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

public space

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?

    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.