LETTER: The Million Dollar Baby of St. John’s

Million Dollar Baby, directed by Clint Eastwood, was a movie that garnered many awards and significant critical acclaim. The film became problematic because it reinforces the idea that the disabled life is not worth living.

The disabled community in Newfoundland and Labrador attempted to seize the opportunity of a 2020 Bike Plan that was going run through the Grand Concourse of St. John’s. Hobbyist runners, hobbyist cyclists, and other political malcontents have decided the disabled life and access is not worth giving. Claims from charities that grades would be improper for wheelchair access and claims from commenters that if it “isn’t broke don’t fix it” all suggest surrender. Arguments over environmental aesthetics all come together to form a massive monolith that says “we don’t care about accessibility.” Perhaps more accurately, the statement is that “we care about accessibility but just not right now and not in this case.” Ultimately the Bike Plan is a $1 million baby funded by federal departments, provincial bureaucrats, and the Municipality that other forces would see “drowned in the bathwater.”

My confidence that accessibility will be achieved is wavering because a few loud and well known voices have decreed that it should not happen. Irrational fears of being struck by bicyclists overshadow the reality of being killed by cars in streets. Initially, the bike plan was just a bike plan and disabled people executed a type of band-wagoning for its development as a shared access trail.

The response from St. John’s—from Newfoundland and Labrador—is that ultimately our private interests outweigh your human rights.

Right now, opponents of the bike plan would rather euthanize it than try and improve it. The idea that the bike plan exists in some binary reality that it works 100% or it doesn’t work at all is a fiction woven by its loudest detractors and reinforced by CBC commentary from Ed Riche. Bicycle activists are upset that their plans may be ruined and their ability to use their bicycles to commute in the city will be interrupted. Many disabled people have now surrendered to the idea that they will not be heard.

When disabled people got involved with the Bike Plan we did so with the naïveté that we could be part of something bigger and greater. I use the word naïveté because we were naïve to believe that we could step up and be seen and taken seriously when entering a political arena. We have seen the value of accessibility assaulted by questionable claims of environmental degradation, traffic concerns, and safety issues. All of these have been framed in a way that suggests the status quo is fine and acceptable.

The answer to the status quo is that it is not acceptable, and I no longer care about other uses for the trails. Our needs and rights now usurp all other claims for the trail based on our protection as disabled people. The Accessible Canada Act (ACA) received assent in 2019. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was ratified by Canada in 2018. The City of St. John’s needs to ask itself if it is prepared to test the ACA and the CRPD as well as any other claims based on human rights in courts of law. The law grants us accessibility and all the belly-aching about this is moot. The Biking Plan should be renamed the Accessible Trails St. John’s Plan.

Cost is not an issue because this project already has federal funding (the ACA is applicable in this case). Environmental claims against the project are rooted in the belief that people that do the work on the trail will simply not do their jobs correctly. Fears of traffic are no different than the traffic that we face every single day of the year. Even death in the streets has been forgotten by the plan’s opponents. So, this discussion has now ended.

Photo by marianne bos on Unsplash.

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