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

More Thoughts about Public Space

A 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, bringing along a distinct and, to some, disturbing set of sounds, images, and ways of moving.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the flip side of encounters in public space. Rather than thinking about the impact on public space of people with marginalized bodies and behaviors, I’m noticing how people with privileged bodies use and affect public spaces. By privileged bodies, I mean those that are considered normal, acceptable, powerful. Examples include bodies which move easily without any mobility aid or device; bodies which need no personal assistance to navigate or inhabit public space; bodies which pay full admission or are otherwise “invited in”; bodies whose lived experiences up to that point have included comfort, security, education, financial success, health, and the esteem of others; bodies of standard size, shape, attire, gender presentation, age, and mannerisms; and bodies without any visible illnesses, injuries, disabilities, or other deviations. Most public spaces are designed for these privileged bodies, and so they “fit” easily in those spaces.

In settings ranging from streets to airports, from meeting halls to botanic gardens, from movie theaters to buses, I have observed some of the interesting ways that privileged bodies conduct themselves in public space. These are generalizations of course, and only meant to illuminate some differences in expectations and experiences of privileged people, as compared with marginalized people.

Privileged bodies move through public spaces comfortably and assertively. They encounter few obstructions in the built environment. Rarely are they challenged, either physically or verbally, when going through a doorway into a bathroom, a mass transit vehicle, an exhibit area, a store, a restaurant, or an office building. They do not have to duck, scrunch, squeeze; they do not have to use a back door or a side door, waiting while someone opens it for them. They do not have to scan the ground in front of them for bumps or ruts, nor do they have to search for the one ramp on a long sidewalk or into a large building. They easily operate controls such as door openers, elevator buttons, turnstiles, kiosks, phones, intercoms, change slots, etc., and so these things do not slow them down. They do not attract negative or unwanted attention.

Given these privileges, taking them for granted, people with privileged bodies have a propensity for certain behaviors. Consciously or unconsciously, they choose their actions based on their assumptions about belonging, access, comfort, power, and acceptance. Here are a few of my specific observations of the behavior of privileged bodies in public space:

  • Privileged bodies tend to move through public spaces with limited consideration of the presence of other bodies.
  • Here is a typical scene: A pair or group of people stand off to one side, next to a flow of pedestrian traffic. One member of the pair or group is departing from the group, talking animatedly while walking backwards directly into the flow of pedestrian traffic. All her attention is directed to her conversation, yet she does not slow or stop her backwards walking, nor turn to look behind or around her. People going with the flow of traffic are forced to slow, stop, or go around her in order to avoid a collision. Privileged bodies within the flow find it relatively easy to do so, unencumbered as they are with impairments, mobility devices, children, etc. But someone unable to see well or walk quickly, or someone maneuvering a wheelchair through the human labyrinth, or someone pushing a stroller, is much more vulnerable to that hazard. If a collision were to occur, the privileged person might be injured, might be indignant, but the less privileged person is likely to suffer greater harm. As a result, people with less privileged bodies (i.e. marginalized bodies) tend to adopt the opposite behaviors: They/we pay constant, close attention to other bodies moving through and near our space, staying always aware of obstacles, sudden moves, and unexpected alterations in the human environment.

  • Privileged bodies tend to appropriate the most desirable spots in public spaces, based not on need but on comfort and convenience, undergirded with a sense of entitlement.
  • For example, sometimes I have gone into a lecture hall or movie theater — any type of environment furnished with auditorium-style seating, i.e., rows of chairs with a few aisles running at intervals between the rows. I am often accompanied by my personal assistant, who walks, and who will need a place to sit. I need to sit in my wheelchair, adjacent to my assistant’s chair so that she can help me when needed. So for me, getting a seat at the end of a row is a necessity. Similarly, people whose disabilities make it difficult to squeeze through the row to a middle seat, or who need to park a wheelchair or a walker in the aisle and transfer into a seat, or who expect to need to get up frequently in order to take care of chronic pain or bathroom needs — these people and others have a strong, legitimate claim on the end (aisle) seats. Yet when I go into a hall which is, say, one-third to half full, I almost always find that the aisle seats have been the first ones taken — mostly, I believe, by people who want them, not by people who need them. In general, these are not malicious acts; in fact, they are not even conscious acts. They are simply the unconscious choices of people who have become accustomed to their bodies being privileged by the designs and practices of public space.

    In fact, when certain more accessible, and therefore more desirable, seats or other spots are formally reserved for people with visibly aged or impaired bodies — such as the front seats on public buses — most (though not all) people with privileged bodies will respect those rules and conventions, if reminded by signage or by verbal request from someone in authority. But in the absence of such reminders, they automatically choose the best spots for themselves.

  • Privileged bodies in public space tend to express themselves fully and unabashedly — but also with a sense of propriety and restraint that is more instinctual than calculated.
  • They do not make vocal sounds that might be regarded by others as “weird” (as an autistic person might), because they feel no urge to do so. But many appear to have no qualms about speaking loudly enough to dominate a conversation, and even the area around it. Similarly, privileged bodies tend to dress, gesture, laugh, hug, kiss, touch people, touch things, activate mechanical devices (cell phones, watches, etc.) with complete ease and aplomb — but also within strict parameters that they have learned so well that they need not think about them. They expect no rebuke, blatant or subtle, because they are highly skilled in censoring themselves as a cost of maintaining their privilege. They do not, like many people with marginalized bodies, expend much mental energy worrying about audible or visible bodily manifestations that might result in banishment, ostracization, disapproval, or other penalties — because they have the ability to “control themselves,” i.e., to present and conduct themselves in socially sanctioned ways.

    I would be very interested to hear the reactions of various people to what I have written here. Do you move through public space in a marginalized body, or in a privileged body? Do your observations correspond with what I’ve noticed in my forays through public spaces? What about your behavior? Do you make the kinds of choices I described above, based on your bodily status? Or do you deliberately buck those conventions? Do you experience privilege in some settings, and marginalization in others? What do you think?

    4 Comments

    1. Amy says:

      I think this is exactly right, and describes in clear and eloquent language a phenomenon that I feel like I see all the damn time. I also love that you take an issue — access & the ability of PWDs to move about the world — and strip away the assumptions to look at the way privileged bodies move as a phenomenon. PBs don’t have to think about this, so to them it isn’t even a Thing, a subject of reflection.

      I have a (mostly) privileged body — white; straight; not disabled — but I’m a fairly short woman, and I have noticed and sometimes try to subvert the way (largely) taller (mostly) men take up space. My view is that in crowds or elevators, for example, someone of my size and gender becomes almost completely invisible. Taller, larger men have no second thought about attempting to occupy the space I’m in, as if I simply didn’t exist. There is often a moment of cognitive dissonance when I don’t give ground or even move to occupy more space.

    2. Carrie says:

      I was watching the concept video for the airport addition. The concept video has all kinds of diversity among the young and skinny people depicted throughout the video. There isn’t a single person with a visible disability. In addition, the video take a viewer throughout the new addition, and access features are clearly omitted. People with disabilities aren’t even on their radar screen.

    3. Tracy says:

      Being invisible in society is not only unfair, it’s not right. The spatial issues that come into play for a person with a disbility dont even come into play for a person without a disability. It’s time for a change.

    4. Christina says:

      I have a privileged body and have never thought twice about my spatial behavior and probably do all of the things you have observed. However, I have recently been injured and had to use a wheelchair for two weeks with my grandmother pushing me (to all of my college classes, no less). These have been two of the most frustrating weeks in my life! I find myself having to yield to people walking and not paying attention. People have run right into me because I wasn’t on their eye level I guess. I have to take much longer routes than usual to get to access ramps. I cannot get a table in the cafeteria because all of the outer ones are taken and the tables are set up to closely for me to wheel to the inner ones.
      Your observations are spot on. I have gotten a tiny glimpse into the experiences of people with marginalized bodies and have already experienced most of the things you mentioned. I gotta say, it has not been easy.

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