To think about mobility disability is to think about norms of speed and ranges of motion; perhaps also of desired ends. Rousseau long ago declared in The Social Contract that the cripple who wants to run and the able-bodied man who doesn’t will both remain where they are. But by focusing on internal resources and intentions, Rousseau forgot to mention all those whose mobility is affected by external constraints. To consider those constraints is to notice how the built environment— social practices and material infrastructures—can create mobility disabilities that diminish the difference between the “cripple” and the ambulatory person who may well wish to move.
Two examples, one from the United States, one from Turkey. Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act appeared to sweep away legal obstacles to the mobility of African Americans. But in “The Legacy of Jim Crow in Macon, Georgia,” David Oedel (1997: 98) describes how the contemporary transportation infrastructure still has discriminatory effects:
A steady stream of seemingly innocuous funding and operational decisions . . . have, since 1964, quietly but effectively restricted the mobility of poor African-Americans and other disfavored minorities who do not own cars. Meanwhile, these same officials and citizens have simultaneously lavished public funds on transportation accommodations favored by the car-owning majority, who have used the new and improved roads, streets, and highways in effect to live free from close contact with poor African-Americans and others similarly situated.
The power of “funding and operational decisions” to create mobility disabilities becomes even clearer upon consideration of the Turkish case, where discrimination takes place under the sign not of race but of modernization: the homogenization and amplification of speed. Responding to (but also stimulating) the massive urbanization and mobilization of its population, Turkey has built new multilane highways with lowered gradients that allow traffic to move with greater efficiency. All sorts of traffic one encounters on other roads, however, are absent on the new freeways. Pedestrians, horse-drawn carts, and tractors are all prohibited; highway signs proclaim which forms of mobility are no longer “up to speed.” Those disqualified from travel on the new highways may soon discover that schools, stores, and other public facilities are more spread out and harder to reach, for such amplified norms of mobility alter the spatial dimensions of people’s lives.
Two Hollywood films of recent vintage offer contrasting representations of the mobility disabilities created by norms of speed in the United States. David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999) chronicles the journey of sixty-eight-year-old Alvin Straight, whose visual impairment prohibits him from driving and whose antipathy to being a passenger—whether in his daughter’s car or on a bus—sets him on the unusual course of riding a lawn mower from Iowa to Wisconsin, at an average speed of three to four miles an hour (roughly the norm of walking). Lynch makes us aware, as we watch the film, of the extent to which even our visual experience of space has been transformed by speed—not only by the twenty-four-frame-per-second speed of film projection, but by the rate at which cameras usually move over the landscape. The deliberately slowed pace of the film creates the illusion of “real time,” and the return to a human scale implied in the title reinforces the film’s thematic suggestion that autonomy—figured as escape from the immobility implicit in mass-mediated consumption—is still possible. As Straight painstakingly repairs his mower, builds his trailer, and buys his prosthetic “grabber,” he seems to tap an interior resourcefulness—talents and industry—sufficient to restore the capacity for what might be termed automobility to his aging body. In its offbeat way, The Straight Story enshrines the appearance in the discourse of freedom and in the public sphere of a new political category: the “individuals with wheelchairs” recognized by the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
But the film partly undermines, or at least complicates, its celebration of Straight’s independence in two scenes about failed automobility. On his first try, Straight gets barely five miles out of town before his mower breaks down. After having it towed home and finding it irreparable, he takes his shotgun and blows the defective mower to bits—as if it didn’t deserve to live. Using his savings to purchase a newer mower, Straight gets much farther the second time. But halfway toward his destination the old man has an accident that burns out his motor, and he must delay the completion of his journey until he receives enough money from his Social Security check to pay for repairs. There are, in other words, two aspects of Straight’s mobility disability—physical and economic; and two necessary conditions for the recovery of automobility—equality of opportunity (wheelchair- or lawn mower–accessible highways) and sufficient material resources to take advantage of that opportunity.1
The other road movie I have in mind is Speed (Jan De Bont, 1994). As the title indicates, the film’s sensibility provides a counterpoint to that of Lynch’s. Yet it too brings attention to what we might call prosthetic travel. The film’s distinctive contribution to the action genre is the substitution of the bus for the car as the lead vehicle; the bus seems unsuited to the role precisely because it relegates potential actors to the status of passengers traveling along a fixed route, whereas the conventional chase scene of action films represents the superior agency of the hero as the greater speed at which he or she negotiates the world. The frisson of Speed depends on the injunction (courtesy of the disabled villain, played by Dennis Hopper2) that the bus’s speed must not drop below fifty miles per hour; the reminder is that, in normal circumstances, buses go considerably more slowly than that, even when they travel on freeways.
The narrative mechanisms by which the bus is transformed into an action vehicle are mostly obvious. Two characters—clearly identified as infrequent users of mass transit—take over its navigation after the bus driver is shot. The character played by Sandra Bullock is heard frequently to declare “I love my car”; she is riding the bus only because her license to drive has been temporarily suspended for speeding. She drives the bus under the direction of the policeman, played by Keanu Reeves, who has left his SUV behind only to perform the requisite rescue. Keeping the speedometer above fifty requires them to perform all sorts of off-route maneuvers, including, in a climactic scene, the achievement of flight.3
But the film imagines the other bus riders much differently. They are almost entirely low-income people of color, with assorted others whose automobility is disabled by quasi-cognitive impairments: the white woman too nervous to drive the Los Angeles freeways, the white tourist who doesn’t know his way around. This imagining complicates the problem that Speed, as an action film, is supposed to solve. For the “hostage situation” that traps the bus passengers is virtually indistinguishable from their regular status as bus riders, or so the film implies. The status of passenger and the status of hostage are virtually conflated. And if the bus is abnormally forced by a villainous demand to go above fifty, the film suggests that going below fifty—the threat posed by congested highways—represents an equivalent loss of freedom. The injunction to speed is general.
One population of bus riders is not represented in Speed: physically disabled people. It’s too bad, in a way—not just because it might make the film more mimetically accurate or increase the visibility of disabled people in the public imagination, but because the ambiguous mobility that disabled people represent in that imagination (an ambiguity evident in that curious phrase, “confined to a wheelchair”) might capture the ideological contradiction that Speed exposes. Although the passengers have freely chosen—even paid—to ride the bus, the suggestion is that the bus (or mass transportation in general) is an imperfect form of mobility in its evident confinement of passengers to a fixed route and a speed regulated from elsewhere. And despite the contrast between bus and automobile on which the film depends for its originality, Speed suggests that the enforced community of hostages is generalizable to the population at large. We are at once hostages to speed and to a failure to maintain speed. The normative tyranny of this “express” bus threatens and is threatened by all those who cannot get out of its way quickly enough; as the bus barrels down the surface streets and through intersections where it would, under normal conditions, make regular stops, it cannot now even stop for traffic lights or pedestrians. The demand to pause in consideration of others is represented as life threatening.
The solutions the film poses to this conundrum are revealing: on the one hand, an expanded highway system with restricted access (the bus escapes highway congestion by bursting through to an as-yet-unfinished extension); on the other, a quicker completion of the L.A. subway system (Reeves and Bullock blast through a subway-construction wall in the last episode of the film). Subways, presumably, have the virtue of keeping slower citizens—mass-transit users—out of the public view, off the streets. These solutions are not unfamiliar to Los Angelenos; the city has already experimented with toll roads for the wealthy, and the controversial redirection of transit funds from the bus system to subway and fixed rail has been much in the news. It is as if this social stratification of transportation options is necessary to release the privileged minority—in this case, Reeves and Bullock— from what Ronald Dworkin (1981: 312) calls “the slavery of the talented”: the perception that one’s own mobility options have been hijacked by public policies that try to equalize mobility resources. Only such a stratified transportation system, ironically, seems to guarantee that mobility will be felt as freedom. And thus Speed, in its peculiar way, introduces an even newer category of political subject than the ADA’s “individuals with wheelchairs”: the mass-transit dependent.
Now, the segregation of transportation is widely deplored by the disability rights movement; perhaps one of the most familiar signs of that movement’s success has been the wheelchair lift on buses. The other familiar sign—the parking space reserved “For Handicapped Parking Only”—is more controversial. The two sites of conjunction—the wheelchair and the bus, the wheelchair and the (space of) the automobile—bring into focus two common attitudes toward disability law. Access to buses is often seen as a proper extension of civil rights, as a matter of equal opportunity and a provision of formal justice. But reserved parking spaces are greeted with far more ambivalence; to some they represent a denial of equal opportunity, an unwarranted “affirmative” action—even a quota system—and a distributive injustice. These attitudes also align in certain ways with the two films I have described. The Straight Story represents mobility disability as an individual problem—a problem of how to restore automobility, and thus a certain agency, to the individual. Speed, on the other hand, represents the danger of “prosthetic justice”: the bus so equalizes the mobility of individuals that it appears to threaten liberty.
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I would like to thank Carol A. Breckenridge; the editorial board of Public Culture and its manuscript editor, William Elison; my colleagues Susan Schweik (who lent me her library as well as her expertise), Michael Lucey, and Robin Einhorn; my audiences at the Disability Criticism Conference and at the University of California at Berkeley; and especially Joseph P. Valente, for having so brilliantly helped me to make the essay better than the one he read.
- Nancy Fraser and Linda Gordon (1997: 33) describe the New Deal’s creation of a “two-track” welfare system, whereby programs such as Social Security and Unemployment Insurance “were constructed to create the misleading appearance that beneficiaries merely got back what they put in” and were thereby saved from the stigma attached to “dependency” programs.
- Disability criticism has remarked how often film represents villains as physically disabled, and Speed is no exception: Hopper plays Howard Payne, a cop who was forced to retire as a consequence of having suffered—on the job—a disabling and disfiguring injury to his hand.
- This achievement is not as otherworldly as it might appear. See, for example, Neferti X. Tadiar’s (1993) fine essay on Manila’s “flyovers,” or highways that bypass urban decay and crowding.