At the beginning of last semester, I trudged across campus to my library, my bag full of heavy books, my hips aching and knees popping. It was not a good day for walking. After entering the library, I headed straight to the elevator, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to walk up a flight of steps without more pain. I went to hit the button and then realized a note had been taped over the buttons. The note, scrawled on a pink piece of cardstock in dark black ink, said:
Don’t use this elevator! Save energy and take the stairs instead!
I pulled off the note, threw it in the trash, and continued on my way.
The next day, I found myself needing to use an access button on a door to a classroom building. My hands were full of books, and I was once again exhausted and sore and didn’t know if I could handle the heavy door. Once again, I went to press the button and saw a typed, laminated note that said:
Stop! Do you need to use this button? Having the doors open for so long is energy inefficient and makes it more difficult to heat or cool the building. Please do not use this button if you are able bodied.
This time I didn’t use the button. Able-bodied people sometimes use elevators, but able-bodied people don’t use access buttons. Because my illness involves flare-ups and is not always visually recognizable, I have the privilege of passing as completely able-bodied in many areas of my life. I look like any healthy college student- I ride my bike and walk wherever I can to save on gas, and except for a higher than normal amount of absences, I seem to perform pretty well in class and don’t usually need much help from people. But the fact is, there are days when I hurt so much that little conveniences- like being able to use access buttons and elevators, or even drive my car to class instead of walking- can make the difference between being able to participate in class, study, and have something loosely resembling a social life, and laying in bed for the rest of the day. Using the button in this situation would label me as a lazy able-bodied person who wastes energy, not a thrifty ill person low on spoons, and I was in such a bad mood that I just didn’t want to get into it with any random stranger who might confront me.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this policing of bodies. Bodies are placed into two categories- able bodied or disabled- and both of these categories are entirely reliant on what kind of work that body can perform. Does this body walk? Does this body need assistance to walk? Has this body ever been able to walk? If someone needs to use a wheelchair or crutches to walk, or is elderly, that person qualifies as disabled. If someone can walk without visible assistance and is relatively young, than that person is able-bodied. There are probably exceptions to this rule, but I really do think that the ability to walk is what signifies disability more than any other physical marker. Access buttons, parking spaces, and bathroom stalls all employ a picture of a wheelchair to imply that they are accessible to people with disabilities, even though many people with disabilities don’t use wheelchairs.
A friend of mine on campus also has an invisible illness, one that affects her much more than mine affects me. She has handicapped parking tags and often drives her car to different lots of campus instead of walking to class. Over the course of the year, she’s gotten six parking tickets from public safety. When she contests these tickets, the public safety officers claim that they didn’t “see” her placard- even though it’s hanging in the window of her car and has her photograph on it! The idea that a person’s youth and appearance of unencumbered walking trumps official documentation of an invisible disability shows just how much body policing happens in regards to accessibility and accommodations.
Certain friends still tell me to stop taking the elevator or to drive my car less. When I explain to them that I only do these things when I hurt too much to take the stairs or walk, they claim that they “forgot” about my illness. One friend even said recently, “Oh man, I thought you were over that shit.” Even among my friends, who are aware of my illness, the image of me walking without assistance is that of an essentially able-bodied person, who, because she can sometimes climb the stairs with no trouble, must always climb the stairs with no trouble. Body policing leaves no room for temporary disability or temporary ability; instead, all bodies are judged based on what they can do right now (and therefore, what they always should be capable of doing). If I should not use the button if I am able-bodied, does that mean that if I use it now I am disabled? What if I am disabled today-meaning I can’t open the door- but able-bodied tomorrow? If someone sees me opening the door one day, and pressing the button the next, that does not signify temporary disability- it signifies a lazy able bodied person who wastes resources. Since gas prices are going up and Americans are more aware than ever about the value of petroleum as a commodity, and more people are “going green,” I think we’re going to see a lot more policing of bodies in the months ahead.
What can be done about this? I’m trying to get it through to people as much as I can that ability, regardless of what kind of ability it is, is a temporary state. Sometimes I have good days and take the stairs. Sometimes I have bad days and take the elevator. Sometimes I have good days and take the elevator to avoid the chance of my day turning into a bad day. All of these decisions are mine to make, and are no one else’s business. I think it’s important that we remind people of this as much as possible, and that we check ourselves and the way that we consciously or unconsciously police other’s bodies. How many people haven’t scrutinized the person using the handicapped parking space, or the walking person using an access button? Sometimes it’s out of curiosity. I know I sometimes think “Hey! I wonder if that person has what I have!” But I think that more often than not it’s an unconscious policing of ability that threatens to undo any strides that have been made towards universal accessibility. After all, what’s the point of making a building universally accessible if people feel like they have to prove their need to use it?