and that it’s being put out by a group devoted to literature, rather than some government agency or disability advocacy group. The Leveller caught up with Amanda Earl, the guide’s creator, to learn more about how it came about.

“The lack of an accessible washroom is not simply a barrier. It’s a violation of my human rights.”

What is Bywords and how are you involved with it?

Bywords.ca is a literary web site and magazine that began in 2003. It followed the Bywords monthly magazine, which had been an important part of Ottawa’s literary community for 11 years, from 1990 to 2001. It was a physical magazine that contained a calendar of events and that was distributed for free. It was put together by faculty and students of the University of Ottawa and members of the literary community.

I started Bywords.ca with the help of my husband, Charles Earl, and a number of volunteers after the original magazine ended. In 2000-2001, I was in creative writing classes with Professor Seymour Mayne, one of the editors when Bywords ended. 

Through the creative writing program, we attended the ottawa small press book fair, where attendees and vendors at the fair talked to us about how much they missed Bywords. My husband handles tech in his daily working life and he thought he could create a site.

We, along with several volunteers, decided we also wanted the calendar, a news section that would offer information about calls for submission, publication announcements, and links to local publishers and authors. We also wanted to publish the poetry of current and local Ottawa students, residents, and workers.

It was a way to connect members of the literary community and to promote and publish Ottawans.

What was the genesis of the accessibility guide? Who contributed to it?

Since we have literary, spoken word, storytelling, and nonfiction events on the calendar, I am often contacted by publishers and by authors from Ottawa and out of town asking about places to hold their readings. In some cases, I’m also asked about the accessibility of a venue.

This guide is specifically for organizers of events, to help them find out about venues that are accessible. To be listed, a venue has to combine both accessibility and suitability for readings. 

I asked around and got some advice from disability activists and artists Nathan Hauch and Chris Binkowski, Kenzie McCurdy of Stopgap Ottawa, storyteller Kim Kilpatrick, and Canadian-Scotish writer and activist Sandra Alland. I also asked for help from Toronto writer and disability activist Dorothy Ellen Palmer. I started a Facebook page called Access Word Ottawa and spread the word through social media that I wanted to start a guide. 

How was the guide put together?

The plan is to go neighbourhood by neighbourhood. I started two years ago with Centretown. I asked disabled creatives to inspect venues for accessibility. Then if the venue was accessible, I contacted the venue owner or manager and asked them questions about the suitability for literary events — including cost, capacity, sound equipment etc.

Last year I added Sandy Hill and this year I’ll work on Hintonburg. Since it’s only me with occasional help from a disabled person, the guide has very modest goals. An updated guide will come out in December 2020.

In the latest version of the guide, you’ve mostly replaced the term ‘accessible’ with ‘barrier-free.’ Why the change?

This was a foolish error on my part. We’ll be changing the term back to ‘accessible’ with the next guide coming out at the end of December.

I’m not disabled and don’t claim to speak for disabled people. I kept seeing ‘barrier-free’ and I thought it was more inclusive somehow. Instead it turns out to be seen by some disabled people as government jargon.

I know I’m going to make mistakes with this guide, but I aim to correct those by listening as much as I can and learning. When I talked to Dorothy Ellen Palmer about the word, she made some of the following points: 

  • The average abled person thinks ‘barrier-free’ only applies to stairs. If there are no stairs, they would likely think a building is barrier-free. It would require a huge education campaign to explain what all the barriers really are, and the government is not doing that in any way.
  • This term also sets the average abled person up to thinking that the only thing needed to make somewhere accessible is to remove existing barriers, which isn’t true. It is often about adding new things, like accessible washrooms and ASL.
  • The idea of the word barrier is also problematic and euphemistic. The lack of an accessible washroom, for example, is not simply a barrier. It’s a violation of my human rights. 
  • It is an impossible standard for the purposes of finding a building for a literary event. To be ‘fully accessible’ or ‘barrier-free,’ a building would have to be accessible to every kind of disability. That means a huge list of things — including adult change tables, quiet rooms, watering stations for service animals, ASL, CART [computer-assisted real-time translation], braille signage, etc. There are no ‘barrier-free’ buildings on the planet. 

Is it a goal to build on the PDF and publish a print copy or a more interactive web version?

Well, we do have a Google map  where I update venues from time to time – tinyurl.com/accessibleottawamap. It would be wonderful if someone wanted to take the guide and make it into a print version or a web version.

Can people help contribute to the guide?

Yes, absolutely. Disabled people can inspect venues for accessibility. It should be noted that the most we’ve been able to hope for for venues has been wheelchair accessibility, but that’s only one component of accessibility. 

Everyone who attends literary, spoken word, storytelling and nonfiction events in Ottawa is free to contact me (amanda@bywords.ca) or our Access Word Ottawa facebook page at any time with venue possibilities to add to the guide. 

 One final word. What’s the biggest barrier to more barrier-free venues?


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