AuthorEmens, Elizabeth F.

Introduction 1360 I. Subway Elevators: Ellis Avery's New York City MTA Zodiac 1362 II. Access for Artists: Park McArthur's Ramps 1367 III. Access for Art Patrons: Shannon Finnegan's Anti-Stairs Club Lounge at the Vessel 1374 Conclusion 1387 INTRODUCTION

Not long before receiving tenure, a senior colleague told me that one moment in a draft of mine had prompted him to realize, for the first time, why we need accessibility for disabled people. (1) The draft was of an article eventually published under the title Intimate Discrimination: The State's Role in the Accidents of Sex and Love. (2) The setting was his office, where he had called me to deliver his comments on the last major piece for my tenure file. I was most certainly nervous.

You can imagine my relief when he told me that the article was successful. You may also share my surprise that he singled out one passage of this nearly 100-page article for special praise: an entirely fictional narrative I had invented. The passage hypothesized a disabled woman--a paradigmatic wheelchair user--and contrasted how different her romantic life would be, and how different life would be for her partner, in a highly accessible city versus in a highly inaccessible city. (3)

This colleague was a highly educated person trained as a lawyer who had been teaching law for decades. It was deeply troubling that he (apparently) did not much see the purpose of disability access before that point. But it was also intriguing to think that, if something was going to bring him along, this narrative was it. His mind was apparently changed by a fictional text--an artistic representation of sorts, and not even one with claims to literary merit.

Just over a decade later, I had the honor of participating in this powerful symposium on accessible cities at Fordham Law School, for which this Essay is a contribution. At the event, an organizer told me that that same narrative portion of my earlier article had helped to shape the symposium. (4) These two moments sparked the theme of this Essay: the power of narrative and artistic expression to shape attitudes and perceptions of disability and accessibility.

Scholars have discussed the importance of attitudes to the implementation of disability law. (5) When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed with bipartisan support in 1990, this landmark civil rights legislation broke important new ground. (6) But the courts interpreted the ADA narrowly, severely limiting its scope and impact, (7) and Congress needed to pass a revised ADA Amendments Act in 2008. (8) As this history depicts, societal attitudes matter, and when law is out ahead of attitudes, the law may have little impact. (9) This raises the vital question: What shapes attitudes?

The suggestion here, which will be presented though not proven in this short symposium piece, is that narrative and artistic expression can play a powerful role in shaping attitudes--and thus in shaping the law in action. The power of narrative is not a new subject, nor will I delve into the voluminous literature on the subject. Instead, I will take this occasion to set into relief the meaning of inaccessible and accessible New York City through the lens of several artistic works: Ellis Avery's Zodiac of the New York City subway elevators; Shannon Finnegan's Anti-Stairs Club Lounge at the Vessel in Hudson Yards; and Park McArthur's work exhibiting the ramps set up for her at exhibitions, including her own. I will return to the theme of law's role and relation to artistic production throughout and in conclusion.

One federal judge likes to say that when reading a well-written brief, you can usually tell by the end of the facts section who will win. (10) The facts in a brief are not fiction; they are not art in the usual sense. But the potency of narrative is typified by the judge's observation. How a story is told shapes a judge's prediction, and thus perhaps a judge's inclination, as to who will prevail. Throughout this Essay, the invitation to the reader is to notice, while reading, whether the narrative or artistic accounts affect your views and perceptions in the same ways or in different ways than the legal and statistical accounts. (11)


    Cancer: 34th Street/Herald Square

    One tiny elevator serving seven subway lines and the PATH train, you'd rather not work at all, moody Cancer, and when you do, your one-door configuration requires wheelchair-using passengers to turn around-- impossible in your straitened confines--or head backward into one of midtown Manhattan's most brutally crowded intersections. Hidden in a tangle of scaffolding, your metal walls offer the privacy that the padlocked bathrooms of Herald Square fail to: your aromatherapy highlights are better left to the imagination. (12) --Ellis Avery, What Sign of the MTA Elevator Zodiac Are You? In 2015, the writer Ellis Avery published an essay entitled, What Sign of the MTA Elevator Zodiac Are You? (13) Avery, whose cancer had led her to use a mobility scooter, (14) was keenly familiar with NYC's antiquated transit system. She had intimate knowledge of the insides of its (all too uncommon) elevators, which formed the basis for her clever tack in this piece.

    Avery assigned the 12 signs of the Zodiac to different elevators in New York City's subway system, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), using this conceit to elaborate on the functionality, personality, and smells of these notoriously unreliable contraptions. (15) The epigraph above features her MTA elevator Zodiac entry for a subway station not far from the building that housed the Fordham Urban Law Journal's symposium on accessible cities.

    Avery, who died in February 2019, was an award-winning novelist, (16) a poet who had written a haiku each day for 19 years, and a teacher of writing. Through her artist's eyes, Avery saw a way to convey the dreary, confining, unreliable, and sometimes just disgusting transit elevators of New York City as sites of curiosity and sensory stimulation. She found an occasion for dark humor.

    Consider this entry for a station near my own institution:

    Aquarius: 125th and Saint Nicholas

    Hey, Aquarius! The nearest accessible subway to Columbia University and located in central Harlem steps from Manhattan's only Chuck-E-Cheese, you are the life of the cross-class, interracial, world-straddling party. Although you are among the most crowded of subway elevators--and discharge passengers onto one of the busiest of urban corners--you have a poetic side: in spring your glass walls offer a glimpse of a magnificent paulownia tree whose purple flowers wow riders from blocks away. Your aromatherapy highlights? New sneaker and old coffee. (17) Avery uses her creativity in these entries to engage in some writerly activism--to call attention to the dismal state of the transit system in an inspiring way.

    Here are some less poetic facts about New York City's subway system: only 99 (18) of 472 (19) subway stations in the five boroughs are designated as "wheelchair accessible." Moreover, many of those 99 are not truly accessible in either of two ways. The first way is that some (13 of the 99) are, structurally, only partially accessible, in the sense that the elevators provide access to some but not all lines or platforms serviced by a particular station. (20) The second way is that, as users know far too well, the elevators are often out of service; according to one recent study, "on average, each subway elevator breaks down 53 times a year." (21) As a result, "[m]any riders who rely on them make it a daily ritual to check apps and websites that track out-of-service elevators," but the sites are reportedly slow to post updates. (22) All of that app-checking for service interruptions, plus the rerouting and juggling of schedules when service is out, is a taxing form of "disability admin" that drains the time and energy of people with disabilities, which I have written about elsewhere. (23)

    The lack of accessible subway stations leads to what some have called "ADA transit deserts": of the 122 neighborhoods served by NYC's subways, 62 neighborhoods lack an accessible subway station. (24) In some areas, the distance between stations with elevators is greater than ten stops--a vast transit desert. (25) Interestingly, Avery did not create 12 Zodiac entries for 12 elevators. Only ten of the signs in her elevator Zodiac are even for elevators; perhaps this is because such a meager portion of the subway stations even have elevators. (26) Lastly, it is worth adding the observation, which echoes Avery's portrayals, that where the elevators do work, "they are often tiny, foul-smelling and hard to find, positioned at the far ends of stations, forcing long wheelchair rides along narrow platforms." (27)

    The law does not cover some of what Avery chose to dramatize in her subway Zodiac entries, for instance, the smells or the single-door elevators. Still, her writing points towards a set of problems that have been the basis of multiple lawsuits, some currently underway. For example, three wheelchair users and five disability rights organizations recently brought a class action suit, Forsee v. MTA, (28) "to end the MTA's discriminatory practice of renovating stations without regard to accessibility, and to seek remediation for past violations, so that people with disabilities can use the subway system like everyone else." (29) According to the nonprofit Disability Rights Advocates, a plaintiff in the case, Forsee "builds on our victory at one station in BILS v. MTA by demonstrating that the MTA's illegal renovation at the Middletown Road station is a prevalent practice throughout the entire system." (30) And in state court, a broad coalition of disability rights groups sued the MTA and New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA) in 2017, alleging that the inaccessibility of the subway system violated the New York City...

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