If you need it…

I spend most of my traveling hours on a train or bus scrambling not to get stepped on. Sometimes this means I get to sit on a seat squished between people while my dog hides beneath, sometimes this means I sit on a nice privately isolated seat with enough foot space for D to curl up all comfy cozy. D loves to find empty seats, especially loves to find empty spaces for his body to hide. I don’t blame him, if I were foot-level with hordes of metro Bostonians I would want to hide under a rock too.

sticker sign on MBTA Sometimes it’s because I have this winning personality and fabulous charm that I acquire a seat on the transit system of my choice. Seeing me grappling a pole and straddling a labrador, someone will look up, shake the dust from their shoulders and say ‘do you want to sit down?” Once I said yes and the lady inquiring just went back to her reading. I thought it was insidiously cute. Once I said no and some guy forcibly put me in his seat. That didn’t last long, and neither did his er, grip.

I saw the above sign on a train window and thought about the implications. Rather than saying “this seat is intended for people with disabilities or the elderly” (problematic as that is) it said to offer up this seat if it’s needed. If it’s needed. How’s that get defined? Who gets to define that? How quaint that the sticker is intended to direct able-bodied people to do the ‘right’ thing whatever that may be, if they think it’s merited or warranted in a given situation.

Not that this is a new concept, people with a certain amount of privilege having the authority to decide when a person without a certain amount of privilege has access to things and services. But to be faced with it on such a visceral level, a directive on a train I’m riding, is to remind me of where I am and how little agency I’m afforded by this able-bodied world. It reminds me how often living can feel like fighting. Fighting for the right to define myself, my identify and my needs without interpretation and renegotiation by others.

It ain’t easy to redirect this fighting energy into positivity. It’s hard to re-imagine that people are kind and good and well-meaning. But sometimes they’re not; sometimes they’re patronizing and in need of a pat on the back, a good deed for the day and you are going to be it. And that’s where inserting our identities and autonomy (and right to choose our need) comes in to place. And that’s when I want to strip all those crap directive signs off the windows and walls I see them on.

More like….this seat is for folks who say they want to sit in it. Stop defining and identifying bodies for others.  Self determination much?


4 responses to “If you need it…

  1. Yeah — the sign addresses an implied “you” and that “you” is the TAB person whose job it is, apparently, to make the decision about whether the crippy and/or old person needs the seat. They get to make the decision, and they get to be the normative addressed “you” who makes decisions.


  2. I fully agree that offering someone your seat insincerely or ignoring them when they try to refuse your offer is incredibly disrespectful, but I think I don’t really understand the issue with the sign mentioned.

    Is it the specifically “if needed” clause that is problematic because it gives the privilege of judging need to the normative audience?

    I would personally feel supremely uncomfortable asking a stranger to give up their seat for me uninvited. A sign like that might make it a little easier for me to do that “when needed”. Of course, I may be unusual in this. I would really like to hear others’ thoughts on the issue.

    Oh, and I would like to mention that similar signs in my city used to be accompanied by this sentence: “Please remember, not all disabilities are visible”. I thought it was a small try at public education and I really appreciated that. I would be open to hearing any other reactions to that kind of sign.


    • Is it the specifically “if needed” clause that is problematic because it gives the privilege of judging need to the normative audience?

      Yes, that’s it. There are other signs used on our public transit system here that do not subject the PWD to the scrutiny and judgment of a temporarily able-bodied person (TAB). That this sign is used (and rather new) shows a lack of autonomy and respect for the wide variety of ability and disability and the commonality of invisible disability, thus invisible need. It should never be on the shoulders of able-bodied denizens to judge the likelihood, validity of accommodations of a person with a disability.


    • similar signs in my city used to be accompanied by this sentence: “Please remember, not all disabilities are visible”

      Cyd, I like that! I’ve never seen a sign like that.


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