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Public Culture 13.3 (2001) 459-484

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Mobility Disability

Celeste Langan

To think about mobility disability is to think about norms of speed and ranges of motion; perhaps also of desired ends. Rousseau long ago declared in The Social Contract that the cripple who wants to run and the able-bodied man who doesn't will both remain where they are. But by focusing on internal resources and intentions, Rousseau forgot to mention all those whose mobility is affected by external constraints. To consider those constraints is to notice how the built environment--social practices and material infrastructures--can create mobility disabilities that diminish the difference between the "cripple" and the ambulatory person who may well wish to move.

Two examples, one from the United States, one from Turkey. Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act appeared to sweep away legal obstacles to the mobility of African Americans. But in "The Legacy of Jim Crow in Macon, Georgia," David Oedel (1997: 98) describes how the contemporary transportation infrastructure still has discriminatory effects:

A steady stream of seemingly innocuous funding and operational decisions . . . have, since 1964, quietly but effectively restricted the mobility [End Page 459] of poor African-Americans and other disfavored minorities who do not own cars. Meanwhile, these same officials and citizens have simultaneously lavished public funds on transportation accommodations favored by the car-owning majority, who have used the new and improved roads, streets, and highways in effect to live free from close contact with poor African-Americans and others similarly situated.

The power of "funding and operational decisions" to create mobility disabilities becomes even clearer upon consideration of the Turkish case, where discrimination takes place under the sign not of race but of modernization: the homogenization and amplification of speed. Responding to (but also stimulating) the massive urbanization and mobilization of its population, Turkey has built new multilane highways with lowered gradients that allow traffic to move with greater efficiency. All sorts of traffic one encounters on other roads, however, are absent on the new freeways. Pedestrians, horse-drawn carts, and tractors are all prohibited; highway signs proclaim which forms of mobility are no longer "up to speed." Those disqualified from travel on the new highways may soon discover that schools, stores, and other public facilities are more spread out and harder to reach, for such amplified norms of mobility alter the spatial dimensions of people's lives.

Two Hollywood films of recent vintage offer contrasting representations of the mobility disabilities created by norms of speed in the United States. David Lynch's The Straight Story (1999) chronicles the journey of sixty-eight-year-old Alvin Straight, whose visual impairment prohibits him from driving and whose antipathy to being a passenger--whether in his daughter's car or on a bus--sets him on the unusual course of riding a lawn mower from Iowa to Wisconsin, at an average speed of three to four miles an hour (roughly the norm of walking). Lynch makes us aware, as we watch the film, of the extent to which even our visual experience of space has been transformed by speed--not only by the twenty-four-frame-per-second speed of film projection, but by the rate at which cameras usually move over the landscape. The deliberately slowed pace of the film creates the illusion of "real time," and the return to a human scale implied in the title reinforces the film's thematic suggestion that autonomy--figured as escape from the immobility implicit in mass-mediated consumption--is still possible. As Straight painstakingly repairs his mower, builds his trailer, and buys his prosthetic "grabber," he seems to tap an interior resourcefulness--talents and industry--sufficient to restore the capacity for what might be termed automobility to his aging body. In its offbeat way, The Straight Story enshrines the appearance in the discourse of freedom and in the public sphere of a new political category: [End Page 460] the "individuals with wheelchairs" recognized by the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

But the film partly undermines, or at least complicates, its celebration of Straight's independence in...


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pp. 459-484
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Archived 2004
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