ELEVATOR SHAMING and Ableism: Why Pro-Stairs Health Campaigns Kind Of Suck

I am TOTALLY trying to make "elevator shaming" happen, you guys. This is going to be the next big shameful thing.
Publish date:
March 1, 2013
health, ableism, shame, shame shaming

I can already hear it. Okay, says you, the reader, now we have just gone too far. Elevator shaming? Lesley? LESLEY, LOOK AT ME. WE ARE NOT TALKING ABOUT ELEVATOR SHAMING.

We are, though. Y’all can blame Twitter for this one, because yesterday, user @ezbake tipped me to a particularly depressing picture. For the non-clicky types, the image in question is a photo, probably taken with a phone, of a man in a wheelchair waiting for an elevator. The twist is that the elevator in question has a message emblazoned across its door: “Today is the day we take the stairs,” a no doubt well-meaning but poorly considered ad for what looks like Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota. A health insurance provider! Of course.

The image is, on its own, a bitter, sad kind of funny, the humor resting on the idea that this guy is never going to take the stairs, today or or any other day, and yet he has to sit and stare at this cheery affirmation meant to guilt to able-bodied into not taking the elevator. When I (half-jokingly) asked my own Twitter followers whether I should write about “elevator shaming,” a zillion people answered in the affirmative. I was surprised by the enthusiasm of the response. So here we are.

In my prior life as an office-bound employee, I worked in a building with an (ancient, impossibly slow-moving, often broken) elevator and stairs right next to each other, and I usually took the stairs. Up to two floors, anyway. Anything higher risked an asthma attack.

I did this, in part, because even if I was tired or menstrual-crampy or the stairwell was colder than the proverbial witch’s tit, I didn’t want to be caught using the elevator in a... frivolous manner. I honestly have no idea where this self-administered don’t-abuse-the-elevator pressure came from, but whatever its source I had internalized it good and proper such that even when going upstairs with colleagues, I would often break my two-floors rule and arrive on the fourth floor landing wheezing and digging in my pocket for my inhaler, as apparently I preferred not being able to breathe over asking if we could take the elevator.

That said, I really only began to notice this so-called “elevator shame” in myself after an experience on a trip to New York several years ago. I’d arrived underground at an unfamiliar subway station with two heavy bags, one of them a stairs-unfriendly small rolling suitcase. Unwilling to wander up and down the platform looking for an elevator or escalator like an obvious tourist, I followed my fellow exiting passengers up the stairs. And up more stairs. And up more stairs.

It turned out this particular station was roughly ten miles below the street. I half expected to pass by a dwarven mine or the Stargate Project on my long climb out. And still I resisted the urge to look for an alternate means of surfacing (which may not even have existed, to be fair), thinking, “I’m sure the exit is just after this next flight,” because I didn’t want to be the person who admitted I was struggling to climb all these stairs, encumbered as I was.

When I finally reached daylight, I was gasping for breath in the cold air, and had to stagger over to sit down against a nearby building, to find my inhaler and get some oxygen into my lungs. I SAT DOWN on a NEW YORK SIDEWALK, and I wasn’t even DRUNK.

Sitting there, I thought, Wow, I am a giant fucking tool. What is my problem with elevators?

It seemed obvious then that whatever shame I’d internalized was not entirely in my own head, as it had such a powerful grip on my common sense. It had to come from somewhere.

Health initiatives have been harping on the value of the stairs over the elevator for awhile now. In 1998, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mounted a study “to see if making physical changes to a stairwell in the Atlanta-based Koger Center Rhodes Building, combined with music and motivational signs would motivate employees to use the stairs.” Apparently some Enya and soaring eagle posters worked, because now the CDC includes a toolkit for how you can awesome up the staircase in your own building. Their suggested motivational slogans include the “Fight fat….Feel fit….Frequent these flights,” and “Small steps make a big difference.”

Although the benefits of taking the stairs -- for those that can, anyway -- seem to be common sense, the research on the subject as a standalone factor in people’s health is comprised of just a few studies. One commonly cited 2008 study published in the European Heart Journal looked exclusively at the effects of increased stair use amongst a small group of hospital employees and found that, yes, it seemed to have some beneficial results. Unfortunately, three months later, the number of employees continuing to use the stairs had decreased from the original 69 participants to a small but committed 10. Maybe their stairs just weren't motivational enough, or maybe they should have taken a page from an office building in The Hague that lined its staircase with “slimming” funhouse mirrors in hopes of flattering people into taking the path of greatest resistance.

There’s also some dubious anecdotal data, such as the tale of one Gregory Minor, who allegedly lost 80 pounds simply by taking the stairs at work for 18 months, as prompted by Duke University’s employee health program called, unimaginatively, “Take the Stairs.” (Call me a cynic, but I’m a little suspicious of this story, as it seems unlikely that your average stair usage would be enough to cause such a loss all on its own, without additional changes in diet and activity level. But whatever! Duke says take the stairs, it’ll make you thinner. Maybe.)

In my own city, the Boston Public Health Commission has its own “Take the Stairs! Every Step Counts” campaign, which encourages the interested to “implement a stairwell campaign at your workplace." This sounds like a useful way to get your colleagues to hate you, if you need to make that happen for some reason.

My point being, these initiatives are widely popular. So what’s wrong with positively encouraging people to use the three minutes they’d spend in an elevator to exercise instead? Nothing, on the surface. Unfortunately though, these efforts don’t happen in a vacuum -- they happen in context with a lot of other, less positive messages. They happen in the same culture that condemns any perceived laziness and less-than-perfect physical condition as moral failures. And that’s where things get a little more complicated.

As fun as it is to giggle and make up new and increasingly specific “shamings,” what I’m calling elevator shaming is often just a particular variety of a much larger and more ubiquitous cultural force: namely, ableism, the chronic privileging in social and institutional spaces of folks who are currently able-bodied over those who are disabled.

Ableism is an especially insidious problem because our culture continues to be invested in the idea that disabilities are scary and bad. Many of us who are able-bodied simply don’t know how to behave around a disabled person.

We have to get over it, though.

While stairs-encouragement may have some positive effects, it has negative ones too. Culturally, it places a heavy value on the ability to climb stairs in the first place, and marks this as both “normal” and the perferred state of things. It reinforces the idea that disabled bodies (or bodies that just aren’t in good enough shape to run up a few floors) are somehow broken, mismanaged or defective, and together with the plethora of other ableist crap we live with every day, this has a powerful and cumulative impact on their quality of life. In a world that sees good physical condition as a signifier of morality and good character, this is a problem.

In fact, these pro-stairs movements are not simply restricted to a few motivational posters, but are even developing into a architectural design movement. In 2006, Virginia Commonwealth University was planning a new building for their business school, and chose a design which intentionally hid the elevators -- elevators designed to move more slowly than usual, at that -- at the rear of the building, and included a prominent staircase in the front.

Building on the let’s-make-elevators-suck idea, the California Department of Transportation headquarters in Los Angeles has elevators that stop at every third floor, ostensibly in hopes of annoying people into heading for the stairwell (there is also a “special” less annoying elevator for disabled folks to use, although how they decide who ranks as disabled enough to use it remains unclear).

Innocuous as they may sound, “new” ideas like hiding the elevators are actually a significant setback for disabled people, who have spent decades fighting for fair and reasonable accessibility accommodations, and who are often denied them anyway, even when the law is on their side. And although the inconvenience may seem minor to currently able-bodied folks like you or me, for some people, a difference of an additional twenty feet may as well be twenty miles. Disabled folks' ability to get around is essentially being sacrificed in favor of feel-good cosmetic changes that let public institutions pat themselves on the back for being so forward-thinking. Ironic.

That image of the man using a wheelchair beside the elevator telling him to walk is a particularly vivid one, but here’s the other thing -- not all disabled people use wheelchairs. A great many disabilities are invisible to the outside world, meaning you might look at a disabled person and never have any idea that they had a disability, even one that has an extreme impact on their lives and mobility. If we’re encouraged to think of the stairs as the morally superior choice for those not using wheelchairs, where does that leave the folks who don’t use wheelchairs but for whom climbing stairs is just as impossible?

Unless we're vigilant, even the most positive anti-elevator messages can be internalized as a criticism against those who would choose not to use the stairs -- or who can’t do so (both of which reasons, I might add, are equally valid). The elevator becomes “bad" because it’s associated with disability and laziness; the stairs become “good” because they’re associated with able-bodiedness and some universal standard of “good health.” (How many times have I gotten weird and unwelcome props from someone in a stairwell for being "good" and taking the stairs? Too many times.)

Add all of this together and the idea that some might feel judged, or even shamed, for using the elevator (or the escalator) over the stairs is not so baffling. Nor is it surprising that I myself might have internalized the whole stairs = good, elevator = bad ideology myself at some point.

What about elevator shaming on an individual basis -- you know, when a friend or colleague gives you a hard time for preferring modern technology to your fully functional legs? That sucks too. But the trouble with the broader institutionalized social shaming I'm discussing above is not simply that it makes some individual people feel badly about themselves. The trouble is that it contributes to a broader cultural issue that values the able-bodied and the “healthy” first, and which therefore makes life harder for disabled people (or just unhealthy people) who have every bit as much right to go to a hospital or their jobs or a movie without being reminded that the culture in which they must live thinks of them as less worthy and less important than the able-bodied.

It may seem, to some, like these problems are not worth talking about, as the greater good of encouraging stairs use is more important than the continued suffering of a few. But it is the refusal to analyze these attitudes that allows them to persist. You might think it's all very ridiculous now -- but if one day you're the one with the disability, odds are you're going to feel very differently.

I don’t think good health should be a stick we beat people with. I think health initiatives that can apply to everyone, that acknowledge a range of experiences and abilities, and that recognize that one size of “good health” does not fit all, would be a far more useful and positive effort to put our energy into. It’s okay to take the stairs. It’s okay not to take the stairs. Until we start trusting one another with our bodies, and respecting our differences, shame will continue to rule our decisions about our health. And that doesn’t seem like a very positive place to be.