I was supposed to go to Long Island today to meet the last person I was going to interview before I go back to Montréal on Saturday. But… winter.
The roads were slippery because of a mix of rain, freezing rain and melting snow, and the person I was supposed to interview cancelled. At the same time, she spared me from the chaos of the beginning of the Thanksgiving holidays that probably awaited me at Penn station.
Over the last two months, I’ve met a lot of great people, and I’ve interviewed 16 disabled people living in New York. Before I came to NYC, I knew only a few activists, artists and scholars I had met at conferences or other events, and through my Facebook networks.
I remember being worried at first that I would not be able to meet many people, even though NYC is a big city. I knew that I was just one more person asking them to talk about their lives for free. Disabled people are frequently asked to be part of research projects and are often left feeling disempowered in the process. I have been told that an NYU association for disabled students even changed their name in the hope that fewer people would contact them for research purposes. The association wanted to be something else that a potential research participant agency.
It was important for me to do something that would be meaningful to the people who agreed to be part of my project. I thought that if I tried to involve people in the project as much as possible, they might be more interested in participating. My call for participants explained that we would meet twice and that they would be invited to take photos and videos during the interview. A third meeting could be arranged to edit the videos and the photos and upload them onto a map of the city. It didn’t take me long to realize that asking for people to commit to at least two interviews before even meeting with me was not a good idea. People in NYC are busy. Also, they don’t really know if they will feel like meeting twice. So I changed my call for participants and started getting in touch with different people.
I also met some people at events I attended in the city. I found it sometimes awkward to connect with new people hoping that they would agree to participate in my research. As a researcher, I was obviously looking for people who had stories to share. As a visitor in NYC, I was also wanted to meet interesting people for the sake of meeting interesting people. Negotiating these two interests has been a great experience. I have become friends with a few of the people I’ve met.
During my first interviews, I’d bring an interview guide with a million questions. It quickly became clear that I wouldn’t be using that guide. The conversations were easy to start and people were very generous with their answers. I was more nervous at the beginning. After a few interviews, I started feeling more confident and like I was better at asking questions.
During the interviews, people shared very personal stories with me. In some cases, they opened the doors of their home or their workplace to me. In other cases, they guided me in spaces they generally avoid and in spaces they feel proud of navigating with confidence, in spite of the obstacles and hostility they face. They shared their techniques and memories they use to navigate the city. Some people who have been living in the city for a while told be how the city has changed over time, and other people told me about their initial impressions of NYC when they moved here.
We also talked about things that may not seem to be linked to their sense of belonging in the city, but are. Like love stories. Because sometimes a broken city can end a love story and break your heart.
Many of them shared stories about how belonging starts at home. The struggle to find accessible and affordable housing with appropriate home care is real. NYC is one of the only cities in the United States to offer 24/7 home care (note here that it is not easy to get the service in the first place). This is what keeps two people I have interviewed from moving away from NYC.
The wheeling interviews have been fun. Setting up all my equipment has been a physical challenge. Things got even more complicated when it got cold outside. My movements are more limited when I have a winter coat and my fingers are freezing. I had two Go Pro cameras, two camera mounts, two microphones, two audio recording devices. One of the two camera mounts required quite a bit of strength to use. I absolutely needed help to use it. At home, I had my mom’s help. On the streets, I had to ask to strangers for assistance. Sometimes it is the participants who asked. We worked together to find the best way to attach the camera to their wheelchair, when they had one. On one occasion, it turned out to be impossible to attach the camera. The participant decided to hold it in her hand.
Together we learned how to make these mobile technologies work for us. Through the interview, we sometimes had to stop because the cameras had moved and were in another position. Displaced cameras show how our bodies and wheelchairs enter in contact with the city. We can feel the sidewalk cracks, the absent curb cuts, the proximity of other people on crowded streets and subway cars.
I am going to Montréal better prepared to continue my research. It is in NYC that I have learned some of the difficulties and the possibilities of my research methods.
I am looking forward to going back home to listen to these interviews. And to transcribe every single one of the words they shared with me.
To all the people I have interviewed or who have showed interested in my research, thank you.
I already know that I will be coming back to meet again with some of you. I will just wait for this winter to end.