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.

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