Learning to Ride - Jennifer Bartlett
In April 2017, I came up with the idea of what became the (badly named) Elevator Action Group in Rise and Resist. I wanted to create a group within Rise and Resist that directly addressed the issues of people with disabilities. I came up with the idea to simply advocate for the MTA to keep the subway elevators clean and in working order. This idea was most likely born after one more uncomfortable, hot descent into to the 7 train at Grand Central Station in a filthy, pee-scented elevator. Which is only to be rivaled by NOT taking the aforementioned elevator because it wasn't working that day. Keep the elevators we do have running and clean. A simple concept.
This story is about how was I was, at one point, voted the least likely person to be concerned with elevators.
From the time I was a small child, I have had claustrophobia and a profound fear of elevators. I also have cerebral palsy, which makes it hard for me to walk, so this made for an interesting combination. In college, I remember trudging up to my philosophy classes on the 5th floor of the Humanities Building. All was fun and games, until I decided to move to New York City.
When I first arrived, I worked at an office job on the 10th floor. A large part of my day was filled with anxiety about going to and leaving work. I went as far as to quit going out for lunch and take the stairs down after work. After I left that job, I decided that I just wouldn't go into elevators anymore. This came with some consequences: I had restrictions on where I lived, worked, and visited. Whenever a circumstance would come up where I would need to take an elevator, I would be up all night fretting and obsessing. My shining, somewhat nuttiest moment, came when I was in labor with my son and insisted on walking up eleven flights of stairs to give birth. Call me stubborn.
In 2015, I started therapy. I didn't start therapy to get over my fear of elevators. I started my therapy to get over a very bad boyfriend. I loved my therapist so dearly. He was patient enough to meet me in the lobby of the building and walk up the five flights of stairs with me. Every so often, he would nudge me into the elevator. In this, I began to "learn" how to use an elevator and not a very good one.
And then I ended up facing another major fear: surgery. I had a knee operation and was in a brace. Still, I insisted on literally limping of five flights of stairs with my patient therapist behind me. At a certain point, I realized that I was actually in real danger. Not the pretend danger I made for myself, but ACTUAL danger in walking up a rickety stairwell build in the 1930's with a leg brace on. There had to be a limit. I figured if I could let a doctor knock me out and cut me open, taking an elevator was the least of my problems. Of course, it couldn't be this simple.
But it was.
All of this is to say, I have lived in New York City for 20 years and until a few years ago, I took the subway as an abled-bodied person. Those elevators were none of my business. My experience with accessibility on the NYC subway was not unlike the stories I have heard from able-bodied people. Since I never used the elevators myself, I didn't know how problematic they have been in the past few years and how few stations had them. I also didn't know about the percentage of broken elevators on any given day. In some stations, I didn't even know where they were. also didn't know how much time, energy and physical pain could be avoided by simply using the elevators - and in some cases danger of falling down stairs. It's an interesting turn of events and a concrete lesson for me. Even as a disabled person, this wasn't a problem until it was my problem. And that has been one of the most difficult things about being an activist and fighting our current government. We have to look beyond ourselves.