What: A vandalistic campaign designed to highlight how exclusionary the build environment is for people with disabilities
Who: Abled and Disabled Activists
Where: Products of Design class “Thesis I” under the guidance of Andrew Schloss
When: Products of Design, Semester 3
Why: A subject matter expert who had cerebral palsy and used a wheelchair noted during an interview that “people who are sitting are less participatory in society”. Once I started looking at the built environment around me, I began to understand just how true this was — and the lesson was underscored dramatically for me when I spent a week in a wheelchair commuting to and from graduate school. A 20-minute commute stretched out to an hour because I could no longer take the subway, but instead had to wait for the bus. I read articles about how many courthouses and restaurants in New York City were inaccessible to people in wheelchairs; I learned that businesses like Lyft and Uber did virtually nothing to guarantee that disabled people could use their services.
How: In order to surface this truth to more people, I conceived of a vandalism campaign that used graffiti to highlight inequities in the built environment. Not only is graffiti “one of the most enduring acts of protest,” according to journalist Emily Colucci, but it also “takes back space from regulated society”. I was interested in using graffiti because of its intimate connection to physical space, its historical use in reclaiming that space for marginalized communities, and its high visibility. The dubiously named graffiti artist Wanksy similarly used graffiti to call attention to neglected potholes in his neighborhood by painting phalluses around potholes and forcing his local officials to take action.
I chose targets for the campaign. The MTA is a nefariously inaccessible system in New York City. Transit enthusiast Matthew Ahn created a subway map that only showed the locations of the accessible subway stations in New York, effectively eliminating 70% of the map. I then imagined that this graffiti campaign would begin at vandalizing subway maps in stations, to surface this ugly truth about the transit system. It would move on to claim spaces for disabled individuals within the context of the transit system - within the trains themselves. The point would not be to necessarily allow people in wheelchairs to use seats on the subway, but instead to surface the difficulty with which disabled people navigated within the subway system.
From there I moved on to challenge the Silicon Valley darlings Lyft and Uber. Though these businesses claim to be socially responsible, and try to establish a friendly brand image, they have been notoriously unreceptive to the needs of people with disabilities. A counterculture graffiti campaign could help expose the false narrative behind that public image. The taxi system that they endeavor to replace is just as bad, with just 4% and 14% of the yellow and green cabs, respectively, being accessible to the disabled public.
Restaurants can also be among the worst offenders - even if a restaurant is nominally accessible because it does not have steps leading into its entrance, the layout of the restaurant could have profound implications for the mobility of disabled patrons. If the bathroom is too narrow, or is down a flight of steps, people with disabilities are effectively excluded from using that restaurant. This is ultimately isolating for the individual with disabilities, not least because restaurants tend to become nexuses of social behavior. Not being able to join a group of friends for dinner, despite sounding frivolous, is actually an emotional and mental blow for the individual with SCI/D. I thus decided to implement an accessibility rating, similar to the health rating currently given out by the city’s department of health.
The biggest target was saved for last - the Justice Department. Within the confines of New York City, the justice department is a worst offender when it comes to accessibility. Courthouses across the city are plagued with accessibility problems or broken down elevators, effectively depriving disabled New Yorkers of their fundamental rights to due process.