By Rabia Khedr
It is 2018, 25 years after Rafia founded ERDCO (Ethno-Racial People with Disabilities Coalition of Ontario), an organization dedicated to addressing barriers faced by racialized people with disabilities.
In March, in the week in which she hosted a conference putting access and race boldly on the planning tables that implement the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), Rafia encountered more barriers than ever before – barriers that clearly demonstrate how her identities intersect on multiple levels.
She is the mentor who defined the path of disability rights that I have championed for almost half of my life.
I cannot remain quiet about what she endured on March 20, 21 and 23.
What she experienced on Friday March 23 at an Islamic centre is what irks me the most.
After all the work we have been doing to raise awareness in the Muslim community, attitudinal barriers still plague even our places of worship.
This is why I am more adamant than ever before about advocating for compliance and entering into accessibility partnerships with Muslim organizations and Islamic centres.
The AODA requires that customers be notified when there is any service disruption according to the letter of the law.
However, the letter of the law is ineffective if there is no one to recognize the intent of the law.
Accessible transportation is a gamble every morning for people; rides are sometimes shared with others and people may be picked up and dropped off on the way to where you want to go – we call this “around the world and then the actual destination.”
This is the price you pay for door-to-door service when you use a mobility device and need affordable public transportation to get around town.
Rafia did not want to take her chances for the one-day Forum on the Intersection of Race and Accessibility, an event that she had coordinated and was going to MC.
As an accommodation, she decided to stay the night before at a nearby hotel, and booked an accessible room.
When she checked in, she was told that they did not have an accessible room for her because they were under construction.
Sad to say, this was a 5-star hotel next to Canada’s busiest international airport.
They offered her to put her up at another hotel just a few minutes away, but she had to wait about 2 hours for an accessible taxi.
The next morning, the accessible taxi she had booked to ensure that she arrived early at the convention centre broke down.
After several calls to various companies advertising that they had accessible vehicles, she got a ride and arrived at the venue just in time to greet the rush at registration.
Her sister was with her. Her sister got out with all the bags and conference materials.
Rafia’s portable charger blocked her from getting out of the taxi. She asked the driver to help move the charger with all its wires and stuff.
He refused saying, Suicide bomb! “I’m not touching that!”
Rafia was horrified and told him that it was her wheelchair charger. He claimed to be joking.
Ignorance certainly prevails in our cultural communities – the driver was of South Asian origin. Islamophobia rears its ugly head in many ways. Meanwhile, her sister stepped in to carry it away.
Three blatant barriers, all within fourteen hours.
None of these incidents came as a surprise. This is exactly what we were holding a forum to discuss: accessibility through a lens of intersectionality.
What deeply saddened Rafia and, equally, me was what happened on Friday when she went to pray.
Although she has travelled the world in her wheelchair and in particular prayed in the three holiest places for Muslims, Jerusalem, Madinah and Makkah, history keeps repeating itself in Islamic centres which yesterday were nothing more than warehouses.
Since 2004, when she and I began the conversation about inclusion and accessibility, the Canadian Association of Muslims with Disabilities (CAM-D) has actually documented the issues within the Muslim communities across the Greater Toronto Area and presented a report entitled “Towards An Inclusive Ummah: Muslims with Disabilities Speak Out” in February of 2007.
CAM-D also introduced an international khutba (sermon) campaign in commemoration of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3. On the first Friday of December each year since 2009, Imams and Khatibs are asked to talk about disability and Islamic tradition in hopes of shifting attitudes within and beyond the mosque.
On that recent March Friday, Rafia reminded me how important our work continues to be.
DEEN Support Services is a registered charity established by the founders of CAM-D dedicated to providing culturally and spiritually relevant services. DEEN stands for Disability Empowerment Equality Network.
We continue to work hard to raise awareness because we know that attitudes are the biggest barrier in society. This is equally true within our Muslim communities.
Rafia was told that a sister in the mosque was complaining about her praying on the carpet in her wheelchair, side-by-side with other worshippers in the rows. The sister felt that the chair was unclean, impure.
What is ironic is that in the same place a few months ago, after praying, Rafia was chatting with the wives of two well-known Imams at this major Centre in Toronto. A sister approached and told her that her wheelchair is najis, unclean. It was a heated interaction. The wives of the two Imams jumped to Rafia’s defense and explained to the sister why it was ok; the sister ended up apologizing to Rafia.
To anyone with such complaints I say: What about dirty socks, foot disease and B.O.?
Deal with those issues and then talk to us people with disabilities about our wheelchairs, walkers, canes and kids with disabilities.
If we know our religion, we know that a person with a disability is no less important than a person without a disability. Please learn why Sura ‘Abasa was revealed.
I pray that we change such negative attitudes just in case. You never know when you might need to use a wheelchair or any other mobility device temporarily or permanently because of an accident, injury, disease and simply aging.