Laura Hershey: Writer, Poet, Activist, Consultant Rotating Header Image

Some Thoughts about Public Space

Today, completely by accident, I ran across this blog post by a blogger at “Student Activism,” about whom I previously knew nothing. In fact, I still don’t know anything about this writer. (Unlike me, a lot of bloggers seem not to want to disclose their identities too soon.)

This thoughtful post, entitled “Childhood, Disability, and Public Space,” discusses the negative judgments made by some nondisabled adults about behaviors sometimes exhibited by children, and/or by adults with developmental disabilities. The writer is careful to emphasize that she does not mean to imply that adults with DD are childish or childlike. Rather, she is concerned about the different and related prejudices that both groups face when venturing into public places.

This piece resonates with me on several levels. I have a daughter, just on the cusp between childhood and adulthood, who carries several labels including DD. She is gregarious and fun-loving, and loves to go to museums, plays, sporting events, and other activities that take place in shared public venues. Most of the time, when we’re out and about, she is courteous and perfectly appropriate… sometimes, not so much. At these times, she talks too loudly during a performance, or eats messily while her napkin remains pristine, or yells at her parents for trying to correct her. Her other mom and I work with her to learn good social skills, and she’s making real progress, but I’m aware that there are people out there who think kids like her should just stay home.

I’ve read news stories about families getting kicked out of movie theaters because of sounds made by their autistic children. I’ve heard of restaurant patrons requesting a different table because they didn’t want to watch a disabled person eat. I’ve seen signs posted in stores, making supposedly funny threats against children who misbehave.

I know that we all have certain expectations when we go shopping, or buy a ticket to a performance. In any society that aspires to freedom and equality, those expectations need to include the variations in atmosphere introduced by people of different ages, abilities, cultures, and so on.

I myself am a very noticeable presence in any public venue. I use a power wheelchair which I operate by blowing into a tube. I have more tubes going into my nose, connected to a mechanical ventilator, which pumps air into my lungs as I breathe. At symphony orchestra concerts, during pianissimo passages, I’ve become acutely aware of the mechanical sounds emanating from my respiratory equipment. My self-consciousness has sometimes veered close to embarrassment, but I’ve reminded myself that I have as much right as anyone to be in the presence of that great music.

I go so far as to believe that I make an important contribution to those public gatherings, even when I am merely a customer, a passerby, or an audience member. I help to demonstrate, without fanfare, that all kinds of people get around in the world in all kinds of ways. Everyone is not the same. Some people make unusual noises. Some look, move, or act a bit differently. Some people even breathe differently. That’s one of the things I want my daughter to learn when we go out — though it’s clear to me that she already knows that, more comfortably and more generously than most people.

The blogger at Student Activism, who is nondisabled and a parent, makes the following important point:

Public space is not our space. Children, the elderly, and people with disabilities don’t use parks, restaurants, stores, museums, and theaters at our indulgence, because it’s not our space. It’s everyone’s space, and everyone has an equal claim on it.” (Emphasis in the original.)

That’s why we need accessible buildings and buses. That’s why we need welcoming businesses and cultural facilities. That’s why we need to re-commit to the idea of real community.

7 Comments

  1. lauredhel says:

    Hi Laura,

    Just because the issue of identity seems important to you (I’m guessing here, from the fact that you opened with it) – the blogger that runs Student Activism has his real name, job, and email address all stated on his About page. I’m also not sure whether he identifies as nondisabled – did you see that somewhere in his post?

    All I have to say on the issue of public space being everybody’s space is “Word.” Sorry to not be engaging deeply on this subject – like you, I am disabled and have a youngish child, and I’m really quite wrung out at the moment from all the hate, exclusion and erasure from some of the comments section on the Feministe thread. Please consider this a general comment of support!

  2. admin says:

    Duh. All I had to do to find out about that blogger was to click “About” at http://studentactivism.net/credits/
    The blog is written by Angus Johnston, a scholar of history of campus organizing. Sorry if I suggested that the writer was being coy about identity. And isn’t it strange that I assumed it was a woman? What’s that all about? Because he quotes from several feminist websites?
    In any case, I’ve bookmarked the site and will be following it in the future.

  3. Argie says:

    I just discovered your site and am really enjoying reading. I have a daughter with multiple disabilities (mostly related to trauma as a child), and I have recently become interested in and begun to teach disability studies at the small college where I work. I will definitely be back here!

  4. Amadi says:

    This really resonated with me, Laura, because a forum I’m a member of has had some lengthy threads recently about people who are “slow” and therefore “inconsiderate” of other people’s time, and how frustrating and awful they are, about “tolerating” other people’s children when they “misbehave” and another just today about “damaged” geniuses, where damage seems to mean any kind of mental of physical disability or an addiction.

    The idea that we’re all a part of a society, TABs, PWDs, children of all sorts, all together is somehow astonishing. That we (PWDs) have value and that “they” benefit from us and our ability to move and live freely in whatever manner we see fit, even with our inconvenient machinery, our children who are sometimes loud and messy, our “distracting” sign language, our “space-hogging” mobility scooters positively breaks their brains. They simply cannot understand that concept, and more often than not, consequently reject it outright. It’s change, and people fear it beyond a point that they can recognize that it comes from a simple recognition of our common humanity.

    It makes it very clear just how much (or rather, how little) we are valued, and how much more work we have to do.

    [I’m here from the 7/12 recommended reading on FWD/Forward, BTW, and I’ll be back!]

  5. Alicorn says:

    I have sensory integration issues. If I were sitting next to, or within a twenty foot radius of, loud respiratory equipment during a concert, I would not be able to hear the music except as undistentangleable noise – possibly not even the louder passages, depending on how badly my audition was behaving on that particular day. I am invisibly disabled except for people who know just what features are characteristic of autism, and have no reliable way to prove that I need to be seated in a particularly quiet part of an auditorium.

    Do I have the right to hear great music, too?

  6. Kali says:

    If I were to see you out at a symphany, the only reason I might pay any more attention to you than any other person there is that I’d be pleased to see another person with a disability out and about and NOT being invisible.

    I’d be torn about coming over to talk about the concert, because on the one hand I know we spend a lot of time being ignored (and, well, being around fellow crips is nice sometimes!) and on the other hand I’ve gotten used to being more visible than I want to be because I use a service dog.

    ~Kali

  7. […] couple of months ago, I wrote a blog post about intolerance toward the presence of certain bodies and behaviors in public space. I probed the experiences of those of us who enter public space with non-conforming bodies, […]

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