What Does “All Abilities” Mean?

Jillian Banfield on her bike on Citadel Hill.

Blog post by Jillian Banfield

A frustrating lack of clarity

When I first started in cycling advocacy, the phrase “all ages and abilities” was becoming popular. I served on a couple of municipal committees, where I could talk to active transportation staff, so I asked them – more than once – to define what they meant by “all abilities.” To my surprise, they were never able to offer a definition of the term. I expected something like, “we want to make sure that disabled people can cycle whenever and wherever possible.” But I never heard anything like that.

How can you throw around a term that’s meant to be a guiding principle of your work, but without being able to communicate a clear definition? The cynical side of me says that this a deliberate tactic to avoid transparency and accountability. The more generous side of me says that decision makers, especially those working in active transportation, are so unaccustomed to planning for and working with disabled people that they don’t realize how important it is for us to understand whether we’re really being included or not.

“All abilities” is disability erasure

The troubling lack of clarity of the term means that people interpret it differently. Gabrielle Peters has done a lot of thinking and writing around disability and active transportation, and I am heavily influenced by her insights. She points out that “all abilities” is a term that infantilizes disabled people by equating the cycling ability of children with that of disabled people. Also problematic is that “all abilities” seems to be a euphemism for disability, which implies that disability is a Bad Thing and it erases disability by avoiding the word.

So, my partner, having listened to me rant about “all abilities” for several years, suggested that I gather input from the community in an effort to more clearly define it, rather than allow city staff and politicians to continue the vague hand waving about the term. My first initiative as Bicycle Mayor was to collaborate with the Halifax Cycling Coalition on a survey to gather such input. That was just before the pandemic hit and it’s taken me this long to regroup and get the results together in a shareable form. A report is available with more detailed survey results. I encourage you to read the full report because it felt like a real privilege to have so many people share such insights and stories with me. These aren’t stories we see represented in media. The HCC also created several graphics that highlight responses to the survey. We’ll share these on social media – read and share them with your networks!

What does “all abilities” mean to Halifax?

Not surprisingly, the lack of clarity around the term “all abilities” led respondents to offer varied interpretations of what it means to them. The main themes to emerge were around disability, but also about safe infrastructure, the freedom and independence to be had from cycling, and being able to cycle with children. All of these themes are important and valid, but they also reinforce the point that “all abilities” isn’t clearly meant to include disabled people.

A few respondents said that some disabled people are never going to experience cycling. This is true and, therefore, makes the “all abilities” term even more problematic if it is meant to refer to disabled people.

Towards an understanding?

I don’t think “all abilities” is the right term. It’s inaccurate and it’s misleading. I know it’s tempting to come up with fun alliterative phrases like “all ages and abilities”, but I think accuracy, accountability, and inclusion are even more fun. As Brené Brown says, “clear is kind”.

How should we describe the cycling network? I still need Halifax’s planners and decision-makers to clearly describe who the cycling network is for so that we can all have a shared understanding. It’s hard to hold the city to account if residents have a different understanding.

Jillian Banfield is Halifax’s Bicycle Mayor. A disabled woman who found the freedom of movement through cycling, she passionately advocates for all the things that make active transportation more accessible.

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