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Stairs, Effort, and Accommodation

I am a staunch advocate of accommodation as a means to promote equity, and that includes the accommodation of disabilities and physical differences. Obviously, there are many reasons why someone may not be able to use stairs. I would argue, however, that most of those riding the escalator in this photo are doing so for convenience, not necessity. They're using it because it's easier. So there's a point where the obligation for accommodation shades into desire for convenience.

I am a staunch critic of capitalism, but one of its strengths is that advertising reveals as much as it manipulates. A constant theme of advertising is how a product makes life more effortless. This exploits a particular cultural tendency. Even exercise equipment is extolled for demanding so little effort, like the set of bicycle-like pedals that a commercial shows being used by a person sitting on a sofa and watching TV.

As part of the dojo kun, the oath of the dojo, we recite at the end of every karate class, we promise to foster the spirit of effort, not foster making the least effort possible. The way of karate recognizes that effort is an absolutely necessary condition for transformation, for getting genuinely better. The pedaling device has an internal contradiction, because it's promising people can change a lot through basically no effort at all.

This brings me (finally) back to the stairs and the escalator. The townhouse where Lucy and I live is tall and narrow. It has four floors. The bottom is at ground level; the top is where I spend much of my day and where I'm typing this right now. So our days are filled with going up and down three flights of stairs. Visitors often exclaim they wouldn't want to be climbing stairs all the time and sometimes ask, "What will you do when you get old?"

First, I'm already old, but second, it's a good question for someone interested in culture. As is my wont, I'm going to take a detour to answer it. Dave Lowry wrote about the difference between Japanese and some European chef's knives. He said that the latter were carefully engineered to fit a chef's hand, while the former required substantial practice to be able to cut proficiently. In other words, the Japanese knife demanded that its user change themselves to be able to do what was needed.

This is how accommodation gets revealed as having a relationship to effort. In karate-dō, we seek to change our very bodies in order to do karate properly. I can testify to how difficult that is; my sensei constantly points out how I fall short because of my inflexibility and weaknesses. Yet working hard on changing the material self is really the point.

So the stairs in our place can be understood in two ways. They can be seen as a possibly impossible impediment when we get old and weak. Or they can be seen as the very means by which, right now, day after day, trip after trip up and down those stairs, we try to stay strong so that we'll still be able to use them when we're octogenarians or older. Because Lucy and I follow the way of karate, we're not interested in accommodation. We want to change ourselves to better deal with the world.

Doug Aoki