Image: Ink sketch by the article author of the stairs down to a subway station including an advertisement sign with the legible question, INJURED?

This article is the first of a series, entitled ‘Precarious Lives’, that the author will be presenting here. 

By Jennifer Scuro

Malaysia Goodson, like many New Yorkers, used the NYC subway system to get around the city. She was stepping down the Seventh Avenue subway station stairs with her infant daughter in a stroller when she fell.  She died at the bottom of the stairs. This station did not have an elevator – which is the case in about 75% of city’s subway stations.

Response to Malaysia’s death was curious: she signaled a renewed concern about accessibility for the NYC transportation system.  This is a serious problem for an old and antiquated underground rail system, often with elevators and call buttons that are broken or inoperable.

It was curious that the prompt for this renewed concern about accessibility was a mother with a child.  There are about 100,000 wheelchair users in NYC: a large stakeholder class of residents, perhaps even larger if we think about all the ways in which stair mobility is not possible for many people for a variety of reasons – not only those who are wheelchair users.  As James Weisman, President and CEO of United Spinal Association inquires: “Now, after a young mother lost her life on the subway stairs, New Yorkers are wondering why older rail cities like Chicago and Boston have a much higher percentage of stations usable by people with mobility impairments.”

Disability advocate and author, Emily Ladau, appropriately describes the heart of the problem:

To a person who takes climbing stairs for granted, an out-of-order sign on an elevator is akin to an out-of-order sign on a vending machine in a cafeteria. Is it annoying that you can’t get your Snickers bar fix? Sure. Can you find a way around it by purchasing something else to eat in the cafeteria? Yes. In other words, elevators, much like vending machines, are often perceived as nothing more than a convenience. For me, an elevator, in addition to my wheelchair, is a surrogate for my legs. The dreaded out-of-order sign means I usually have no more than two, maybe three, options: pray that another route exists, get carried by knights in shining armor up or down stairs, or be completely stuck.

Judith Butler states in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (Verso 2004) that, “if we are to come to understand ourselves as global actors, and acting within a historically established field, and one that has other actions in play, we will need … to consider the ways in which our lives are profoundly implicated in the lives of others.”  Although Butler’s prompt in Precarious Life is a global political context post-9/11, we might utilize her insight to understand the basic humanistic imperative for a fully accessible public transportation system. How might we imagine that all New Yorkers are implicated in and by the inaccessibility of this system?

This is not a system that can be fixed by means of retrofit. Aimi Hamraie challenges retrofitting or rehabilitation strategies when it comes to access and the built environment.  Hamraie in Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability (University of Minnesota Press, 2017) challenges these assumptions about accessibility with the ‘frictions and subtleties’ of a ‘crip technoscience’:

[P]ower and privilege shape critical design and its means of enactment. My concept of “crip technoscience” takes a different approach, investigating the critical design work of how misfit disabled users, for whom estrangement is already a pervasive experience, draw on the sensibilities of friction and disorientation to enact design politics.

It was always a public transit system for an ablebodied working class in service to wealth and power. The transportation system is a long-standing but failing infrastructure demanding normative and compulsory able-bodiedness – what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson describes as the ‘normate,’ summarized here:

The normate is the composite identity position held by those unmarked by stigmatized identifiers of disability (or race or gender for that matter). The normate is the imagined everyman whose self-determination, independence, rational thinking ability, and physical sturdiness makes American democracy philosophically possible. The disabled figure–the cripple, the invalid, the idiot–comes to represent everything that the normate is not. … [In] theory, this assertion opens the possibility that by resisting oppressive representations of disability, the culture of ableism might be changed.

Our mass transit system is not failing just because of the crumbling decay of the metal and concrete, the failing signal systems or the investment in human labor, it is fundamentally failing the worker and rider populations who cannot comply within and are thereby excluded by the normate.  In a May 2019 lawsuit, the non-profit Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) argue: “The MTA has consistently engaged in major renovation projects to improve station usability for nondisabled riders—spending millions of dollars and closing stations for months to conduct the work—while systematically failing to install elevators or other stair-free routes.”

This is a system built with classism, racism and ableism as implicit priorities.  Access was for the wealthy and elite as the system was modernized under the vision of Robert Moses:

Moses was known as the great “master builder” of 20th-century New York, whose machinations helped create the city’s highway system, as well as many of its parks, beaches, pools, and bridges. But one thing’s for certain: He had absolutely no interest in public transit. …

Subways were considered outdated technology; cars and highways were the glamorous modes of transportation of the future. …

The Second Avenue Subway was a particular thorn in Moses’s side. The city attempted to build the line twice—in 1942 and again in 1954—and both times Moses prevented funds he controlled from being allocated to the project. The money went to bridges and highways instead.

In the days following Malaysia’s death, the general concern about accessibility waned once it was clear that her child – although ‘motherless’—was not hurt by the fall and that it may have been a medical condition that led to Malaysia’s death, not the fall itself. The implication was that we – the concerned public – no longer ought to be as concerned about a profound entanglement of precarity with others rendered more precarious.  The city is built as a protection from precariousness for the wealthy few, by the wealthy few, and therefore, much less so for almost everyone else. Yet, at least in this case, the story ends with Malaysia dying of a ‘condition’ and not a morally complicit lack of access; we were ‘off the hook’ so to speak.

I would argue that this should not interfere with the original problem signaled by Malaysia’s death and not minimize the weight of the instruction we ought to take by the original concern for the lives of others. And the city can be outright inaccessible if you are poor and disabled.  That is a problem and a failure that belongs as a moral concern to all New Yorkers – from Manhattan to the outer boroughs, including those who take the PATH or LIRR or Metro North – and especially the ones who are most protected from precarity and instead profit from NYC’s great power to generate wealth and resource globally.  For the latter: you know who you are if you never had to know what it is to take the bus or ride the subway to get over a bridge or through a tunnel or need to use a subway elevator to simply cross town.


Jennifer Scuro (@jenniferscuro) earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy from The New School, is an artist, philosopher, wife and mother living in Westchester, NY.  She is the author of The Pregnancy ≠ Childbearing Project: A Phenomenology of Miscarriage (Rowman & Littlefield International, Feb 2017) and Addressing Ableism: Philosophical Questions via Disability Studies (Lexington Books, Oct 2017).