Feminist Technologies Are Assistive Technologies: What the Feminist Technology Movement Can Learn from the Disability Rights Movement

By Linda L. Layne, Hale Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences, Dept. of Science and Technology Studies, Rensselaer

One of the issues raised in Feminist Technology (Layne, Vostral, Boyer 2010) is the extent to which changes in the built environment brought about bydisability rights activists inadvertently benefited women who have mobility challenges when caring for small children, whether their own or others. In the Introduction to that volume I noted that an unintended consequence of the ramps, curb cuts, elevators, and larger public toilets that were installed as a result of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was that women (and men) who care for small children also benefited. Why, I asked, had feminists not called for these changes themselves?

Photo of Helen Grace taken by Photographer Sandy Edwards in 1982. Reproduced with permission in Feminist Technology.
In this post I examine a number of accommodations for people with disabilities traveling on public transportation that have been extended to women if they are pregnant and/or traveling with small children. A comparison of the same material artifacts offered to different classes of riders, and of the social movements that advocate for them, helps explain why feminists have not been more assertive about transforming the material world to suit women’s needs. My hope is that by explicating the source of this reluctance and presenting an alternative model, feminists will more readily explore the potential of feminist technology to reshape the material world in ways that enhance and extend women’s capacities and improve women’s lives.

The accommodations examined here include technologies to assist passengers to reach and board vehicles, space for parking assistive mobility devices on board, and priority seating. The first challenge for those who use mobility devices is getting to the vehicle. Oftentimes trains or subways are located above or below the station and require the use of stairs. Buses, likewise, are not at ground level and typically require the use of stairs. In addition, turnstiles, a standard way to channel riders and collect fares, pose problems for people using mobility devices, whether for themselves or for young children. Turnstiles may also be difficult for very pregnant women. Thanks to the efforts of disability rights activists, bus, subway, and train stations now have elevators for reaching the platform and gates that are wide enough to permit passage, not only of wheelchairs, but also strollers and prams. Actually boarding is also difficult if the vehicle is not the same level as the platform. Technologies such as kneeling buses, low-floor buses, and lift ramps designed to make public transport accessible to wheelchair users also benefit riders who use strollers. In Canada, for instance, the Edmonton Transit System website provides instructions for boarding with strollers on either their low-floor buses which have no steps and are able to “kneel,” or on their trains where riders “can use the ramp to make it easier to board and exit with a stroller. The ramp is activated with the blue button with the wheelchair symbol.”
stroller.jpg Ramp-Button.jpg
Accessed January 1, 2010
Once aboard, space is sometimes reserved not only for wheelchairs, but also for baby strollers and prams.
Photo by Layne, London 2010
Photo by Layne, California 2008
The needs of wheelchair- and stroller-users are not always seen as synergistic, however. In such cases, wheelchair users are given priority as, for instance, on this train from Santa Cruz to San Francisco, where, evidently, strollers are not considered mobility devices. Guidelines for stroller use on the Washington, DC Circulator lines specify that wheelchairs and scooters have first priority, followed by “people with disabilities, seniors, and people with walkers,” then children in strollers. They explain this ranking is based on ability to stand and to fold the equipment (Stroller guidelines for the DC Circulator).
Likewise, people “needing special assistance” because of a physical impairment or because they are traveling with young children have often been given identical accommodations when boarding commercial airlines: both types of passengers typically are allowed to pre-board and offered assistance. Sometimes, however, these classes of riders are treated differently (from each other and from other passengers). For example, until October 2007, Southwest Airlines, which does not give assigned seats but rather assigns the order in which passengers board and select a seat of their choosing, allowed persons travelling with children under four years of age to pre-board along with those having a physical impairment. Now parents of young children are allowed to board after the pre-boarders and the A group (30 passengers) have boarded, but before the remaining passengers board.
Many public transport systems also now reserve seats near the doors for passengers who are elderly, disabled, pregnant, or traveling with young children. For each of these categories of rider, moving through a crowded, moving vehicle to look for a seat, or having to stand on a surface that may lurch or tilt from side to side, is difficult. Keiōa, a private railway company in Japan, was one of the first to introduce priority seating and they did so for elderly passengers. These special “Silver Seats” were inaugurated on Respect for the Aged Day on September 15, 1973. In 1993 reserved seats were extended to others with special needs including “the physically challenged, expectant mothers, and passengers carrying infants” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keio_Corporation).
Photo Accessed December 16, 2010.
In Vienna, as in Japan, pregnant women and women travelling with infants are given priority to seats nearest the doors, along with those with mobility impairments, and the elderly.
Photo by Layne, Vienna 2010
In a post on the Feminist Technology book website I address the graphics used to convey this policy. Here I focus on the question of whether these innovations should be considered feminist technologies. I believe they should. One definition of “technology” is “aids for doing things” (Cockburn and Ormrod 1993:154), hence one definition of feminist technology would be “aids for doing things that benefit women.” Being able to travel through public spaces while very pregnant or while caring for young children (whether male or female) benefits women.
Some may object. Indeed, my own reaction when seeing these images of apparently able-bodied women grouped with disabled men was to cringe. After centuries of combating the idea that women are constitutionally disabled by their reproductive biology, and that as a result, women should be protected by excluding them from public life, it is no wonder that feminists may object to lumping women together with “the disabled” and may shy away from asking for special treatment based on these reproductive roles. The issue of differential treatment for women because of their reproductive roles has been a source of tension in the feminist movement for at least a century. In the US, the Mueller v Oregon Supreme Court Decision of 1908 ruled that a state law restricting women’s working hours to no more than ten hours a day was justified based on “woman’s physical structure and the performance of maternal functions” because “healthy mothers are essential to vigorous offspring, the physical well-being of woman becomes an object of public interest and care in order to preserve the strength and vigor of the race” (Woloch 1996:148). There is no doubt that this piece of “protective legislation” and other progressive reforms benefited women and, eventually, men too. It is also the case, however, that protective legislation and policies have been used systematically to deny women equal access to educational and occupational opportunities. “By 1968, twenty-six states barred women from mining, bartending, or other jobs deemed hazardous to health or morals; eleven states imposed limits on the weight women could lift; nineteen states prohibited or regulated night work; and seven states prohibited work for periods before or after childbirth” (Woloch 1996:66). The Muller case was also used in 1961 to justify continuing to exclude women from serving on juries (Woloch 1996:66).
Although at the time, most women’s organisations opposed the Amendment of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination in employment based on sex, which effectively dismantled protective legislation for women, American women benefited so much from this law, most liberal second wave feminists have tended to support “strict egalitarianism” or “equal treatment” vs “special treatment” (Woloch 1996:71). Women have preferred to assert that they are equal to men, and to shun the identity of being “the weaker sex,” in need of special accommodations.
The Disabilities Rights Movement which came about during the same period as Second Wave Feminism has fascinating commonalities and differences. Unlike women, who were considered to be of “public interest” because of their “abilities to preserve the strength and vigor of the race,” people with disabilities were considered to have little social value, often because they were perceived to be unable to work and to support themselves. In other words, unlike women, they were not excluded from public life “for their own good,” or the good of the state, but because there was no perceived value to be gained from including them. Even if at one time in their lives they had had something to offer, once they were injured on the job or wounded in war, the assumption was they were no longer capable of contributing to the public good. In the 1950’s, vocational rehabilitation advocates had to make the case for providing services, arguing “that the financial benefits of assisting people with disabilities to enter the paid, taxpaying workforce far exceeded the costs of VR services” (Scotch 2001: 382).
This is the social backdrop against which disability rights activists worked. The “civil rights model” or “social model” of disability, developed in the 1960s, argued that it was not physical impairment which disabled people but social discrimination which did (Landsman 2009:182). The Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) articulated this in 1976, stating that disability comes from, among other things, “the reality of building codes,” and helped change the goal from “cure” to “removal of barriers to full inclusion and citizenship” (Landsman 2009:183). From the start, changes in the material world were high on the agenda. Between 1968 and 1990, when the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, Disability Rights Activists in the US successfully lobbied for laws to outlaw discrimination including “some fifty acts passed by Congress” (Longmore and Umansky 2001:10). It is noteworthy that the first of these was the federal Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 which mandated “access to facilities designed, built, altered, or leased with Federal funds” ABA www.access-board.gov/about/laws/aba.htm
Access to public transit was also an early goal. An early militant organization, American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit (ADAPT) which started in Colorado in the early 1980s, gained national recognition for their acts of civil disobedience aimed at getting wheelchair accessible lifts on city and interstate buses. “Wheelchair users would stop a bus in front and back, and others would get out of their chairs and crawl up the steps of an inaccessible bus to dramatize the issue” (Wikipedia). Even after passage of the ADA, ADAPT kept up the pressure to make sure buses were made accessible. In 1997, when “Greyhound snuck in an amendment onto the ADA to give themselves even more” than the initial seven-year extension they had been granted to come into compliance, ADAPT staged successful protests at over 40 Greyhound stations and occupied “the executive offices of Greyhound Bus corporate headquarters for more than seven hours”
As the Federal Transit Administration recognizes, the purpose of these policies is “enhancing the social and economic quality of life for people with disabilities.” www.fta.dot.gov/civil_rights.html Surely women, too, have a right to have the material world built in ways that enhance the social and economic quality of their lives. The feminist movement and disability rights movement have been slow to embrace each other. As recently as 2002 scholars had to assert that “disability studies can benefit from feminist theory and feminist theory can benefit from disability studies” (Garland-Thompson 2002: 2). The potential benefit is not just in the area of more ample theory, however.
Feminists can learn from the disability rights movement that there is no shame in asking for the material world to be structured in ways that facilitates our lives and makes full participation in all areas of public and private life more easily attainable. There is no shame is asking for assistance. As men have long understood, that is the purpose of technology. “Assistive technology” is defined as “any item, piece of equipment, or system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is … used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities” (US Dept. Commerce). If one simply substitutes “women” for “individuals with disabilities” one has the definition of feminist technology. Men have designed the world to suit their needs. It’s time for women to do the same.

References Cited

Architectural Barriers Act
ADAPT “Greyhound is protested in over 44 Cities Across the Nation
Accessed January 26,2011
Wikipedia. “ADAPT
Accessed January 26, 2011
Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie 2002 ‘Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory’ National Women’s Studies Association Journal, Special issue “Feminist Disability Studies” 14(3):1-32.
Gilbertson, Dawn 2007 “Southwest Airlines ends ‘family first’ boarding” The Arizona Republic September 19
Accessed January 25, 2011.
Landsman, Gail 2009. Reconstructing Motherhood and Disability in the Age of ‘Perfect’ Babies. London: Routledge.
Layne, Linda, Sharra Vostral, and Laura Kate Boyer 2010. Feminist Technology. Urbana: U. Illinois Press.
Longmore, Paul K. and Lauri Umansky 2001. ‘Introduction: Disability History: From the Margins to the Mainstream’ in The New Disability History: American Perspectives. Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky (eds). New York: NYU Press. (pp.1-32).
Scotch, Richard K. 2001 ‘American Disability Policy in the Twentieth Century’ in The New Disability History: American Perspectives. Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky (eds). New York: NYU Press. (pp. 375-392).
Woloch, Nancy 1996. Muller v. Oregon: A brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books.
Using Strollers on ETS
Accessed January 23, 2011
Stroller guidelines for the DC Circulator
Accessed January 23, 2011
United States Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration “Glossary of terms
Accessed January 23, 2011

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