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Accessibility, Motility and Cognitive Appropriation

A Discourse Analysis of Articles on the Accessibility of Public Transportation for Wheelchair Users Published in The New York Times and The Guardian in 2016 and 2017.

Over twenty years ago Shakespeare, Gillespie-Sell, and Davies (1996) argued that “people with impairment are disabled by society, not by [their] bodies. The main ‘problem’ of spinal injury is not a failure to walk normally, but a failure to gain access to buildings if one uses a wheelchair” (2). Today that statement still holds, not only in terms of accessibility of buildings, but also when it comes to access, and simultaneously its lack, to various modes of public transport. Even though the law explicitly states that “no individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation” (42 U.S. Code § 12182), Americans with disabilities face numerous challenges when trying to access such services and facilities like public transport, hotels, pools, stadiums, and parks among others (Department of Justice 2008). And yet, their complaints regarding the lack of accessibility are still ignored by those in charge of those services and facilities.

AD: A picture of a white woman with pink hair sitting in her wheelchair on the beach and gazing towards the sea.

Given that the overall rate of people with disabilities in the US population in 2015 was 12.6% (Kraus 2017), discrimination on the basis of disability seems to be one of the most underrepresented issues in the mainstream media as well as on the public policy agenda in the United States. However, the lack of accessibility of public transport has recently gained some publicity due to the Disability Rights Advocates' (DRA) actions. The DRA, a national nonprofit legal center, decided to address the problem of New York’s subway system in which only 92 of its 425 stations are accessible for wheelchair users (Blair-Goldensohn 2017). They ended up filing two class-action lawsuits against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in New York City in April 2017 (DRA 2017). In the lawsuits, the DRA accused the MTA of “systematically excluding people with disabilities” (DRA 2017, para. 1) by failing to install elevators in stations which, according to the DRA, is in “flagrant violation of the New York City Human Rights Law” (DRA 2017, para. 1). For example, one of the plaintiffs describes his daily subway trips as “nerve-wracking, dangerous and degrading” (DRA 2017, para. 5).

This essay aims to see how access to public transport for wheelchair users is discussed in two popular newspapers: The New York Times and The Guardian. The main objective of this essay is to assess, through analysis and comparison of 21 articles collected for this project, how access to public transport shapes the way wheelchair users experience and appropriate urban spaces. In order to do that, I will try to answer the following questions: What are the main barriers that wheelchair users face when using public transport? How does the lack of accessible transportation limit their freedom to move around cities? How do they navigate urban spaces? What measures do they use in order to make public transport and, subsequently, cities more accessible for wheelchair users? What are other passengers’ reactions to the presence of people in wheelchairs in subway, trains, and buses? And, ultimately, according to the articles, do there exist any significant differences between the US and the UK in terms of accessibility of public transport?

Cognitive appropriation, motility, and accessibility

In order to answer the aforementioned questions, I will utilize a framework developed by Cuzzocrea and Mandich (2015) in their article on the everyday movement of parents with children in Cagliari. According to this framework, mobility can be conceptualized on three levels: access, competence, and cognitive appropriation (Cuzzocrea & Mandich 2015). In terms of access, many disabled people are deprived of access to any form of transportation due to a lack of accessible ways of entering a vehicle. In other instances using public transport requires from people with disabilities much more effort and arrangements than from their non-disabled counterparts. For example, disabled customers of train companies in the UK are expected to book travel 24 hours in advance in order to get assistance (Topham 2016). In terms of competence, some people with disabilities are not able (for a variety of reasons) to drive cars, which circumscribes their transportation options even more. Without these two elements in place, cognitive appropriation of urban space by some people with disabilities may be not as established as that of non-disabled people. Within the Cuzzorea-Mandich framework, cognitive appropriation can be described in terms of processes through which “agents consider mobility possibilities on the basis of aspirations and needs” (Cuzzocrea and Mandich 2015, 53). Furthermore, Cuzzocrea and Mandich (2015) underscore that at the level of cognitive appropriation mobility “is interlinked with strategies, values, representations, and habits” (53).

AD: A picture of a subway car with its door wide open.

Motility can be defined as “how an individual or group takes possession of the realm of possibilities for mobility and builds on it to develop personal projects” (Kaufmann and Flamm 2006, 168). Therefore, this essay utilizes the concept of motility as a tool for assessing the level of cognitive appropriation of urban spaces by wheelchair users in terms of access or its lack to various modes of public transport.


For this project, I searched on-line issues of The New York Times and The Guardian by typing “transport, wheelchair” in the newspapers’ browsers. In order to keep this study focused and manageable in size, I decided to narrow down the time frames of the search to 2016 and 2017. The Guardian’s browser returned 26 articles on the topic, while The New York Times – 3 articles. After an initial analysis, I discarded 7 articles because they carried little relevance to the researched topic. Ultimately, I analyzed 21 articles for this study – 20 articles retrieved from The Guardian and 1 article retrieved from The New York Times. 9 of them were news articles, 4 – comments, 3 – opinions, 2 – interviews, 2 – letters from readers, and one was a sponsored article. Next, in order to maintain clarity of the analysis, I divided the remaining articles into five categories: “railways”, “subway”, “buses”, “taxis”, and “general” depending on which form of public transport they discussed. As a result, 11 articles fell into the “railways” category, 1 – into the “subway” category, 2 – into the “buses”, 1 – into the “taxis”, and 6 – into the “general” category. The results of that initial stage of the analysis are presented below:

Mode/type of transport: Railways

The Guardian: “’I worry I’ll be forgotten on the train’: our readers’ experiences of accessible facilities”; “Memo to Southern rail: disabled people have lives too”; “Southern’s rail service is disastrous. For disabled passengers, it’s even worse”; “Network Rail promises improvements for disabled passengers”; “’I feared for my health’: disabled actor tells of nightmare train journey”; “Rail minister pledges no repeat of Paralympian’s train experience”; “Disability campaigners plan rush-hour protest at London Bridge station”; “Paralympian forced to wet herself on train without accessible toilet”; “No guarantee of help for disabled passengers, says Southern”; “Trains a daily battle for disabled people”; “Accessibility and ownership of the UK’s railways”.

The New York Time: None.

Mode/type of transport: Subway

The Guardian: None.

The New York Times: “New York has a great subway, if you’re not in a wheelchair”.

Mode/type of transport: Buses

The Guardian: “Disability groups hail court’s support for wheelchair user on bus”; “Wheelchair user refused space on bus days after supreme court ruling”.

The New York Times: None.

Mode/type of transport: Taxis

The Guardian: “Uber offers wheelchair-accessible cabs in effort to overtake taxis”.

The New York Times: None.

Mode/type of transport: General

The Guardian: “Sadiq Khan, disabled Londoners must be your first priority”; “Disabled people are still being treated as second class on public transport”; “In Britain, it’s not just the train toilets that disabled people can’t get into”; “Disability activist Doug Paulley: ‘I’m tackling injustice’”; “’My biggest act of rebellion as a disabled person is living as I wish’”; “Bullying of disabled people has got worse – because it’s government-sanctioned”.

The New York Times: None.

Why public transport?

According to a report recently published by one of Britain’s equality watchdogs, “public transport can be a lifeline to disabled people” (Ryan 2016, para. 5). The same report points out that 60% of people with disabilities have no car in their households, compared to 27% of the overall population (Ryan 2016). One of the reasons behind that figure is the fact that people with disabilities are more likely to be on a low income (Ryan 2016). Another research carried out in Britain on behalf of Network Rail revealed that while 67% of disabled people travel by train, “around a quarter of those passengers expect to have difficulties on the journey” (Topham 2016, para. 2). Therefore, people with disabilities rely on different means of public transport in order to get to work, school, and meetings. As the Paralympian Anne Wafule Strike puts it: “As disabled people, we also have a life. Some of us commute, have deadlines to meet and meetings to attend” (Taylor 2017, para. 13). Despite that, Brett Eisenberg, Executive Director of the Bronx Independent Living Center points out that “people who use wheelchairs… have few options for transportation in [New York City]. This makes it difficult to carry out everyday activities such as work, shopping, and medical appointments and leads to social isolation” (DRA 2017, para. 9).

Moreover, many people with disabilities, and particularly wheelchair users, don’t feel welcomed in public transport. For example, Samantha Renke, an actress and a wheelchair user, says that according to her personal experience she feels like “disabled people are expected to compromise, and not travel at crowded times” (Topping 2017, para. 10).

AD: A picture of an inside of a bus.

In their paper on the everyday movement of parents with children in Cagliari, Cuzzocrea and Mandich (2015) argue that mobility is more than merely “the transport of bodies” (51) from one point to another – it also serves to create “sets of different cultural meanings” and “ways people use to engage with reality in their everyday lives” (51). By excluding wheelchair users from public transport, we refuse to acknowledge that they, too, want to be part of those “sets of different cultural meanings”. Instead, we eradicate ways in which they can “engage with reality”. Therefore, researching the role that public transport plays in the lives of people with disabilities, particularly wheelchair users, is crucial to our understanding of how they navigate and come to owning space around them.

Disability studies and anthropology – an overview of prior research

People with disabilities are often labeled “the Other” (Reid-Cunningham 2009). However, what makes the “otherness” of disability unique is the fact that anyone may become disabled at some point in their life (Reid-Cunningham 2009) and cross the border between what is perceived as "different" and what constitutes “normal”. The border between the “normal” and the “pathological”, however, is very fluid and depends on the reactions to physical and behavioral differences that vary between cultures and communities (Reid-Cunningham 2009). Robert Murphy (1987) seems to support that notion by observing that “disability is an amorphous and relativistic term” (66). From a more bureaucratic perspective, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines disability as a “physical or mental impairment, which substantially limits one or more… major life activities” (42 U.S. Code § 12102). Ginsburg and Rapp (2013), however, point out that “what counts as an impairment in different socio-cultural settings is highly variable” (4.1). For instance, Rosemarie Garland Thomson argues that in the American cultural context “the disabled figure” is found troubling and different because it disrupts “the American image of the ‘normate’ self, which is characterized by self-government, self-determination, autonomy, and progress” (in: Landsman 2009, 36). In a similar tone, Robert Murphy argues that in the United States the “otherness” of people with disabilities is informed by the fact that they are viewed as “subverters of the American Ideal” since their bodies limit their ability to achieve “independence, self-reliance, and personal autonomy” (in: Reid-Cunningham 2009, 105).

In her book on selective reproduction in Vietnam, Tine M. Gammeltoft (2014) observes that within various cultural contexts people with disabilities tend to be “infantilized and devalued” (184) by non-disabled people. In general, non-disabled people fail to recognize people with disabilities as “full” persons (Landsman 2009; Gammeltoft 2014). Within this perspective, disabled people seem to occupy the liminal space between full and less-than-full personhood.

However, despite its “Otherness”, until recently the study of disability by anthropologists was “intellectually segregated, often considered the province of those in medical and applied anthropology” (Ginsburg & Rapp 2013, 4.1.), even though anthropology as a discipline seems to be particularly well equipped to study that specific topic due to its “genuine fascination” with “the Other” (Reid-Cunningham 2009, 100). In the field of urban anthropology, for instance, Christine Kovic (2014) recently published a study on disabled Latino immigrants in Houston who organize in order to defend their rights. Nevertheless, according to my own research and literature review, the study of disability remains underrepresented within the field of anthropology.

From the anthropological perspective, one question seems to require anthropologists’ particular attention: to what extent the alleged lack of “independence, self-reliance, and personal autonomy” is caused by “disabled” bodies themselves and not by society at large which chooses to ignore the needs of people with disabilities and marginalize them by, for instance, providing inaccessible public transportation that prevents the disabled from commuting to work, attending school, meeting friends and exploring cities? Given the above, the analysis of ways in which people with disabilities experience public transport is consequential in broadening our understanding of how something seemingly so trivial like the lack of an accessible platform in a public bus produces and perpetuates the “otherness” of disabled people and allows their non-disabled counterparts to label those with disabilities less-than-full persons.

AD: A picture of a subway train approaching the station.



In “Network Rail promises improvements for disabled passengers”, published in The Guardian in July 2016, the author remarks that many disabled travelers find using the train “incredibly difficult” (Topham 2016, para. 1). In order to support that statement, the article cites research carried out on behalf of Network Rail which revealed that a third of disabled passengers who travel by train do not use the train “as often as they otherwise would because of accessibility concerns” (Topham 2016, para. 2). Yet, despite these concerns, in 2016 Network Rail cut half of its budget targeted on improving trains’ accessibility from its five-year plan. That move was met with criticism by disability rights advocates who pointed out that the needs of people with disabilities are invisible and that the world they live in is hardly built for them (Topham 2016). People with disabilities, including wheelchair users, face many obstacles when traveling by train. For instance, two wheelchair users can’t travel on the same coach on most British trains (Topham 2016). In addition, people in wheelchairs are often left stranded at stations for seemingly trivial reasons like, for example, a broken lift on the platform (Topham 2016). In yet another example of what people with disabilities have to face while taking a train, a woman in wheelchair describes how on her train journey from London to Scotland an accessible bathroom had broken and all the conductor of the train was able to offer her as an act of compensation, was a free drink (Topham 2016).

In “Trains a daily battle for disabled people”, another article published in July 2016 in The Guardian, one of the newspaper’s readers points out in his letter, that where he lives using the train is not just “incredibly difficult” but impossible if you are a disabled passenger. For instance, he reports that three stations on his line can’t be accessed by wheelchair users at all (O’Neill 2016). However, it turns out that even those stations that are deemed “accessible” don’t really meet disabled people’s needs. For instance, Penny Pepper, a wheelchair user and the author of “Southern’s rail service is disastrous. For disabled passengers, it’s even worse” printed in August 2016 in The Guardian, points out how on certain stations the information screens are placed in a position that isn’t particularly helpful for those who are physically or visually disabled (Pepper 2016). However, what seems to bother her most, is the fact that wheelchair users like her are not welcomed in trains. In her description of her recent train trip from Brighton to Hastings, she complains about unfriendly or even rude staff who either treated her in a condescending and patronizing manner or ignored her (Pepper 2016). In addition, she is also bothered by the fact that people in wheelchairs can’t travel spontaneously on British trains since they are expected to book certain assistance services well in advance (Pepper 2016).

AD: A picture of an inside of a train.

Using the train can be not only “incredibly difficult” but also humiliating for wheelchair users in the UK. “Paralympian forced to wet herself on train without accessible toilet”, an article published in The Guardian in January 2017, tells the story of Anne Wafula Strike, a British wheelchair racer, who on her train trip was forced to urinate herself because the accessible toilet was out of order (Taylor 2017). The Paralympian, who is also a board member of UK Athletics and holds an MBE for services to disability sports, commented that “the whole incident made [her] feel as if [she] can’t play an active role in society and should just hide behind closed doors” (Taylor 2017, para. 7). She also added that “people with disabilities don’t want perfection, [they] just want the basic and to have [their] independence” (Taylor 2017, para. 8). That independence, however, cannot be achieved if accessible facilities are not in place.

Anne Wafula Strike’s train incident stirred a lot of controversies and prompted The Guardian to run a series of articles on the experiences of their disabled readers with access to toilets, transport, and other public facilities (Marsh 2017). In one of the readers’ letters published in January 2017, Chloe Timms, who has spinal muscular atrophy and uses a wheelchair, writes that her local train station is inaccessible on one side, which means she has to travel a further five miles by car in order to use the train (Timms 2017). She also says that sometimes when she books her train trip in advance to make sure that she will receive assistance on her journey, there is still no one waiting with a ramp to get her off the train. She refers to her experience as feeling “forgotten” (Timms 2017). In another letter, Yragael Drouet, who uses a manual wheelchair due to spina bifida, says that he often requires his non-disabled friends’ assistance in order to move around London (Drouet 2017). In “’I feared for my health’: disabled actor tells of nightmare train journey”, an article featured in The Guardian in January 2017, Samantha Renke, an actress and a wheelchair user, describes how on her train journey to London she was unable to take her seat because “the disabled area she has reserved was filled with bags” (Topping 2017, para. 2). The staff initially didn’t know what to do about the situation. The bags were finally removed so Renke could take her seat but nevertheless, she still was surrounded by baggage which made it impossible for her to get to the toilet on the train in case it was necessary. After the journey was over, Renke had to wait on the empty train for 20 minutes for an accessible ramp to materialize to enable her to get off the train (Topping 2017).

AD: An inside of a toilet.

Despite many complaints, British railway companies are reluctant to meet disabled people’s expectations regarding greater accessibility of their services. For example, in “No guarantee of help for disabled passengers, says Southern”, an article featured in The Guardian in January 2017, it is revealed that Southern rail has silently stopped providing their disabled passengers with guaranteed assistance (Taylor 2017). Instead, it now requires its passengers with disabilities to book help in advance, or “there might be a significant delay to [their] journey” (Taylor 2017, para. 7). A spokesman for Southern said that there is no guarantee that “passengers with accessibility requirements can spontaneously board a train” in the assumption that there will be someone on board ready to help them (Taylor 2017, para. 8). However, it turns out that even if people with disabilities book help in advance it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will obtain one. For instance, Sandra Nighy, a wheelchair user, reports that even though she had booked assistance to board a Southern train, she was still left stranded on the platform with no one to help her (Taylor 2017). In the light of the above, the Department of Transport declared that they are determined to provide people with disabilities with “the same access to public transport as non-disabled people, and that is why [they] have committed over 400 million pounds to improve accessibility at stations since 2010” (Taylor 2017, para. 17).

In spite of those declarations, disabled people remain skeptical about British railway companies’ good intentions regarding their accessibility needs. In “Memo to Southern rail: disabled people have lives too” published in The Guardian in January 2017, the author points out that “sometimes being a disabled person trying to get around the country feels like a modern reenactment of the Odyssey” (Webster 2017, para. 1). In addition, the author, who herself is disabled and uses a wheelchair, notes that people with disabilities are still perceived by society at large as people “who don’t really have anywhere [they] have to be” (Webster 2017, para. 3). According to this thinking, people with disabilities have no jobs, or children, or friends, or any other commitments and therefore they don’t need reliable and flexible transport. However, the author points out that people with disabilities increasingly have commitments and plans – the problem is that non-disabled people refuse to acknowledge that. She concludes her article with a plea: “Disabled people have lives, let us live them” (Webster 2017, para. 7).


The author of “New York has a great subway, if you’re not in a wheelchair” published in The New York Times in March 2017, describes the New York’s subway as “by far the least wheelchair-friendly public transit system of any major American city” (Blair-Goldensohn, para. 7). Indeed, out of the system’s 425 stations only 92 of them are accessible (Blair-Goldensohn 2017). Blair-Goldensohn (2017) argues that New York’s subway’s lack of accessibility serves to disenfranchise citizens with disabilities and make them vulnerable. He notes that, on average, 25 elevators a day stop working in New York’s subway which leaves passengers in wheelchairs trapped on the platforms (Blair-Goldensohn 2017). He recounts how on many occasions he had to ask his fellow passengers – and complete strangers – to help carry him and his heavy wheelchair up to the street, since the elevator was out of service (Blair-Goldensohn 2017). Towards the end of his article, Blair-Goldensohn (2017) underscores that in order to commit resources to make New York’s subway accessible to its disabled passengers, accessibility advocates will have to “counter the belief that devoting resources to help one group necessarily shortchanges others” (para. 16).

AD: A picture of an elevator door.


“Disability groups hail court’s support for a wheelchair user on bus”, an article that appeared in The Guardian in January 2017, features Doug Paulley, a British disability rights advocate who sued First Group – a British bus operating company (Bowcott 2017). He decided to take his case to the court after in February 2012 he couldn’t get on a bus to Leeds because the wheelchair space was being occupied by a mother with a pushchair and a child. The mother refused the driver’s request to move or fold the pushchair and so the driver told Paulley that he had to wait for another bus (Bowcott 2017). As a result, Paulley missed his train connection at Leeds and failed to meet his parents for lunch that day (Bowcott 2017). Paulley took his claim for discrimination to the supreme court and ultimately won with the court ruling that “the driver should have taken further steps to pressurize the non-wheelchair user into making space” (Bowcott 2017, para. 6). That means that from now on drivers may stop the bus “with a view to pressurizing or shaming recalcitrant non-wheelchair users to move” (Bowcott 2017, para. 2).

“Wheelchair user refused space on bus days after supreme court ruling”, another article published in The Guardian in January 2017, features a story of Kirsty Shepherd, a nurse and a wheelchair user, who, days after Doug Paulley’s victory in the court, couldn’t get on a bus because the space for wheelchair users was occupied by a woman with a pushchair (Perraudin 2017). The driver refused to let Shepherd board and terminated the bus to call his manager which, on the other hand, caused complaints from the passengers (Perraudin 2017). While the driver was talking to his manager, the other passengers “were screaming and shouting and berating” Shepherd (Perraudin 2017, para. 9). As a result, Shepherd had to wait 40 minutes for another bus. The incident left her feeling distraught – after she returned home she spent the rest of the day in bed trying to warm up and “sobbing [her] heart out” (Perraudin 2017, para. 11). The bus company’s area managing director apologized to Shepherd and said that all their drivers receive disability training as standard (Perraudin 2017). The company promised to investigate the incident.


Out of the 21 articles analyzed in this study, only one discusses accessibility issues in the context of taxi services. According to “Uber offers wheelchair-accessible cabs in effort to overtake taxis”, an article published in The Guardian, since May 2016 Uber users in London can book wheelchair-accessible vehicles through the company’s application (Hern 2016). However, those willing to use wheelchair-accessible cabs have to wait significantly longer than most. In addition, the author notes that introducing a service for wheelchair users by Uber can be seen as “a defensive move in the… company’s long-running battle with London’s taxis” (Hern 2016, para. 3). According to the article, drivers of London black cabs have been long arguing that the reason why Uber is cheaper than black cabs is the lack of accessible services offered by the former (Hern 2016). The launch of Uber’s accessible services was welcomed by disability rights advocates who commented that “disabled people want to have the same choice as all other consumers in London and have the same options available on the method of travel, time and price” (Hern 2016, para. 6).

AD: A picture of a London black cab.


“’My biggest act of rebellion as a disabled person is living as I wish’”, an article published in The Guardian in January 2016, features Zara Todd, a disability rights campaigner who, in her own words, “has been fighting for disabled people to live in the mainstream since she was 11 years old” (O’Hara 2016, n. p.). Todd is aware that “exclusion, loneliness, and isolation [are] the reality for many” disabled people (O’Hara 2016, para. 3) and therefore she decided to be outspoken on the issue of public transport accessibility. She points out that even “with adjustments to vehicles and anti-discrimination laws in place, the problem exists” (O’Hara 2016, para. 7) and recalls an incident in which she was berated by a woman on a bus for taking an accessible space when a family with a baby had to fold their pushchair in order to make room for Todd’s wheelchair (O’Hara 2016). Todd’s story underscores that making disabled people part of society is not only about bus ramps or accessible spaces on trains but more importantly it is also about society’s attitudes toward those who need these adjustments in the first place.


In Spatializing Culture Setha Low (2017) explores different definitions and understandings of the concept of space and place. She notes, for example, that for early ethnographers space was important as a location of culture, whereas some contemporary ethnographers were initially hesitant about using spatial concepts due to the assumed indexicality of people and place they produced (Low 2017, 5). Some researchers criticized ethnographic depictions of space and place that tended to confine the inhabitants and ignore the fact that the “natives” are, too, mobile beings that move, migrate, and explore (Low 2017).

As a result of that criticism, contemporary ethnographers require “a flexible and mobile conception of space, one that speaks to how space is produced historically and physically” by bodies in motion carrying their “dreams and desires” as well as “social interactions and environment interrelations” in which they move (Low 2017, 6). This understanding of space as an arena of different social and cultural processes resonates in “Fragments of ‘Cultures of Mobility’: Everyday Movement of Parents with Children in Cagliari, Southern Italy” by Cuzzocrea and Mandich (2015). They refer to different forms of movement like driving, biking, and walking as parts of “broader cultural processes occurring while in motion and characterized by complex meanings” (Cuzzocrea & Mandich 2015, 51-52). In that context, movement is not just a physical activity that occurs in the vacuum – it is also capable of creating and changing meanings and social and cultural relations as well as environment. Therefore, Cuzzocrea and Mandich (2015) describe their concept of cognitive appropriation in terms of processes through which “agents consider mobility possibilities on the basis of aspirations and needs” (53).

AD: A picture of Piazza San Marco in Venice.

The articles analyzed and discussed in this study are a good example of how mobility possibilities, that is different forms of public transport, fail to meet disabled people’s needs and aspirations. Wheelchair users featured in the articles retrieved from The Guardian and The New York Times remind the general audience that they, too, go to work, have children, and have meetings to attend and therefore they require flexible and reliable transport just like their non-disabled counterparts do (O’Hara 2016; Webster 2017). Yet, their possibilities of navigating and owning the space around them are considerably limited due to non-disabled people’s negative attitudes toward people with disabilities using trains, buses, and subway as well as lack of accessible transport (O’Hara 2016; Perraudin 2017). As a result, it seems that when it comes to people with disabilities, their mobility is frequently reduced to the mere transport of bodies which ignores all cultural meanings that mobility normally is expected to produce (Cuzzocrea & Mandich 2015). Within this context, wheelchair users become prisons of certain spaces and places – they are hostages of their apartments, houses, and nursing homes. Since so many of them rely on public transport (Ryan 2016), lack of adjustments that make different modes of transport accessible to them means that their capability to “constitute places and make sense of [their] environment” as well as to “meaningfully produce urban space” (Cuzzocrea and Mandich 2015, 52) is reduced.

In order to better understand why wheelchair users so often become excluded from public space, including public transport, it is worth analyzing their experiences through the concept of motility as introduced by Flamm and Kaufmann (2006). They suggest that “motility unveils potential mobilities and brings into view the cultural resources that make mobility possible” (Cuzzocrea & Mandich 2015, 53). Therefore, it has to be asked what are cognitive and cultural elements defining disabled people’s motility? According to the press articles analyzed in this study, disabled people want to work, date, and meet friends just like non-disabled people do. However, they want to be part of a society that doesn’t necessarily acknowledge them as full persons (Gammeltoft 2014) or fellow citizens (Kovic 2014). Quite the opposite: when people in wheelchairs try to navigate and own urban space around them they are berated, mocked, or ignored (O’Hara 2016; Perraudin 2017). In her article on disabled Latino immigrants in Texas, Kovic (2014) notes that in a neoliberal model of citizenship people are expected to be self-reliant, personally responsible and request minimal services in exchange for productivity. Within this perspective, disabled people seem to occupy the liminal space between full and less-than-full citizenship and cannot be expected to be as productive as “full” citizens. This places them in a position in which they have no right to ask for certain services in exchange for their productivity as it is expected in the neoliberal model of citizenship. In the paper on disabled Latino immigrants, Kovic (2014) points out that immigrant bodies are valued for generating profit as they perform different kinds of jobs, however, when they get sick or disabled, they are viewed as “used up” and “broken down” (11) and thus they get discarded. Wheelchair users featured in the articles retrieved from The Guardian and The New York Times are also viewed as “redundant” by society at large. Nobody expects them to have work and children, and therefore to lead what is considered productive lives. As a result of their alleged lack of productivity, they are not welcomed in buses, trains, and subway while their demands for accessible public transport are considered superfluous or ignored (Topping 2017). Consequently, their cognitive appropriation of urban space is quite limited since different modes of public transport fail to meet their needs, desires, and aspirations.

AD: A black and white picture of a railway station.


The articles discussed in this essay prove that lack of accessible public transport produces and perpetuates the “otherness” of wheelchair users and allows their non-disabled counterparts to label them less-than-full citizens. In addition to this, disabled people who try to define and create urban spaces are either ignored or mocked by non-disabled people. Despite these problems, wheelchair users featured in the press articles analyzed in this project demand to be seen and heard. I believe that a closer study of public transport accessibility by anthropologists, and especially urban anthropologists, is crucial for our understanding of one of many ways in which people with disabilities, including wheelchair users, are excluded from society and space. The results of such studies could be used by disability rights advocates in order to convince law-makers that they, too, want to be part of society and want to create and define space. In that kind of study voices of wheelchair users themselves are particularly important to avoid situations like the one described by Friedner and Osborne (2015) in their paper on “New Disability Mobilities and Accessibilities in Urban India”, where accessible adjustments are, in fact, inaccessible because they were built without any prior consultation with their future users, like, for instance, people in wheelchairs.

It is important to underscore that even with accessible ramps and accessible spaces on buses, trains, and subway in place, people in wheelchairs won’t be welcomed in urban spaces as long as the societal attitude labeling them the “other” or “redundant” will persist among non-disabled people. Therefore, the role of anthropology in “un-othering” people in wheelchairs, and, in general, people with disabilities, is particularly important.


Blair-Goldensohn, Sasha. 2017. “New York Has a Great Subway, If You’re Not in a Wheelchair.” The New York Times website, March 29. Accessed April 16, 2017.

Bowcott, Owen. 2017. “Disability Groups Hail Court's Support For Wheelchair User on Bus.” The Guardian website, January 18. Accessed April 17, 2017.

Cuzzocrea, Valentina, and Giuliana Mandich. 2015. “Fragments of ‘Cultures of Mobility’: Everyday Movement of Parents with Children in Cagliari, Southern Italy.” City & Society 27 (1): 51-69.

Department of Justice. 2008. Transcript of the Public Hearing on Notices of Proposed

Rulemaking. Washington, D.C.: ADA Publications.

Drouet, Yragael. 2017. “My Friends Had to Lift Me Up Stairs Into a Restaurant.” The Guardian website, January 3. Accessed April 14, 2017.

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