Gender, disability and urban life in Montréal

Tuesday, July 19, 2020

Laurence Parent, RAPLIQ
This entry is part of a collaborative series on disabilities between the Federation’s Equity Issues Portfolio and the Canadian Disability Studies Association/ Association Canadienne des Études sur l’Incapacité.

In 2009, I co-founded Regroupement des activistes pour l’inclusion au Québec (RAPLIQ) – a disability rights organization – and began networking with many disabled individuals who were open to talking about their everyday experiences living in Montréal. I quickly realized that we were all similarly having difficulties talking about our urban experiences. We found that we weren’t able to tell our stories fully, as if some words or concepts were missing. My lived experience as a young disabled woman living in Montréal, the largest French-speaking city in the Americas, challenges the mainstream urban narrative of Montréal life. My experiences have led me to think that we need to find the right concepts to describe the exclusion of disabled people from urban life.

Our stories cannot be told if we don’t have the words to tell them. The exclusion of disabled people from urban life is in need of further thinking through. One area that needs further analysis in relation to disabled people in urban life relates to ‘publiclessness’, a concept that has long historical roots. One important characteristic of urban life is the access to public transit for people whose mobility needs cannot be accommodated by stairs. An important critical theory within the field of urban studies is laid out in Michael Prince’s Absent Citizen: Disability Politics and Policy in Canada, which aims to “critically question the idea of a universal experience of city living and reconstruct the notion of urbanism as ‘way of life’ and reject it as a credible master narratives of cities.”

The ‘normal’ Montréal citizen
The Montréal subway was opened in October 1966 during the Quiet Revolution. It is deeply rooted in Montréal identity through the history that is told and popular culture that we digest on a daily basis. The Montréal subway symbolizes the modernization of Québec society. This is the history we know and this is the history we teach. The stairs in the Montréal subway have been – and still are – largely understood as a neutral architectural structure. In reality, the hegemony of the stairs in the subway has had the  effect of  excluding  people whose mobility needs cannot be accommodated by stairs; such as, people who use mobility aids and people with visible and invisible walking non-normate abilities. The inauguration of the subway, which was understood as being a public space, had to tie the notion of being a Montrealer to the ability of riding the subway. The status of full citizenship was granted upon the performance of a specific ability judged by people in power as being a “normal” ability. In 1980, the Montréal public transit commission created a public paratransit system. Paratransit eligibility would be based on medical criteria related to the ‘normal’ capacity of walking. This idea relates to the medical model of disability, which blames the individuals for her exclusion, arguing that the problem is located in the person. Rather than questioning the hegemony of stairs in the Montréal Metro, the implementation of paratransit shaped the mobility needs of people with disabilities as being ‘not normal’ as it is stated in the paratransit criteria. The creation of paratransit was based on the idea that some bodies are more costly and problematic than others, and that alone is sufficient in explaining the existence of a different service which segregates some individuals. The creation of the paratransit system also institutionalized a difference between ‘normal’ bodies and ‘not normal’ or disabled bodies. Paratransit has been framed as the only reasonable way for people whose mobility needs cannot be accommodated by stairs to move within the city. It also created the ‘regular’ Montréal citizen, the one that can ride what has been called the regular transit. The construction of normalcy, as attached to the regular Montréal citizen creates the ‘problem’ of other bodies who cannot perform ‘required’ abilities, such as using stairs.

Publiclessness: Giving words to urban exclusion
We need to give words to urban exclusion as experienced by disabled people. I coin the term ‘publiclessness’ to describe the experiences of people whose bodies and minds have been marked as unfit to enjoy all public spaces without exception. Publiclessness is a phenomenon cherishing the hegemony of normalcy, while marginalizing other identities. Publiclessness is a phenomenon which keeps disabled people out of public spaces such as public transit. Their presence in the city is always jeopardized and shaped by their compliance with ableist norms. Like homelessness, publiclessness exists in Western urban life. Publiclessness and homelessness are two distinct phenomena yet mutually inform one another, corroborate and sometimes meld into each other through the lives of disabled homeless individuals. Both phenomena are related to the marginalization within urban space of a group of people sharing various characteristics. Homelessness and publiclessness are produced by the intersection between bodies and space. However, they are generally perceived as the result of individual conditions solely. Another aspect that ties these two realities together is that they are both instances in which exclusion on a mass scale is normalized. This normalization has contributed to depriving homeless and publicless people from their full citizenship status. Homeless and publicless people living in Canada are not subjects of interest within the culture of consumption because they are economically marginalized. According to Statistics Canada’s 2006 Participation and Activity Limitation Survey, 21.3 percent of women with disabilities and 19.6 percent of men with disabilities live on low income. As well, 27.5 percent of women labelled as having severe and very severe disabilities live on low income. A broad definition of homelessness also includes a variety of people living in different inadequate housing conditions due to poverty and/or social disenfranchisement. Disabled people also experience a variety of urban exclusionary situations. Publiclessness is not a monolithic phenomenon that is experienced exactly in the same way by all disabled people. All disabled people are at risk of publiclessness. The Montréal public transit is a prime example of this ever-present risk of publiclessness shaped by culture and history. Publiclessness is a phenomenon that affects disabled people in many ways.  For example, publiclessness prevents young disabled people from embodying a contemporary youth identity. Publiclessness is a phenomenon that is in great part produced by our culture of consumption which oppressively celebrates youthfulness. The hegemonic consumer culture requires that individuals be as mobile as possible within their city. The immobilization of disabled youth is particularly critical in Montréal due to the inaccessibility of the public transit system and the segregation of many disabled Montréalers into the paratransit system. This lack of mobility prevents disabled youth from performing various consumer roles. In an article in the journal Disability and Society, Hughes, Russell and Paterson state, “cultures of consumption are constituted in ways that mark young disabled people off as outsiders who need not apply for entry”. Contemporary youth identity is made unattainable to the disabled youth. The inaccessibility of consumerism therefore contributes to their publiclessness. In a culture that pretends to offer a lot of identity choices, disabled youth are offered few, if any, choices. Identity choices are taken for granted as if they were accessible to all. Locked-out of the public transit system, Montréal disabled youth are also locked-out of their generation.

Publiclessness, gender and sexual identity
Publiclessness is a phenomenon particularly damaging for disabled women. Women are considered by urban public policies as a vulnerable group of citizens. Disabled women are also considered vulnerable, but in another way.

Summer 2007. This is one of the first warm nights of the summer. I am waiting for a bus at the corner of Lafontaine and Champlain streets. It’s 11pm and it’s very dark. There are only a few lit spots. This corner is pretty deserted. The bus arrives. The driver tells me right away: “the ramp is not working”. I ask him why. He replies: “It doesn’t work so you have to wait for the next one. The weather is great tonight!” Yes, even warm summer nights can serve as an excuse for my exclusion from the public transit system.

My experience shows how disabled women are left aside and forced to experience insecurity in urban spaces. This contributes to the separation between their gender and their body. The Montréal public transit is a good example that illustrates the degenderization of disabled women. The Montréal public transit commission has a special program that aims to improve the security of women travelling by bus at night. The service called ‘Between two stops’ is offered to women who are travelling alone on bus routes in the evening. Women can get off between two regular bus stops. This measure is presented as important for the security of women at night in Montréal. While the measure is well-established in the bus service, disabled women are often denied access to Montréal buses. By allowing disabled women to wait in the dark by themselves when the ramp does not work, the public transit commission in effect suggests to disabled women that they are not afforded the same safety measures as women in general. Therefore, the transit commission suggests that disabled women are not quite women and, therefore not deserving of the same level of security as ‘normal’ or ‘regular’ women. This also implies that disabled women are not perceived as being at risk of sexual harassment. They are not perceived as potentially sexually desirable. Montréal disabled women’s sense of belonging to any gender is continually challenged. In Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation, Eli Clare writes that disabled people are labelled as being genderless. Deprived of their gender, and also deprived of the possibility of defining their own gender, they are asexualised. In the culture of consumption, this asexualisation has a significant impact on the presence/absence of disabled women in urban spaces. Clare further explains that: “we all live in a world that both hates sex and is saturated with sex, sex plastered everywhere: television, movies, billboards, magazines, the nightly news. Yet disabled people find no trace of our sexualities in that world. We are genderless, asexual undesirables.” The denial of disabled women sexuality reinforces their publiclessness. Disabled women’s publiclessness experiences challenges mainstream understandings of what it is to be a woman in the city. Conclusion The concept of publiclessness offers the possibility to rethink the normalization of the exclusion of disabled people from urban life. Studying publiclessness brings us to think about normalcy in everyday life. This gives us the possibility to investigate how normalcy works in everyday life. I believe that disabled people need to come together and share their stories of urban exclusion and marginalization in order to expose the existence of publiclessness as a phenomenon that we must fight against. Disabled peoples’ experiences of publiclessness, which often intersects with other oppressive experiences, are so unique and rarely exposed, that novel words and definitions may be necessary to reveal their stories. As a publicless disabled young woman living in Montréal, I often need to re-imagine my city in order to convince myself that this city is also my city.

Laurence Parent is co-founder of Regroupement des activistes pour l’inclusion au Québec, and holds an MA in Disability Studies from York University, Toronto.



Bonjour Lourence, thank you so much for your article. I love your concept of publiclessness and I agree that it is imperative that we start talking about it more and more and share our experiences in this regard in order to bring about social change.

I visited Montréal this month as a tourist and had a few days to explore the city. I loved Montréal and how multicultural it is. I loved the architecture and the open spaces. I fell in love with the city and will certainly return if I have a chance. However, there were things that made me uneasy and upset in my short experience there and these are related to my experiences of the city as a disabled woman. I have a disability that is not always visible to others and I often use a cane to walk around as it helps me feel less tired and move around better. When I visited Montréal I had my cane with me at all times yet as soon as I arrived I noticed a narrative that would continue throughout my stay: the "its very nearby, you can walk" narrative. Me and my friend had lots of baggage between us and I was too tired to walk from the bus station to the hostel - plus it was our first time there, we had no idea where it was! We needed to go from the bus station to Sherbrooke East, which is very close as you know but we didnt know this at the time and even if we did we would still have taken a taxi because we were both so tired. So we took a taxi to the hostel. However, as soon as we got into the taxi the guy started YELLING at us that it was nearby and that we SHOULD have walked - even though he could SEE that I was using a cane and had a backpack and a bag. He was so mad that he refused to get out of the car and take our luggage out when we arrived at the hostel. I was a bit shocked as in Europe, where I live, cabbies also dont like to go for short rides but they are usually not this rude about it, especially when they see I am disabled.

The second experience with this narrative came when we asked the guy at the hostel if there was a bus to Vieux Montréal. Even though he could SEE I was using a cane he immediately said: "there is no need to take a bus, you can WALK". I started feeling like this narrative is prevalent. I know Montréal is not a huge city but for me long walking distances take a real toll as I get in pain and very tired and the same would be true for other disabled people. But I felt this narrative of "everything is nearby, you can walk" was so prevalent that people wouldn't even question it. I also felt like people saw me and the cane and it didn't cross their minds that I might not be able to walk long distances - it was as if they could not acknowledge that I was disabled and could not do a lot of the things other people take for granted. This was frustrating. I really felt I was operating inside a very ableist world.

The third encounter with this narrative happened when I was trying to take the metro from Place D'armes to Berri-Uqam. I know it is VERY NEAR BY but it was the end of the day and I was falling apart, I needed to rest and not walk any more. So I enter the station and I try to buy the ticket while I ask the clerk what line to take to get out near the quartier latin (I didnt know the name of the stations yet). The guy says: "You dont need a ticket, its right here, you CAN WALK". And he doesn't even sell me the ticket. So I have to say "Do you mind selling me the ticket, I want to take the metro there." So then he reluctantly gives me the ticket. Of course, as soon as I entered the metro I realized how inaccessible it is. I cannot find lifts and have to take the stairs. I realize it would be impossible for a wheelchair user, for instance, to take the metro.

Lastly, another day I was talking to the girl in the hostel and she asked me what I do etc, I explained I am a researcher in the area of disability studies and that my work is about trying to understand what we need to change in society in order to stop the exclusion of disabled people. She replies: "I have a family member that works with disabled people and I hear Montréal is one of the leading places in the world for this work." I realize that she means rehabilitation treatments for disabled people and that she doesnt understand what I am saying at all.

I really loved Montréal but I kept wondering what it was about it that made me and my needs as a disabled woman invisible to people. Reading your article helped me understand a bit more about it. At the same time, I also know that there are a lot of wonderful disability activists in Montréal who really work hard to change things for disabled people so I am sure things with get better!

Thank you again for your insightful article!
In solidarity,

Hi Ana,
I just read your post. Thanks!
Montréal is just unbelievable in terms of access... Very, very ableist city indeed!

I hope things will be better next time you are in town!