Body Police- BADD post

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?


14 Responses to Body Police- BADD post

  1. The Goldfish says:

    Thanks for contributing today – and welcome to the blogosphere!

    I’ve played both roles myself; these days I use a wheelchair most of the time outside the house, but my walking used to be much better – and like yourself, I was the vision of a fit young person. The number of times I’d be called lazy for getting a taxi, or the bus driver would threaten to charge me double for only using the bus to travel a few stops (a distance “anyone” should be able to walk).

    The thing is, I may be terribly naive but I’ve never met any non-disabled person who was so spectacularly lazy; if you’re fit, it is often quicker to take the stairs and it’s certainly cheaper to walk places. I wonder what it is that makes people suspicious of one another? Or is it the idea of disability as a charitable status?

  2. threesquaremeals says:

    That’s crazy about the bus driver wanting to charge you double! I have noticed on the bus that I have to abandon all notions that I’m entitled to sit when it’s full. I just don’t look disabled enough, and older people and women with babies get really annoyed. I tend to always give my seat to the women with babies anyway- if I fall on the bus, that would be pretty bad, but if a woman with an infant falls on the bus that would be really awful!

    That’s true about it being quicker to take the stairs. I wondered about that too. I don’t know about England, but I’d say in the United States it has something to do with the Protestant work ethic. I’ll have to think about ti some more though.

  3. I’ve seen those things too. Don’t use if it you are able bodied? That’s terrorizing — it forces you to make a public decision on the spur of the moment about whether you want to be seen as disabled — not whether you are — and all you want to do is open the door. EEEEEuk.


  4. kethry says:

    haven’t seen those notices, but i do know what you mean about being judged if you’re ablebodied or faking it. I have one of those bus passes that allows you to concessionary travel on the basis of being disabled.. i feel sometimes very judged by the bus driver purely because i don’t *look* disabled (i get it on the basis of my deafness), and even more so because i’m somewhat overweight, and if i take a short bus trip rather than walk – which i do sometimes, if my back is hurting – you would not believe the filthy looks i get.. argh. drives me crazy.

    thanks for a thought provoking post..


  5. Mary says:

    I’m not sure what’s worse – being told “you’re not disabled and don’t need to use that button/badge/space/loo/etc” by an ablebodied person, or by another disabled person who just doesn’t acknowledge what they can’t tell from a glance.

  6. threesquaremeals says:

    Thanks for all the comments! Wheelchairdancer, I really like your use of the word “terrorizing.” I’ve been thinking a lot about police states and the way that “terror” terminology is used to keep bodies in line. For instance, at the airport you have to take out you computer, and your shoes, and your coat, and sometimes you even get a pat down from a total stranger- all in the name of keeping the state free of “terrorists.” If you disobey, you are detained and interrogated, and that threat is a form of terrorism in and of itself. So in a way, inspecting bodies to see if they look disabled enough to use things built for disabled people could be construed as a way of terrorizing people into acting (and therefore, working productively) as able-bodied, even when it causes harm to their own body or health. Hmm…

    Another thing I was thinking about was those sidewalk cutouts. I had a professor once bluntly assert that those cutouts were a waste of state funds. He asked the class “How many people in wheelchairs have you ever seen use them?” Since my best friend at the time used a wheelchair I answered “Every time I go out with my friend,” but I didn’t even take into account the number of people who can’t climb a step without a handrail for whom those cutouts are super helpful. Also, there are lots of people pushing groceries in carts or babies in strollers who use those cutouts all the time. But because they were being used by people who weren’t using wheelchairs, my professor declared them a waste of funds. I wonder how that fits into all of this.

    Kethry, my girlfriend has a mild form of cerebral palsy and has resisted getting a bus pass just for that very reason! And the policing of overweight bodies fits into this discussion perfectly as well. The idea that being overweight is a result of personal (selfish) choices that could be easily remedied by walking a few extra blocks is absolutely absurd, and yet it persists systematically in all sorts of ways.

  7. Penny says:

    Brava! I quoted you in my roundup of BADD’s most striking sentences. This is a really fine post.

  8. Jan says:

    Thought provoking. thanks for the BADD post.
    I am also giving away a GIFTS book to those that come my way, to pass on or to keep.

  9. jadelennox says:

    Fabulous post. I have had a subway operator yell at me for using the disabled gate (with my disabled pass, which had my photograph on it!), because “I’ve seen you running to catch the train before”. And I do use the automatic door opener buttons and take the elevators — not because I can’t walk, but because I can’t open the fire doors in my office — and people look at me funny all the time. That is, if they don’t wait until I push the automatic door opener button, and then shove in front of me.

    And this notion of temporary disability is right on the nose. There have been times I’ve chosen not to do something I knew I could, because I know that somebody else would look at me and decide that I am better and they no longer need to worry about accommodations for me.

  10. jadelennox says:

    Also, at my graduate school, there was one classroom where they put huge signs over the automatic door opener buttons which said “DON’T USE. These let light into the room.” And they put these up completely blocking the buttons.

  11. Sara says:

    The fact that your friend has to actually spend some of her precious “spoons” arguing bloody parking tickets infuriates me.

    Also, whenever we park in a reserved spot, if my true love is driving I get really nervous if he doesn’t immediately whip out my placard and hang it from the rearview mirror before even turning off the engine. I fear the very look of the local “police,” you see, the withering Glare of Disapproval my townspeople adopt as they scrutinize vehicles parking in these spots.

    Perhaps I fear karmic retribution for my own policing activities. 😉

  12. NTE says:

    This idea of a public that’s constantly policing just how disabled you really are sure hit home with me. Before I had to use the wheelchair all the time, I would get such lectures from people who saw me walking on a good day. When I lost a lot of weight because I couldn’t eat anything but crackers for 5 months, I went along a spectrum from “you must be feeling so much better – Look how good you look!” to “Maybe you should stop losing weight, then you’d have more energy.” When I started being unable to exercise and was put on certain medications, only to start gaining weight, I went from “You’re looking so fit, good for you!” to “You know, you’d certainly feel much better if you ate better and exercised more: that extra weight can’t be good for your health.” All of these judgements had absolutely NOTHING to do with how I was feeling, how sick I actually was. It would be nice if people could accept that fact, rather than continue to try to ‘police’ the lives of others. What you see? Sure as hell aint what you get.

  13. Nobby says:

    I walk, (some what) yet I use Accessible Toilets.

    Some day someone no doubt will accost me for doing so, at which point I shall point out my Orthopedic Boots and smile.

    I am in an interesting situation where for years compensation people have discriminated against my “mental” (Brain) injuries on the basis that I am fully physically fit for work.

    I have always been amused that they totally ignore my physical limitations in attempting to reach their “future intentions” (Exit from the compensation scheme) toward me.

    I have been assessed into oblivion as far as Brain Injuries go,

    Nobody will risk employing me yet that seems of no concern,

    Yet some people expect me to produce great art works for them as favour, to give me something to do.

    For free of course!

    I am upright therefore I am seemingly in the image of God.

    To compound matters my Parents kept me as far out of the Disability Systems hands as they possibly could when growing up.

    Never asked for help so he must be fine.

    I avoid Medical people as I have had two examples of people convinced that they could “cure” my chemical sensitivities

    With Asthma and “other patent medicines”. BEWARE Cholesterol lowering Statins they can be nasty!

    I had one Doctor who dared to put “Brain Injury” on a medical certificate and he was immediately “Ordered” to produce a replacement certificate without mention of brain injury

    and to cover this an attempt was made to charge my Caregiver with fraud for signing on my behalf as being the reason for the new certificate.

    I am now entering yet another battle in which my “Mental Injuries” have once again been dropped from my records and I am being sent to yet another Occupational Medical Specialist.

    From which no doubt another round of Specialist Visits will result
    and I shall either be pronounced physically fit for full time work

    OR visit yet more “neuro” people and have my broken brain once again quantified and then any suggestions of rehab assistance ignored.

    My blog is temporarily devoid of much as we have had to employ a Solicitor, in a no fault compensation system to try and get my identity re corrected,
    my history returned to reality and past diagnosis entered so that the Occupational Medical Assessor can at least base his report on some sort of reality

    The most interesting thing is that those “Clerks” making pronouncements of my being physically fit totally repeatedly ignore even their own Corporation Legal and Expert Medical Findings.

    When asked about missing information the reply is “We may no longer hold such information and it is up to you to prove we ever did.

    “Meeting Key Performance Indicators” certainly encourages the “Body Police” in this part of the world it seems.

    Letter Claiming that it is “Too Dangerous” to have an accident compensation claim results

    In letters saying that at no time has anybody said you present a danger to compensation staff.

    Humour always seems to arise in dire situations I should be as miserable as sin but in actual fact it has all become rather farcical and funny, must be the brain injury kicking in.

    I have an 1854 Lutheran Bible which tells me somewhat the history of Generations of my family.

    Compo people have about 13 large volumes of collected information about someone they claim is me, with a small handwritten comment on the first page “Original Claim details may be incorrect”

  14. Kris says:

    Someone linked me to this post and it really hit home for me. I have a form of arthritis which has periods of flare up- I’ve had it since I was 10 and it’s been gradually getting worse. The result of this is that sometimes, on a good day, my joints are all behaving and I have no problems taking the stairs instead of the elevator, carrying books and equipment, etc.

    On bad days, my ankles hurt, my knees hurt, my lower back hurts, my wrists and hands hurt, and on REALLY bad days one of my hips actually occasionally gives out under my weight. Needless to say, on those days I have no intention of taking the stairs or walking any more than I have to. However, I often get looks when I take the elevator only a couple of floors, because I don’t LOOK disabled. I could carry a cane, but then that’s one more thing to juggle which is not always a benefit.

    It’s really very frustrating. Luckily, my professors and the disability office have been very understanding so far.

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