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Rethinking Access, Rethinking (My) Feminism

June 17, 2010

Image via NYT

There’s a post that’s been percolating with me for some time, and I’ve put it off over and over again–partially because it is personal to me, but mostly because I have feared not doing a good job.  The latter is still a distinct possibility, but it seems to me that I have a responsibility to try, even if that involves making mistakes.

The image at the top of this post is of the U.S. Supreme Court’s new entrance requirements.  You may or may not recall that, back in May, the Court announced that, for security reasons, it would no longer allow entrance through its main door at the top of the Courthouse steps.  Instead, as the illustration indicates, visitors may enter through the side doors at ground level.  The New York Times article reporting this change minces no words about the decision, opening with the declaration that this alteration is “ripe with symbolism about access to justice in the age of terror.”  The report continues,

And it is not just any front door. For decades, people with cases before the court, their lawyers and those who just came to see the arguments have climbed the grand steps arrayed in front of the courthouse’s marble columns, passed under the inscribed words “Equal Justice Under Law” and walked through a passage flanked by two six-ton bronze doors that show historic scenes in the development of the law.


Justice Stephen G. Breyer issued an unusual statement, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, expressing regret about the court’s decision.

“Writers and artists regularly use the steps to represent the ideal that anyone in this country may obtain meaningful justice through application to this court,” Justice Breyer wrote.


Visitors, once screened, will still be allowed to leave through the front door. But the symbolic statement of forbidding entry, Justice Breyer said, was a momentous one. “This court’s main entrance and front steps,” he wrote, “are not only a means to, but also a metaphor for, access to the court itself.” [emphasis mine]

Yes, yes, Justice Breyer.  Anyone can use the steps to access the court.  Anyone can walk under those grand “equal justice under law” columns.   Anyone can access justice just by skipping up the front entrance.

Except, just kidding, they can’t.  And we can see that they can’t if we just look at the Supreme Court’s illustration of the new entrances above, which is included with the New York Times article reporting otherwise. There, on the left: “This entrance is wheelchair accessible.” The main, grand, marble entrance–the one promising equal access, equal justice–isn’t equally accessible.  It’s not accessible to people using wheelchairs, people with  disabilities that make walking up giant marble staircases a problem, or people with children in strollers, or people who are several months pregnant, to name a few.  People in these circumstances have always had to use the side entrance, the symbolically denigrated entrance.  And the fact that using the same entrance as these people is cause for poetic outrage should make us stop and think a bit.

I confess that this is something that I did not always stop to think about, and it is something that I, still, have to work to remind myself to think about.  Our world is, for the most part, organized as if particular bodies–the ones that climb stairs and walk without pain (or at all), and so on–were the only ones that existed or mattered.  And this makes remembering those bodies that don’t conform to ‘our’ standards–those people who don’t conform to ‘our’ standards–particularly difficult.  Until ‘we’ become one of ‘them.’

Many years ago, I was in an accident that significantly affected my physical abilities, and that taught me first hand the meaning of what people in disability studies refer to as being “Temporarily Able Bodied.”  My life was altered significantly as a result of the accident: I used a wheelchair (and sometimes a mobility scooter) for what seemed like a very long time, then walked with a cane for a much longer time after that.  I learned what it means to always have to go the long way around to the back of buildings, to rely on strangers to pick me up when these back entrances weren’t available, to be infantilized and de-sexualized by everyone around me, to be talked to as though I were incapable of understanding  anything or having my own thoughts, to go into stores where I could not reach the counter to pay, to endure the public embarrassment of having to use an airplane bathroom with the door open, separated from the rest of the cabin by only a flight attendant with a blanket–following which several of my fellow passengers felt entitled to ask what, exactly, was wrong with me.  My body became, it seemed, a piece of public furniture, like an interesting park bench that people might just as easily ignore or look through as comment on or touch whenever they felt like it.  I learned that, I felt it, and I knew then that there was something deeply wrong with the way the world worked.  And I wondered how I could have possibly missed it before.

And then, over many years, my injuries began to heal, until finally I was able to walk and run and use bathrooms almost as I had before the accident.  Today, there are still days with pain, but for the most part, I have returned to being Temporarily Able Bodied.  And, though it is difficult to admit, too often I find myself falling into ableism through that privilege.  I pick restaurants and event venues that are not accessible.  I don’t provide transcripts for videos that I post on this blog.  I use the word “crazy” at the drop of a hat, and I presume that everyone’s body works in the same way mine does, if it looks basically like mine.

This is a problem.  It’s a problem not primarily because I didn’t learn anything from having my able-bodied privilege temporarily taken away, but also because my failure to interrogate the way I use my privilege on a daily basis has consequences for many people–including the denial of their humanity, and the implicit exclusion of them from my work in anti-oppressive movements.  Renee at Womanist Musings puts it really well when she writes (in a post I encourage you to read in its entirety):

Disableism is not viewed by many as seriously as racism, though its effects can be just as devastating.  When you have disabled women being raped and impregnated by their caregivers, employment discrimination, housing discrimination, an inability to enter a store to buy a fucking stick of gum, I fail to see how this cannot be taken as a serious issue.  Perhaps people don’t think it is sexay enough to make headline news, but for those of us on the receiving end of diseablism, it is painful in ways that I cannot even describe to you.

When I assume that all women face unwanted sexualization in the same way that I do, or when I presume that access to pregnancy prevention is the most important thing to all women–I behave exactly as Justice Breyer, ignoring the existence of vast numbers of women.  Or worse, telling them that their experiences, because they are not mine, do not matter.  That they do not matter–to me, or to my ostensible feminism.

This is not something I want to do, but it is something that I do, despite my Road To Hell-pavement-worthy intentions.  I want to do a better job with this, and that starts today.

If feminism means anything anymore, it surely means working against all forms of oppression–even, or especially, those we participate in upholding.

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