Staircases In Space: Why Are Places In Science Fiction Not Wheelchair-Accessible?

Space, as we all know, is the final frontier. It’s the star-spangled playground in which our imaginations run amok, and the setting for stories that made us fall in love with sci-fi.

Some of us spent hours pretending we were the Doctor’s companions, helping him find Gallifrey from the TARDIS. Some of us imagined the Millennium Falcon jumping to hyperspace when we shouted, “Punch it, Chewie!” Some of us swore we could hear the communicator beeping when we asked our favourite Federation starship to beam us aboard.

The characters that roam space have built homes in our hearts and allowed those of us who are trapped in Earth’s gravity-well to fulfil some of our wildest fantasies. Space remains a vast, untamed place, penned in only by the limits of our own imaginations.

So why the hell are there so many staircases in space?

I never used to notice stairs. They were simply a way for me to get from one place to another. Occasionally they were tiresome, but they never actually stymied or stopped me entirely. Eventually, I managed to get where I needed to go.

Then I started using a wheelchair. Suddenly, stairs became a barrier that prevented me from getting from here to there. One step was often enough to stop me in my tracks.

It turns out that when you start using a wheelchair, you quickly realise that there are a lot of staircases and steps in our world — and a lot of broken (or nonexistent) elevators and ramps.

Once you start realising how many stairs there are stopping you in real life, it becomes impossible not to notice them existing in the sci-fi you adore. It turns out they’re everywhere, in all of our sci-fi. Whether it’s decades-old or shiny and brand-new, our sci-fi imitates a real-world reliance on steps and stairs in our architecture.

When we think of sci-fi that’s run the test of time, Doctor Who immediately springs to mind. The inside of the TARDIS is littered with steps — from Christopher Eccleston to Peter Capaldi, there’s no way a wheelchair-using companion would be able to navigate that beautiful blue time machine.

Prior to the 2005 reboot, previous embodiments of the spaceship were no less inaccessible. You’d think that a spaceship that is regularly re-decorated could easily manage ramps in at least one iteration, but no set designers seem bothered enough to make it happen.

I was pleased to learn that a quick finger snap seems to occasionally unlock the TARDIS doors — a quirky replacement for the buttons that exist in real-life, usually installed near closed doors and pressed by disabled people to assist with automatically opening them — but trying to scootch through the narrow opening of that British police box with an accessibility device looks nigh impossible, even without the need for a key.

Doctor Who’s first episode aired in 1964, predating the beginning of the Star Trek franchise by two years. Unfortunately, 50 years worth of Federation starship manifestations also means half a century of inaccessibility.

The original USS Enterprise bridge has enough steps that you could take the equivalent of an aerobics class just trying to get from the turbolift to the Captain’s chair. The same level of inaccessibility goes for both the USS Voyager and USS Discovery, and if you’re a wheelchair user, you better not try to grab an after-shift bottle of bloodwine at Quark’s Bar unless you plan on dragging yourself up several steps to get there.

In fact, the bridge from The Next Generation’s Enterprise is the only one that’s fully accessible with gentle, sloping ramps.

Of course, some nondisabled humans argue that if a series originally started filming in the 1960s, it’s inevitable that inaccessibility would carry on in today’s updated versions!

(Among other counterarguments, I’d like to note that Star Trek is supposed to be a utopian paradise. “All the problems of mankind have been solved,” Gene Roddenberry told Michael Pillar, a screenwriter on Star Trek: Insurrection. “Earth is a paradise.” Contrary to ableist opinion, a utopia is not a world where disability is a problem that’s been solved; rather, it’s an inevitable expression of genetic variance, and disabled humans are not just welcomed but fully included.)

While the world may have been more inaccessible in the 1960s, the Disability Rights movement began alongside the birth of the Civil Rights movement. Regardless, a ton of present-day sci-fi is as guilty of inaccessibility as the ghosts of Jedi Masters’ past.

It’s a tough porg to swallow, but even with more than a decade on Star Trek and Doctor Who, the original Star Wars trilogy leaves a lot to be desired in terms of inaccessibility.

I have a slim chance of successfully wheeling into Owen and Beru’s moisture farm for a glass of blue milk to cool down: It’s staircases all the way down. The Mos Eisley cantina appears as interested in serving disabled patrons as it is in serving droids, based on the steps I’d have to take to get inside that wretched hive of scum and villainy.

Even if we ignore the prequel trilogy the way the Force intended and focus solely on The Force Awakens — a film that came out barely three years ago — inaccessibility reigns in Episodes VII and VIII as supremely as Snoke himself. There seems to be no ramp hidden behind the coloured flags that flutter over the staircase that leads into Maz Kanata’s castle. (To be fair, maybe the ramp is around the back, the way they usually are in real life.)

BB-8 manages to head down some stairs inside, but we don’t see him come back up. The spherical droid is an adorable Swiss Army Knife whose body panels have already revealed hidden tools, such as a firey thumbs-up and tethers that can attach to the walls. Perhaps one of his panels also has the secret to climbing up stairs hidden inside.

The Last Jedi has an even more recent release date, but even with all the First Order money in the galaxy — and therefore no way to claim that accessibility was too expensive to achieve — the Casino on Canto Bight is one wide, luxurious staircase after another.

If I kept going, the list of exclusionary staircases in the sci-fi we hold near and dear could run longer than a staircase up to a treehouse on Kashyyyk — and no, I’m sorry to say that neither The Expanse nor Firefly escape that list — but it’s still easy to miss what all those steps actually mean, especially when you aren’t viewing the world through the experience of disability.

When you don’t need wheels to get around, the world is literally built for you. Until I received my degenerative disease diagnosis at 26, I never once wondered why I so rarely saw disabled humans out and about. It never occurred to me that our world forcibly ostracises those who require accessibility devices by way of architecture.

Our real world is a remarkably inaccessible place. I haven’t made it to a movie theatre on opening night in years without running into a plethora of issues, from broken captioning devices, to nondisabled people sitting in seats for wheelchair users and their companions, to theatres that are physically inaccessible to me because of those dang steps and staircases.

Although the US passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, legislation intended to offer accessibility to disabled people in public places, many of its protections are ignored by business owners who see accessibility as not a boon but a burden. In Australia, the 1992 Disability Discrimination Act similarly makes it mandatory for public spaces to be accessible to disabled people.

Unfortunately, world is inaccessible even outside of movie theatres: A lawsuit was filed last year against the New York Subway System because it’s 80 per cent inaccessible to disabled people. Less than 20 per cent of polling places were fully accessible to disabled people during the 2016 US election. Only 17 per cent of NYC primary schools were fully compliant with the ADA in 2015. HR 620, a US bill intended to strip the ADA of what teeth it does have and place the onus of compliance on disabled patrons instead of business owners, passed in the House earlier this year.

Issues such as these aren’t restricted to the US – in Australia, Brisbane Times recently reported that half Queensland’s train stations are not fully accessible, a similar percentage as Sydney’s intercity and suburban trains. In December, Premier Gladys Berejiklian stated that it would be “years” before all of Sydney’s train stations are wheelchair accessible.

Like the list of sci-fi staircases, the stories about real-world inaccessibility go on in perpetuity.

Given that, is it really surprising that our fantasy worlds are reflective of the inaccessibility that occurs in our real-world society? The hundreds of thousands of fictional worlds built with all those staircases are a silent but persistent signal that disabled representation isn’t just a low priority, it rarely exists at all.

While disabled people make up 20 per cent of the population, we are featured in less than two per cent of screen time and still images we see in the media.

More than 95 per cent of that minuscule two per cent of disabled roles are played by nondisabled actors. Chirrut Imwe, a blind monk in Rogue One, was played by Donnie Yen, a fully-sighted actor. DJ, the stuttering thief in The Last Jedi, was played by Benicio Del Toro, an actor sans speech impediment. I love Geordi La Forge, but Levar Burton has exactly as many sight issues as Yen does.

While Doctor Who should be applauded for two episodes featuring deaf actors, Sophie Stone and Tim Barlow, and one featuring Rachel Denning, who has dwarfism, it’s hard to be excited when you realise three episodes out of a whopping 840 in total works out to just 0.3 per cent worth of representation.

When disability is actually, finally addressed in the plot, it is often treated as a symbol of villainy. Anakin’s scar, inflicted in the extended universe between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, is symbolic of his move towards the Dark Side. His transformation is complete with multiple amputations and his literal incineration at the end of Episode III — prime examples of disability stands for villainy as a wink-nudge to the audience.

Disability is all-too-frequently used as something terrible that must be fixed. “The Menagerie”, a Star Trek original series episode centred on fixing Captain Pike’s disfigurement, won a Hugo award; “Ethics”, a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode found Lieutenant Worf paralysed. Because his Klingon upbringing viewed life as over at the moment of injury, he risks an untested surgical procedure instead of embracing a disabled life. Even Capaldi’s version of the Doctor goes blind for two episodes before being conveniently cured.

I can’t help but wonder how much the blatant issue of real-world inaccessibility leads to the scarcity of disabled writers, actors, directors and producers that’s illustrated in inaccessible spaceships and stories that severely lack in disability diversity. Considering that the unemployment rate for disabled people in the US and Australia was almost twice that of nondisabled people in 2015, a statistic that’s held steady for years, it’s hard to not see a connection.

Trying to find solid information that upholds the probability of this connection is a more difficult task. Without disabled people pushing to make sure we’re included, nondisabled creators have minimal reason to notice our exclusion and even less reason to focus on categorising the systemic reasons for our blackballing.

In the search for evidence to prove my thesis, I was excited to find that the Writers Guild of America (WGA) had a Writers With Disabilities Committee as part of their Inclusion and Equity Department. I was able to chat with David Radcliff, a member of the Committee and a staff writer on an upcoming major network drama.

“I think [there’s] a multitude of reasons [why disabled people aren’t represented],” Radcliff mused while on the phone with me. He’s a vocal advocate for the integration of disabled people in the production of all media, not just sci-fi.

“One is that we don’t have any people in positions of authority that would then inform the way that stories are told. People with disabilities often become discouraged and leave the industry because it’s an incredibly difficult industry no matter who you are. There are a lot of hurdles, physical and logistical.”

Radcliff explained that even attending crowded networking events within the industry is sometimes physically impossible due to inaccessibility. “It was very difficult for me to break in, in part because of my disability. I have cerebral palsy and I use a wheelchair or crutches to get around.”

Radcliff noted that unemployment levels for disabled people remain steadily high, even when the unemployment rate for nondisabled workers ebb and flow. Inaccessibility surely must be a contributing factor to the fact that disabled people are unemployed at double the rate of nondisabled people.

“It’s the job of the writer [to include disabled roles], but also the casting director,” Radcliff continued.

“The offices of casting directors need to be uniformly accessible in order to make sure that we’re seeing a variety of actors for different roles… It’s rare where we would see someone like [us] in the background [scene] of a party or applying for a job or going to the beach or whatever.”

If disabled actors can’t even physically show up to casting calls to audition, is it any wonder that spaceships end up inaccessible as well?

Radcliff is quick to note that the exclusion of disabled people is a systemic issue, and not simply a problem that can be blamed on writers or casting offices or even directors.

“I think that [another reason] is that most diversity initiatives within networks don’t make a conscious effort to include disability,” Radcliff pointed out. “There are a lot of wonderful organisations [within networks that are] specifically attuned to increasing opportunities for people who are, say, Asian-American… but I don’t know of any [major network diversity initiative] organisations that exist for creative folks who are identified as having a disability.”

Including disabled people at all levels of creating the stories we love is the way we end up with a fully accessible TARDIS.

“A family of diverse storytellers trying to tell great stories is ultimately the end goal,” Radcliff concluded before applauding the greater degree of freedom disabled artists have to create their own content, thanks in part to the evolution of the internet and streaming platforms.

He encourages disabled people who feel excluded to start shaping their own media while continuing to push major networks towards better inclusivity, representation, and accessibility for employees both on-screen and off.

The work doesn’t just belong to disabled people, though. Nondisabled people are integral to the cause and making sure change happens.

“I would encourage people who don’t identify as someone with a disability to help champion opportunities for people with disabilities,” noted Radcliff. “In part because it’s morally justified, but also because you, too, will have a disability someday—you and someone you love. You deserve at all points in life to be reflected back in the culture you see.”

After chatting with Radcliff about the physical inaccessibility of so much of Hollywood and the exclusion of disabled people as a result, I reached out to Cat Rambo, President of Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), an organisation founded in 1965 to promote, advance and support science fiction and fantasy writing in the US and beyond.

While the SFWA doesn’t yet have tracking on how many of their members identify as disabled, the board is talking about adding questions related to disability on their membership questionnaire to help disabled writers identify themselves as such, should they so choose.

SFWA also has an accessibility checklist for SFWA conventions and other gatherings to help ensure full accessibility compliance. The checklist has existed for more than a decade and was created by Lee Martindale, a writer, anthology editor, Lifetime Active member of SFWA, and a paraplegic who was a member of the SFWA Board of Directors when the checklist was created.

That accessibility checklist is integral to the SFWA, explained Rambo. “Conventions already demand a huge level of energy, and [without the checklist], we end up at conventions where we aren’t hearing from [disabled] voices, where other writers aren’t considering disability in their fiction. [Disabled people] become invisible to them.”

Conventions are often places where connections are made and major award ceremonies for the industry are held. When they’re physically inaccessible, disabled people are removed from networking and storytelling in a very real way.

“If we don’t see ourselves in the writing, then it’s not inviting to us,” explained Rambo. They paused, shrugging. “Stories teach us empathy. A diverse cast of characters makes for more interesting reading. There’s a limited range of stories that grow out of the classic lego set of people.”

The SFWA is a prime example of how the physical inclusion of disabled bodies creates the opportunity for storytelling that includes disability, too. Sci-fi exists, in part, to show us the universe as it could be—to inspire both imagination and spirit as we gaze up at the stars and try to tame an incomprehensible galaxy with our stories.

In a universe this big, sci-fi could show us a reality where we have evolved beyond neglecting or outright ignoring a significant portion of our population. Our space dreams are broad enough for anything, including stories in which disability is neither a signpost for villainy nor a cure-all plot point. Space should remain the final frontier, not our human biases.

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