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Dr. Ron Buliung, Graduate Chair of Geography and Planning, University of Toronto with his daughter
Looking at Disability and Cities with Professor Ron Buliung

Q & A with this year's Mickey Milner International Professorship keynote at the 16th annual BRI Symposium

Photo credit: Angela Lewis

For Professor Ron Buliung, geography was never his first choice in a career.

While he originally set out to become a history professor, a couple of geography classes at McMaster University triggered an early interest in Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

These early interactions with geography would ultimately lead to a doctorate in urban geography, and a position as a professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga’s Department of Geography. While Ron’s early work focused on looking at how the built environment impacts urban transportation, the birth of his youngest daughter paved the way the research he and his graduate students would conduct about disability and the city.

When his daughter was around one year of age, she was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy type two. From that point on, Prof. Buliung has been tirelessly working to educate people on the inaccessibility in our systems and spaces.

He’ll be sharing some of his research and findings in an upcoming keynote presentation at Holland Bloorview’s 16th Annual BRI Symposium.

But before he does, we got a chance to talk to him about the intersection of accessibility and geography and how he found his passion in disability studies.

Can you tell us a little bit about how you pivoted into studying disability and cities?

I can remember the day that we got my daughter’s diagnosis very clearly, you know? That moment revealed both limitations and possibilities how I looked at the world. I was troubled by the limited and quite frankly ableist approach I was taking in everyday life and in some of my work to that point. Why did it take such an extreme event to change the way that I look at the world around me?

We left the hospital that day and all of a sudden, the entire environment looked different to me. I knew that my daughter probably wouldn't walk so at the time I was pretty fixated on the barriers everywhere. From then I decided, gradually, that I wanted to dedicate my research energy into questions centered on the relationship between disability and city or disability in cities. I say gradually, because we are talking about bringing something deeply personal into the space of work – we are not required to do that, to lessen the separation between everyday life and work, doing so comes at a cost.

I do the work I do because I'm motivated to bring the shift that happened for me, to more people's lives. I especially think it’s important to get people thinking about disability who aren't working with disability or sitting with disability, on a daily basis.

You refer to yourself as an ally-parent-scholar. What does that mean in the context of your work?

These are my identities when I work and these are the labels I used to describe myself when I work in this space.

I say that I'm an ally because I experience disability and childhood through my role as a parent of a child who identifies as disabled.

And I have my unique experience as a parent, where we could be in a particular situation where I am just incredibly stressed and frustrated because I might know why a particular place is inaccessible, while my daughter might be just enjoying it completely. So, our experiences of the same place and moment are not always the same. This difference, between parent and child perspectives, is why it is critically important to center children and childhoods in research that is about them, and their lived experience.

Could you provide examples people without disabilities may not consider as barriers, but actually create inaccessible environments for people with disabilities?

One simple example is garbage day: recycling bins and green bins are all over the sidewalk. I have a photo of my daughter trying to get around a recycling bin in her wheelchair super close to the edge of the sidewalk—so, small taken-for-granted objects (i.e., a small area rug getting caught up in a power chair’s wheels) can become enormous barriers.

This is also an age-old one, but many transit stations aren't accessible. Sometimes the elevators are broken and you don't always know.

This past summer, we made it a family mission to try to get out to several parks to hike with my daughter using her power wheelchair. It was incredibly challenging because the maps of the trail areas don't convey any signals about the accessibility of trails, and if they do, they're not always accurate. In my view, disability is unsurprisingly made invisible in natural areas, privileging so-called “able-bodied” participants. Moreover, if a park labels a trail section as accessible, it would be helpful if it was actually accessible.

What can people expect to hear about during your presentation, Will This Place Always Be Like This?

Well, what do I mean by place? We can all conjure up places, schools, book stores, stadiums. But when I think about place, I think about how it was made, who made it and why, how it works or doesn’t work for people, how it could be made differently or better and, I think about what a place becomes when people inhabit or occupy it. In the case of my family, we are often making places work for us that weren't designed for us in the first place.

In my talk, I’ll be working the relationship between disability and place in a few different ways.

I will talk about my personal experience first: family stories about disability, parenting, cities, and the failure of places to work for disabled bodies. And I tell those stories to situate myself within the work that I do so people understand my position within the context of this big thing called disability. I will also use these stories as a way to show what is driving me to do the research that I'm doing to produce this research group that's working on matters concerning disability in the city. Then I discuss a few papers about disability and the journey to school.The last part of the talk will focus on some potential areas for possibilities for future research, and there are just endless possibilities, really.

Register now for the 16th Annual BRI Symposium!