The View from a Businessman’s Wheelchair
Recently, the Famous Players theatre chain announced that it would be closing three of its Toronto movie theatres—the Backstage, the Uptown and the Eglinton—following a ruling by a Board of Inquiry that the theatres violate the Ontario Human Rights Code.
The complaint against them had been that the three theatres were not wheelchair accessible and that the company had failed to accommodate disabled individuals in a manner that respects their dignity. The company was ordered to make alterations to the buildings by September, 2003. After considering the cost of renovating, the company announced that the theatres would be closed instead.
Having lived in Toronto for more than thirty years, I had been to all of those theatres at one time or another. I think it’s truly unfortunate that a small segment of the population who happens to be wheelchair-bound could not enjoy the same movie-going pleasures I’d experienced there. But I think it’s far, far worse that every Torontonian will now be deprived of those pleasures merely because of the militant attitude of a few. If disabled activists want to win support for their cause, this seems like a strange way to go about it.
But would I feel differently if I were one of the people who couldn’t get into the theatre because of my wheelchair? I decided to consult an expert on the subject.
Rick Kinsman is 58 years old. In 1978, he and his partner Leslie Sguigna were entertainers in a comedy trampoline act. During one fateful practice session, Rick broke his neck. Ever since then, he has lived life in a wheelchair as a quadriplegic. The couple now own a business called ProVision Video Productions Inc., making instructional and promotional videos, although Leslie still continues to work as a trampoline artist.
Rick considers himself an activist in the disabled community, but often finds himself at loggerheads with his cohorts. Why? He believes it’s wrong for the disabled to force their demands down property owners’ throats using the power of the Human Rights Commission.
“I ask my fellow disabled activists, ‘How would you like it if somebody else told you how to use your money?’” he says.
He also stresses the distinction between government-owned property, where accessibility should arguably be mandatory because disabled taxpayers own a share, and “public” buildings such as theatres which are actually private property.
Rick’s personal experience has been that the vast majority of people are willing—even eager—to help the disabled voluntarily, provided the cost is within reason. He recalls going to concerts at Massey Hall in his wheelchair. He was often allowed in free of charge, since he wasn’t occupying one of the hall’s marketable seats.
But how did he get up the three or four steps at the entranceway? “Not a problem,” says Rick, “the doormen would just bring out a sturdy metal ramp. It was too steep for me to wheel up on my own, but with the doormen pushing my chair, I’d be in.”
Did this offend his dignity? Not at all. “It was a great service they offered. What would have been undignified would have been for me to try to force them to build a permanent ramp for me, holding the Human Rights Commission over their heads like a club.”
These days, when he wants to see a movie, Rick goes to the new suburban Colossus theatre (one of the Famous Players chain, incidentally), which he says has gone “way beyond what’s necessary” to accommodate wheelchairs. Several new theatres, he says, also offer discounts for disabled patrons and their able-bodied companions—another service above and beyond the call of duty.
Apparently, these theatres understand what few disabled activists have grasped: namely, that whenever it’s economically feasible, businesses will make every effort to attract additional customers and generate goodwill. You don’t run a successful business by looking for excuses to turn away potential clientele.
Rick believes strongly in the power of ideas to change the world. “Education and raising awareness is the main thing that’s necessary to bring about change. Once people understand how physical barriers affect the disabled, they look for ways to help. I also like to point out how accessibility features like ramps assist the able-bodied—for instance: mothers pushing strollers, people moving furniture, or seniors walking with canes.”
But there is also consciousness-raising to be done among his fellow disability activists, primarily on the importance of respecting private property rights. Before his accident, Rick had been involved in a Calgary organization called the Association to Defend Property Rights. Becoming disabled has not changed his views.
“As a disabled person, I am much better off in a capitalist country like Canada than I would be in a place like Russia with its long communist history. Only in countries where property rights have been respected do we find the widespread prosperity necessary to make life physically more comfortable for the disabled.”
So the Human Rights Commission should keep its hands off other people’s property, says Rick, and we’ll all be better off in the long run.