My new friend Andrew and I decided to visit the MOMA today. The museum is busy but we still enjoy our visit. We find and create holes in the crowded galleries. Our wheelchairs are incredibly helpful in making up the space we need to move. The negotiation of space is happening without a hitch until a security guard sees in us an opportunity to make something out of his afternoon.
Andrew and I are wheeling very slowly — at museum speed, I guess — next to each other as we move from one gallery to another. The passage between galleries is about three times as wide as our wheelchairs. There is plenty of space for us and for other walkies.
“Careful, careful, careful!” the security guard tells us. His face is serious. He leans towards us and I can feel his desire to grab Andrew’s joystick to highjack him and take control of his wheelchair. I look around us and it takes me less than a second to understand that there is absolutely no danger around us. According to the security guard, we are the danger.
This is a microagression. Columbia University professor Derald Wing Sue, a psychologist, defines racial microagressions as
brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults towards people of color. Those who inflict racial microaggressions are often unaware that they have done anything to harm another person.(Sue, 2007)
This definition can be applied to disability.
Andrew and I look at each other. We are pissed but not surprised. We continue our way and start talking about that kind of experience. This is not the first time that someone has policed our movements based on the fact that we are disabled and use wheelchairs.
We are viewed as potential dangers because we are assumed to be unfit to move in the way that we move. The way we move challenges the ways bodies should be moving.
We all have different ways of wheeling. We all have different ways of controlling our wheelchairs. We all have different relationships with space. And the space we move in is also constantly changing.
We have abilities that non-wheelchair users don’t have. We know our wheelchairs. We have skills to drive them. We have power. And this, sometimes (often?) creates discomfort and worry. Some people and authorities react by policing us and trying to take over our bodies.
In Québec, the government regulated the maximum speed of power wheelchairs at 10 km/h a few years ago claiming that it was necessary for the safety of wheelchair users themselves and others. (Note to those who are not familiar with power wheelchairs: These fabulous tools don’t go very fast anyway. Most of them can’t go faster than 13 km/h.) Other states and countries have similar regulations. Wheelchair users claimed that this limit on the speed of their wheelchairs was an obstacle to their own safety. They claim that they should benefit from the full capabilities of their wheelchairs in order to make the best decisions for their own movements and safety. What does it mean to not be able to go faster when crossing a street when the technology would allow you to?
Last year, the Québec government decided to go further and proposed a new set of rules for people using power mobility aids. Among these, there is a rule forbidding people to wheel side by side on sidewalks, which means that conversations between two mobility aid users will become illegal in Québec. If you disrespect that rule, you’ll be subjected to a $60 fine. My friend Marie-Eve wrote a great open letter in French in which she criticizes how the State considers disabled people as vulnerable people who can’t make decisions for themselves.
Last spring, I was in a protest for accessible public transit in Montréal with Aimee, one of my friends. We were wheeling and walking on René-Lévesque in the freezing rain. There were police cars in front of the protest and in the back. The protesters were going very fast. Was it because of the freezing rain? Was it because we were not used to taking over the streets as disabled people, and didn’t want to be a disturbance for too long? I think it was both.
Aimee decided to slow down. So she slowed down. Aimee uses a four-wheel scooter. She wanted to take space. For once. To make people notice us. For once. To inconvenience people. For once.
I must admit that I was a bit intimidated by the police cars behind us. I didn’t feel confident enough to wheel next to Aimee. I was going a bit faster than Aimee and a little slower than the crowd of protesters (we were about 45, maybe 15 of us using mobility aids).
The police were getting pissed at that rebellious cripple girl on the scooter who was not going at the same fast speed as the rest of the group. They were pissed at the cripple girl who was trying to make that protest less cute and accommodating. They told her to speed up. She didn’t.
And then, someone from the group of protesters approached Aimee and tried to take control of her scooter. My friend wrote a powerful blog entry about that experience.
That intrusion to the movement of her body and her body politics came from someone who claims to fight for access for all.
We never really know whether we are in a safe space or not.
And it makes me angry. And I am happy to be angry because it means I believe that I have the right to move through this world. Happy because it means that the way I move threatens the hegemony of ableism in the construction of space and time.
We are wheeling in a dangerous time.