Thursday, September 20, 2012

Stairs versus elevator: Round 1...fight!

Elevator button panel with the second floor button covered with a drawing of stairs taped over the button, the raised number 2, and the Braille number)
Ableist to say the least, moreso with the taped Braille
I was on Twitter and came across a tweet from Amanda at Fat Body Politics that really got my brain going.  The tweet had this photo of an elevator button panel (the photo on the right).  This photo has been going around my Facebook feed between my physical activity & public health scholar friends and my body size & dis/ability activist friends, with some varied results.

Many of my public health & physical activity-minded friends talk about how every day physical activity needs to be encouraged, like taking the stairs instead of using the elevator (also called "non exercise activity thermogenesis" or NEAT for short).  Sounds pretty benign huh?  What this seems to lead to is architecture that places stairs in a very easy to find and access places and the elevator in an inconvenient (many times hidden) place.  The other mode of thinking with this style of architecture is to keep the elevator more clear for folks who need it (people with mobility impairment or people hauling carts of equipment), but it can backfire.

So what's wrong?  Well, I'll use my personal experience as an example.  On days that I use a cane (or when my nerve damage wasn't as severe, on the days that I could manage without a mobility aid), I have to make a bunch of choices when I need to get to a different floor of a building (the same decisions happen with entering a building that has stairs, just sub "elevator" with "ramp").

Can I safely use stairs today?  Am I feeling my legs well enough to not trip going up the stairs or fall down the stairs?  Will taking stairs that are closer to my destination use more spoons than trying to find the elevator that's tucked away, nowhere near my current or final destination?  Will taking the stairs lead to pain that makes me unable to work, do scholarly activities, or even work out (and do more efficient physical activity) later in the day?  Which option will cause me less social grief as a fat person (because my body is seen as proof that I am sedentary simply because of its size)?

Not all disabilities are visible Some disabilities wax and wane in their visibility (see my post PassOut for an example).  A lot of invisible disabilities and illnesses involve a huge energy management component, and elevator usage can help that person live a more fulfilling life....when we aren't barraged with messages that tell us that we're horrible people for using the elevator for a "short distance" or that we're fat/out of shape/sick/disabled because we don't use the stairs for whatever reason.

As a doctoral student in kinesiology, I would love it if people were more active.  It's what I study.  It's something I'm passionate about.  But...making healthist remarks about elevator usage doesn't help people become less sedentary.  It's shaming and shame doesn't help people become healthier and happier people.  Shame creates stress and the biomedical literature shows over and over again that long-term stressors (like shame, bigotry, and structural inequality) create less healthy people.

So instead of creating more problems in people's lives over whether or not taking the stairs is a part of their healthy life, how about this.  We make sure that both modes of transportation are clearly marked in a way that encourages people to listen to their bodies, keeps them safe, and keeps them happier in the long run.


  1. In case you weren't sure if this was ableist or not, the tape is covering up the braille.

    1. Thanks for pointing that out. I mentioned it in the alt-tag for the image, but forgot to mention it in the actual text or the caption...changing that now!

  2. I can totally relate to the great elevator debate. Some days I'm doing pretty good walking, and others I use my wheelchair. Its always interesting to watch people's reactions as I get into the elevator to go up a level. Then to watch the same peoples reactions on the days I use my wheelchair. I'd much rather take the stairs some days, but my body decides for me. Keep up the great war