Color & Control:

The Law is a…

A diner, a date, a door lock and a different way of looking at disability

By Stephen Trumper

Several years ago I was sitting in my wheelchair at my regular booth at my favourite breakfast restaurant, the Senator, a downtown Toronto diner that I have patronized for over 40 years.

My enthusiasm for the Senator certainly isn’t because it has an accessible washroom. It definitely does not. Nor is it terribly easy to get a wheelchair in the restaurant at all. But, if my PSW-du-jour angles the chair just so, he can tuck me into an unobtrusive spot that doesn’t block other customers or the waiting staff, who treat me with thoughtfulness and understanding. I have come to treasure them for, among other grace notes, whipping up my iced latte the moment I arrive and, later, cutting my sausages and toast so I (or the person helping me to eat) can poke them with a fork.

On this particular day, I was with my (able-bodied) friend Phil, who, looking a bit uncomfortable in the midst of a far-ranging conversation, sheepishly blurted out: What is it like to live with a disability? I answered with the first thing that popped into my mind: an article I helped produce during my time as an editor at Toronto Life.

In the early ‘80s, there were rumblings that the rules would change so lawyers could, for the first time, advertise in a major way. Hard to believe now but this was a contentious issue. We thought it would be fun to ask several major ad agencies to conjure up possible print-based campaigns so we could give our readers a taste of what might be on the horizon.

There was one entry that particularly tickled me. The big, bold headline trumpeted: The Law is a *! With four short words and two punctuation symbols, the copywriter had managed to couple the legal propensity to footnote with a quote most associated with Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist: “the law is a ass.”

Looking at Phil, I told him that finding one’s way in the world with a disability could best be described as “Real life, but with an asterisk.” Then, I told him about a lunch I had at the Senator with a favourite (able-bodied) libel lawyer. We were talking about disability, when the avuncular counselor said: “When we are working together through a manuscript on the phone, you are not disabled. But when we go out for a meal together, given all the logistics involved for you, you’re disabled.” Then that’s the asterisk, noted Phil. Indeed, I replied, before giving him another example that involved my second or third date with the woman who would become my wife.

We were at a branch of the Fran’s restaurant chain that no longer exists, located at Yonge and Gould streets in downtown Toronto, right across the street from the old Sam the Record Man. We were on the main floor of the restaurant. We had just ordered and I excused myself to go down a steep flight of stairs to the bathroom, which in those much more limber days, I could manage.

What I couldn’t negotiate, however, was the lock on the door of the men’s room. Oh, I got in okay. But getting out was another matter. After washing and drying my hands, I firmly grasped the handle with one hand and pulled. Nothing moved. I looked down: disaster. I was alone in the bathroom. I only had the use of one arm. My date was still upstairs, probably starting to wonder where I was. This bathroom door needed two working arms—one to pull the handle, the other to unlock the door all at the same time. So I waited. And waited. And so did my date. I started to wonder if she would just leave. Fifteen, twenty minutes went by. I helplessly waited for someone to enter so I could escape. Finally, reprieve. I bounded upstairs as fast as I could, flushed and embarrassed.

Would she still be there? Yes!

We still did not know each other that well, but she persevered, and thinking that maybe that’s just how long I took in the washroom, she asked the waiter to hold off on bringing our order. She was very kind, easing my worries and concerns, saying she was really just glad to see me.

So not only did you have typical early-date jitters, said Phil but you got locked in the damned bathroom. The asterisk? Yep, I replied, then pointed out that there are asterisks small, large and gigantic depending on the disability, physical or invisible, including the barriers that only legislation can break down, proving that, even in this day and age, in a country that still has no Canadians with Disabilities Act, 26 years after the Americans passed their ground-breaking human rights legislation for citizens with disabilities, in Canada, the law can still be a ass.

Stephen Trumper serves on the board of the Canadian Abilities Foundation. He is an independent writer and editor. He is also a journalism instructor at Ryerson University.

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