Can We Break the Cycle of Broken Elevators?
Four minutes. She could feel the seconds ticking away – or was that the rhythm of her pounding heart? People rushed past, all a blur, no one knowing that although the open air was all around, she was trapped. Two minutes. Her panic began to fade to a numb resignation as she realized the possibility that he might never return to the spot where she remained, coming to rescue her before it was too late. But just as she prepared to release her last shreds of hope, there he was – her hero, clothed in a deep red that made her feel finally at ease, as she knew he was in control of the situation. He held in his hands the bridge that would free her, the bridge that would lead her through the door to her destiny, just before it closed forever. She was saved!
No, that’s not an excerpt from a draft of my upcoming harlequin romance novel. That’s actually an account of my latest broken elevator encounter, which occurred at Penn Station in New York City while I raced against the clock to catch my Amtrak train, which literally left the station mere moments after the staff person assisting me finally put down the ramp over the gap and ushered me inside. This kind of drama comes about so often that the mood struck for me to take some creative liberties in recapping the experience.
Let’s be serious here, though. For people who are physically disabled, architecture and technology can either be our closest friends or our greatest foes, and unfortunately the latter is the case more often than not. And as it happens, Penn Station (a major hub for, you know, the ENTIRE state of New York) is one of the worst offenders in the realm of malfunctioning machinery. Elevators are constantly in various states of disrepair throughout the station, regularly launching me into the throes of panic and anxiety, not to mention throwing off my schedule.
“Big deal,” you might be thinking. Bad stuff happens to everyone. But the thing is, broken elevators throw more than just a slight wrench in my plans, and I’ve grown so very weary of it.
To a person who takes climbing stairs for granted, an out-of-order sign on an elevator is akin to an out-of-order sign on a vending machine in a cafeteria. Is it annoying that you can’t get your Snickers bar fix? Sure. Can you find a way around it by purchasing something else to eat in the cafeteria? Yes. In other words, elevators, much like vending machines, are often perceived as nothing more than a convenience. For me, an elevator, in addition to my wheelchair, is a surrogate for my legs. The dreaded out-of-order sign means I usually have no more than two, maybe three, options: pray that another route exists, get carried by knights in shining armor up or down stairs, or be completely stuck. This should be obvious to the point that it goes without saying.
Apparently, that’s not the case. In high school, I found myself sitting in the guidance office a few times because I couldn’t get upstairs to class. At a benefit event for the disability community, I was made to miss the event and sent to eat dinner across the street because no one bothered to check if the elevator worked before an event RELATED TO DISABILITY. After a speaking gig in New Jersey, I almost had to sleep in the train station because they allowed a train to arrive on a track where there were men right in the middle of doing maintenance on the elevator. At Penn Station, I’ve been forced to miss trains because the elevators there have a tendency to break at any moment. Once, I was trapped underground on a train platform for over an hour, and actually had to be taken to the rail yard and re-routed to a different track just to get upstairs – even though the train station’s website claimed the elevator was in working condition the entire time. And back when I interned in Washington D.C. for a summer, a Metro representative’s only response to the disability community’s complaints about the ridiculous lengths of time that elevators remained broken was: “It is what it is.”
You know what I think is the real kicker? Something that more than inconveniences meoften ends up making me feel like an inconvenience for having to go find help. How dare I should want to live my life even though I’m unable to walk. How brazen of me to be upset when I literally cannot get somewhere. How bothersome that I ask for help in finding an alternative if the elevator doesn’t work. So long as 99% of the people who need to get somewhere can get there, who cares about me or other people with mobility disabilities, even though we’re also trying to live our lives?
Of course, far be it for me to complain without proposing legitimate solutions – ones that wouldn’t even result in undue hardships! In places like train stations, there are some ridiculously easy solutions to prevent constant accessibility issues. (And since the Metro Transit Authority [MTA] in New York was recently kind enough to raise fares yet again, I bet they could find some money for it in their budget if they tried really hard and believed in themselves.) First, regular maintenance should be conducted. This just seems to be logical, but it rarely happens. And when it does, elevators are out for days, weeks, or months at a time.
Second, I’m pretty sure the MTA could part with some of their hard-earned money to hire an elevator repairman or two to be on staff and on call at all times. And although such expenses likely wouldn’t be feasible for many smaller places like office buildings or restaurants, it really wouldn’t be that difficult for someone in places like these to take on responsibilities to quickly check on the status of the elevators and call for repairs right away if necessary.
See? Simple. Constant accessibility problems like this should have tapered off years ago as technology continues to improve and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 brought disability issues into a broader light.
I want to be sure to fully acknowledge my awareness of the fact that elevator trouble isn’t the most pressing issue when there are disabled people facing abuse, poverty, and endless other forms of discrimination. But when society fails to work harder to eliminate even the simplest of structural barriers, it doesn’t speak well about their attitude towards the numerous other prejudices against disabled people that have yet to be resolved.
Emily Ladau is a writer and disability rights activist whose passion is to harness the powers of language and social media as tools for people to become informed and engaged social justice advocates. She maintains a blog, Words I Wheel By, as a platform to address discrimination and to encourage people to understand the experience of having a disability in more positive, accepting, and supportive ways. You’re welcome to connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.