In February I attended an excellent conference on feminism and disability at Barnard College called Movements: Politics, Performance, and Disability. Organized by the Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW), this day-long event brought together artists, academics, and activists to examine the relationship between gender and disability, and consider the ways the two may combine to inform contemporary social justice movements and a future society. During the opening remarks and morning panel discussion—which featured BCRW Director Janet Jakobsen; author/filmmaker Simi Linton (via video); and professors Nirmala Erevelles, Carrie Sandahl, Susan Schweik, and Alice Sheppard—I was reminded of the potential disability theory and activism have to revolutionize the way we conceptualize and work toward social change. When it comes to intersectionality, the folks who prioritize disability are setting a great example of what a multidimensional, inclusive movement could look like.
In considering the interplay of street harassment and disability, I was reminded of this conference because of a phrase I wrote boldly in my notes that day with the intention of firmly cementing it in my brain: architecture of aggression. When Simi Linton used the word “architecture” in reference to disability, she used it both literally and metaphorically to describe the tangible physical structures that people encounter, as well as the manner in which social dynamics have been (consciously and unconsciously) designed. In thinking about the former, Linton points out the ways the construction of buildings have made public space both implicitly and explicitly hostile for people with certain types of physical disabilities (for example, buildings with accessibility ramps hidden on the side), and how many are hostile to the point of complete impediment and exclusion (e.g., buildings with no ramps at all or public schools that aren’t resourced to educate children with mental health diagnoses). To encounter these structures is to face the aggression of an ableist society that views you as a subject of domination. It is a reminder that public space is neither equipped for, appreciative of, nor welcoming of your presence.
The kind of street harassment encountered by people with disabilities goes beyond individual interactions with men who shove their crotch into the faces of girls and women in wheelchairs or who target people who are (or appear to them to be) more vulnerable. It extends to an architecture of aggression that is implicit in the actual structures and strategies ableist thinkers and builders have brought (and still bring) into being.
In the process of creating a “movement” to end street harassment, we must interrogate the full scope of the problem that ableism brings to the issue itself, the way the issue is shaped by ableist anti-street harassment activists, and the holistic effectiveness of solutions. If who might be left out of an anti-street harassment movement’s framing and tactics fails to be a central concern to activists who say that all people deserve equal access to the streets, then it ain’t gonna be a true revolution.
* The title of this post leans on Carrie Sandahl’s definition of “to crip,” which can be found here.