This essay is part of the forum “Investigating Infrastructures”

As a wheelchair-user who cannot drive due to visual limitations, I consistently witness that normative bodies can take so-called ‘public transit’ while I cannot. Lauren Berlant (2016: 393), insists that infrastructure “is the movement or patterning of social form. It is the living mediation of what organizes life: the lifeworld of structure.” The failure to include people with disabilities at the earliest of planning stages and in the infancy of infrastructure development excludes us from the lifeworld of structure and more broadly, a long awaited radical social acceptance. The lifeworld of structure must include disability and this task is particularly urgent when it comes to equitable access to transportation.

In disability studies, academic work that critically engages equitable access to infrastructure for bodies of difference is limited, and some of the time, there has been a disconnect between disability studies and activism that addresses the social exclusion of disabled people (Patsavas, 2015; Minich, 2016). Although there has been substantial interest in transit-related exclusion in urban planning, this has not translated into increases in accessible transportation for a variety of reasons (Paez, et al. 2012; Lucas, 2012; Handy and Niemeier, 1997). There is also a paucity of work on access to transportation for people with mobility disabilities (Vale, Ascensão, Raposo et. al. 2017). This means that people with disabilities are left out of places and spaces of power and privilege and without access to movement. This exclusion cheapens our citizenship and hinders our contributions in the communities to which we belong.

This poverty of citizenship (Rioux and Valentine, 2006) is tangible for disabled people. It begs the question, if infrastructure is leaving us out how are we getting to school, work, childcare spaces, places of worship, and community built spaces if transit is not made accessible?

It’s a common neo-liberal sentiment that the disabled citizen comes with a cost. The cost to the so-called taxpayer, the cost to the system for various services and supports and other presumed costs—are often perceived as dangerous from the perspective of able-bodied, bodies. Yet, as a group, we are expected to believe that we are indebted to normative bodies, despite the evidence that the privileging of able-bodiedness is largely responsible for this failure of access.

Some of the worst public hostility that myself and other members of the disability communities have experienced has been on what is inaccurately named ‘public transit.’ I have heard the following comments on too many occasions. When taking the bus with a friend who uses a power wheelchair, I heard that “there are too many wheelchairs on the bus!” Fellow commuters have told me to take ‘special transit’ or to have a friend give me a lift. Fellow commuters have said that transit is too crowded for me, too difficult, and here it comes, ‘too dangerous’ for a disabled women.

Hold that thought.

First, the disabled body in all its forms is not vulnerable; ableism makes it so. My body is not a danger.[1] I am not a danger to myself or the body-public. Secondly, in Toronto I pay full price for so called ‘public transit’. Since less than half of the TTC is accessible I pay double the price for transit than any transit-user who is of typical-ability. This means that people with disabilities have been paying double the price for years!

For years the disabled community has been paying into a transit system serving only, and built exclusively for, able-bodied folks. I think that means myself and others with disabilities are owed some cash with interest.

The question of who is indebted to whom is a complicated entanglement with at least two sides and more likely a continuum of every-body. To describe the relationship of disabled body-minds to the state and capital as constantly on the receiving end of assistance is all together inaccurate. Please don’t misunderstand this. I am not talking about ablest, antiqued notions of the ‘deserving poor.’ I am saying that interest is owed to disabled people who have funded services exclusively for the able-bodied, to the detriment of bodies of difference. Furthermore, such myths and assumptions about disability can give way to violence.

Many members of ‘the public’ feel comfortable saying that making transit fully accessible costs too much money. Before making claims about the disabled body as the excluded body it is important to look at what social exclusion could mean. Social exclusion refers to the lower levels in the evolving hierarchies of access to, participation in, and autonomy in economic, political, social, cultural, and health outcomes (both physical and mental). There are only fluctuating degrees of exclusion that individuals and groups experience; social exclusion increases if, relative to others or earlier moments in time, individuals or groups have lower levels of access, participation and autonomy in multiple domains (modified definition from Schwanen, Lucas, Akyelken, et al.., 2015: 125).

Ron Mace (1970) coined the term Universal Design that originated as an approach inclusive of disabled people that ensured the use of design by a broad range of bodies (Audirac, 2008), and despite promises of inclusion in the AODA act for people with disabilities to have access to equal transit this goal remains elusive. Without the inclusion of disabled bodies in transit policy and other public policy more generally, there is a kind of persistent anti-value (Marx, 1885) that disabled body-minds often experience when using services explicitly labeled ‘public.’ Two examples of this that are pertinent to the transit debate are poorly marked, so called ‘accessible routes’ that result in people with mobility aids having to go out of their way to find an elevator and the fact that the newer ‘accessible street cars’ are not accessible to many wheelchair-users, because the accessible buttons cannot be used in high traffic areas on platforms too narrow for many with mobility aids. These examples and others like them, create the illusion of access and equality for the sole comfort of able-bodied people who will claim that access exists, even when the disabled-user experience points to the anti-value of ‘access’. The disability communities know that when developers and designers don’t include our lived-experiences the project at hand will leave a lot to be desired with regard to access. This has been so in ‘public transit,’ ‘public education,’ and ‘public health,’ and access to health care to name a few.

I want to make it clear, especially in the face of neoliberal discourse, that what is cheaper is to think through access first. Walk with us, talk with us and not without us.

Lack of access, and the various forms of anti-value that it produces, also produces a specific and intense-energy-sucking kind of time-debt to which the disabled communities are exposed. In the case of public transit I have to find an accessible route or literally seek out ‘special” transportation on a regular basis. The accessible route is often the long, hidden route in dark passages and corners. This is a waste of time, an anti-time, a time-debt invented by able-bodied people. This time-debt, especially over space and time, is costly. Although space-time constraints (Paez, et. al. 2012) are used in accessibility measures for public transit, they are applied to the general population to measure, for example, how long it takes for someone to get from one transit stop to another rather than those with mobility restrictions. Further, the time required to advocate for needed changes due to ableism is a full-time unpaid job at the best of times.

When two people with mobility devices are told on more than one occasion, “There are too many wheelchairs on the bus” that a wheelchair, plus one more is too much, what does this really mean? At the least it means go away, disabled people, let us talk about you but not see you, lest we might feel uncomfortable and inconvenienced by disabled bodies showing up.

Stop.  Let’s rethink that for a minute.

If I got on a bus and told all of the able-bodied appearing folk to get off and said, “There are too many Normates (Thompson, R.G., 1997) on the bus! Get off the bus!” What then?

Well the transit system would most certainly be useless to them. They, the Normates, would accumulate time-debt fairly quickly, with confused pleas to change the rules, change the system, and they would certainly be scrambling to find a walkable route, an affordable taxi or ‘special transportation.’

In my experience, slow, slow, transportation, is ‘special transportation.’ And since the work of universal design is more than 45 years strong, and disability activism has a rich history exceeding that time frame, why does the notion of ‘special transportation’ still exist and who is who is indebted to whom and at what cost as a result of such exclusion?



[1] Please see the work of Margrit Shildrick (2011) Dangerous Discourses of Disability, Subjectivity and Sexuality for a more in-depth discussion.


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Terri-Lynn Langdon is a DisAbled social worker and social justice activist based in Toronto. She currently sits on the Toronto Accessibility Advisory Committee (TAAC) and works at the Eight Branches Healing Arts Centre as a social worker and instructor. Currently pursuing her doctorate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, she researches health equity in under-serviced populations. She takes a human rights approach to advance social justice initiatives in the communities to which she belongs.