Alex Bulmer with her guide dog
Toronto will be hosting the Para-Pan Am Games next summer. Some 1,500 athletes with physicial disabilities will be participating in 15 sports at the event.
And it's high time Toronto got its act together and the facts straight: people who live with disability deserve to live in a society that respects their cultural practice, understands their access needs and, at the very least, delivers services in accordance with the provincial laws.
I learned this first-hand on a recent trip to my home city where I had previously lived for 17 years before moving to the UK.
I am blind and travel with a guide dog so wanted to book a hotel room for three nights in a particular part of the city I was familiar with.
I outlined all of this while on the phone with four different hotels and was stunned when one of these proposed that, because I have a guide dog, I would be charged an extra "pet" fee, which was $100 per night on top of the cost of the room.
I had just finished a job as an actor in a production with Self Conscious Theatre Company, Theatre Centre and The Abilities Centre in Whitby. The play, The Book of Judith, challenged assumptions of dignity, ability, inclusion, and power. Indeed. The work toward a barrier-free Ontario still has several acts to get through and will require a cast of thousands.
Eventually I made a reservation with the Hilton at Peter and Adelaide. No additional pet charge was mentioned on the phone but when I arrived at the front desk with my guide dog and luggage in hand, there was no reservation to be found.
After much insistence from me, the person at the front desk found my name booked with a Hilton on Jarvis.
I could not accept as I had outlined when the booking was made of my need to be in a location west of University and near Queen.
After much argument, they agreed to send me to the nearby Marriott for three nights and assured me that the room charge would be the same as the one they had quoted me. Two friends were with me at the time, and supported my travel with my luggage to get to this new location.
When I arrived, the staff said that only one night had been reserved and that, in addition to the price I'd been quoted, there would be an up front mandatory extra charge for my dog, under their pet policy.
I asked for the manager and explained that I had been assured three nights. I also explained that my dog is not a pet or a luxury. I require his services for safety and mobility.
The manager argued the dog would leave hair in the room and so a housekeeping charge would be required, which couldn't help but make me wonder if long-haired women pay more while bald men get a discount.
I said that I thought this was a breach of the Ontario Human Rights Code.
He insisted. If I wished to stay I would be charged the extra fee just like all other pet owners.
Needless to say, I was frustrated. I asked to speak to a more senior person on staff. The manager disappeared and returned a few minutes later to tell me that he could see I was clearly stressed and on this single occasion he would make an exception.
But he also added that I should be aware this was not policy and I should know what to expect next time when bringing a dog to the hotel.
Since leaving the Marriott, I have done some research.
The policy of the Canadian Registry of Therapy Animals and Service Animals is clear: "Neither a deposit nor a surcharge may be imposed on any individual with a disability as a condition to allowing a service animal to accompany them onto a business premises, even if such deposits are routinely asked of owners bringing their pets"
I also spoke to the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Their rules are quite clear:
"Asking a disabled person to pay an extra fee for their assistance animal is in breach of the Human Rights Code. To refer to an assistance dog as a "pet" or apply "pet" policies to such animals is in breach of the code."
I will be taking further action with the Marriott and other hotels I dealt with so that they are aware of their discriminatory practices.
Those of us who are disabled must hold onto our rights and keep shining a light toward inclusion, especially when others try to keep us in the dark.
I also encourage all citizens of Ontario to speak out against discrimination of any kind. We all have a role to play in creating inclusion, a potential masterpiece that will benefit everyone.
Alex Bulmer is a former Toronto-based playwright and actor. Her 2000 play Smudge was nominated for both a Chalmers Playwrighting Award and two Dora Awards. She currently lives in the UK.