Hi! I’m Alice Sheppard.
I’m a dancer and choreographer and disability activist. I wish I were here with you now, but I’m on tour. So, I filmed a couple of words.
When you press the button, the doors will close and the elevator will take you from the street to this magical world of dance and vice versa. Sometimes, the button will be pressed by people for whom this is their only entrance. Sometimes, the button will be pressed by people who are tired, whose bag is heavy, who can’t face the noise on the jammed staircase, whatever. The people inside the elevator car won’t know who is there for what reason, and it won’t matter. The button will be pressed, and the elevator will invisibly usher dancers of all stripes in and out of their Gibney home.
Let me tell you what does matter.
In way too many places, an elevator is installed so that the building can be in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The primary users of the elevator are imagined to be disabled people who cannot use the stairs. All too frequently, the elevator is not conceived as being an integral part of the building design; it is a functional box that slides from one floor to the next — as if access and the destination were the point and the experience of the journey itself did not matter.
Let me tell you that the experience does matter.
I am a British disabled person of colour, and I have learned my American history. America no longer condones separate doors for people of colour and white people. New York City expressed revolt and outrage at rich doors and poor doors. And yet, we still find separate entrances for disabled and nondisabled people legal and socially acceptable.
Here is how it goes.
I’m with business colleagues at a conference. We come to the entrance; they go one way, I have to go another. If they know me well and they get it, they will come with me through the disabled entrance, and the conversation continues. If not, we separate. The conversation stops and the opportunity to connect and network is lost. They’ve moved on. Literally. It’s humiliating. How will they ever see me as an equal if our literal and metaphorical societal architecture tells them otherwise?
I’m with friends; we are deeply in conversation. We come to the entrance; they love me. They get it. We try to go in together. The armed guard at the entrance forbids them from going further. They police the group, trying to figure out who is legitimately disabled and is using the elevator and who in their judgement is too lazy to benefit from this courtesy.
Let me tell you why that matters.
Disability is not a state of exception. But when you push us to the margins by denying us equitable access, everyone is harmed. Disabled people are stigmatized, and we become vulnerable not because of the fact of our impairment but because of the situations we are obliged to occupy. Forced to the margins often out of sight, we are not only unable to participate equitably in our own lives, we are subject to abuse, scrutiny, and extra policing. We are expected to give up more of our time; to give advance notice that we would like to attend an event. We are subject to extra security. Our rights to pass depend on others granting us access as and when they please. That may count as legal access but it is most certainly not just or equitable.
This happened. Here. In this small dance utopia. When it was Dance New Amsterdam, you could get into the building sort of. If you called in advance, you could notify the desk that you were coming. Then, when you got there, you could call again. If someone was around and when they had time, they would come down and open the freight elevator. I did that a couple of times. But I wasn’t always able to get in on time for class. It wasn’t a pleasant experience; the staff made it clear that I was a burden. Years later, Gibney made a commitment to welcoming disabled artists. So, Gibney got us access to the 280 Broadway entrance; we could literally get in the door.
But disabled people had to sign up days in advance to get on the security list to take dance class or attend an event. Yeah no. We stopped doing that. Disabled people were told we had to produce ID to pass through the entrance; I think Gibney intervened so we didn’t have to do that. But it still wasn’t equitable. We were at the guards’ whim. Need a screwdriver to tighten your wheels for safety before a show? No luck. The guards took that away. Have a nonvisible impairment? It was a tossup as to whether you would be let in. Use a walker? Maybe that qualified you. If you wanted to enter with someone whose impairment was not perceptible to the guard, you could only do so if the guard felt like letting them in. And maybe, maybe, you were turned away. Then, one day there was an aggressive/hostile cartoon on the door — use the stairs or else. Perhaps that was the day you showed up. Perhaps that was the day you decided you couldn’t fight any more.
In a year or two, the elevator will have become a convenience for everyone. Like the history of curb cuts and subway elevators, the history of the Gibney elevator will be lost. But I want you to know. People fought hard for this elevator. There were long visioning conversations. Gina met with the disability arts community, with leaders in the dance field, and then she and the Gibney staff went out and raised money for this. I remember standing with Kara Gilmour testifying about the importance of this elevator. That was a good day! I want you to remember the disabled artists and leaders who did the behind the scenes work to make this happen. I want you to remember the visionary leadership of Gina Gibney and her staff. I want you to know that you are participating in a historic moment of equity. And then, I want you to press the damn button and go dance your heart out.