Sunday, February 20, 2011

Public spaces

A few days ago, a friend and colleague of mine sent me a link to an article by Laura Hershey called "More thoughts about Public Space." Hershey died last year. She was a fierce disability rights advocate who I met once or twice and rallied with in 2007 at the National ADAPT action in Chicago.

The piece by Hershey contrasts how people with disabilities and those without disabilities interact with public spaces. Interaction in public, particularly people with dwarfism interacting with people without dwarfism interests me, so I was eager to read Hershey's piece. The article is a follow-up to another piece of Hershey's called, appropriately, Some thoughts on Public Space. I haven't read the first piece, but I believe it deals with attitudes of non-disabled people toward people with disabilities in public spaces. In the 'more thoughts' piece, Hershey makes three specific observations about how people without disabilities use public spaces. Her first observation, more than the others, resonated with me personally. She writes "Privileged bodies tend to move through public spaces with limited consideration of the presence of other bodies." (Hershey uses the term 'privileged body.' I am going to stick with non-disabled body). Hershey says the opposite is true for people with disabilities. Speaking alone of my perspective, I agree.

Last night, a local gay rugby team, The Chicago Dragons, put on a team fundraiser. The fundraiser was a drag show. Volunteers from the team dressed in drag and performed a few numbers in front of a screaming audience. A guy I work with is a member of the dragons and he performed at the fundraiser last night. I, along with about seven others from Access Living, went to the show. I knew there was going to be a large rowdy crowd. From the moment I walked into the club, I started stategizing about how to position myself in such a way that a) I wouldn't be boxed in; and b)I would be able to see the stage. Of the other people in my group, three were wheelchair users. They had a similar amount of work cut out for them in order to both see the show and maintain some amount of personal space. Our group also had to work around the obstacle of a security guard who kept telling us not to block the passageways. In order to maintain a clear path in the bar, maintain a sight line to the stage and maintain some personal space, took a bit of work. But we were successful.

For me, this is kind of standard operating procedure. Because most spaces weren't created with people my size in mind, the spaces don't always work. So what I usually do is find a space that works, and stick to it. For example, if I go down hill skiing, I can bet the chair lifts might be a challenge. So if I am at a hill with four or five lifts, and I find one that works and that has an operator who is willing to slow the lift down a bit, I will stick to that lift for most of the day. Another example is concert halls. There is this one place in Chicago where I've seen a number of shows. I know from experience that there are a limited number of seats in the hall that will work well for me even if everyone at the concert is standing up. So whenever I go to a concert there, I make sure to get there early to choose one of those seats.

But I am talking about how I relate to public space. Hershey's observation is about how people without disabilities relate to public space. This takes us back to the drag show last night. Our group had managed to find a good spot near the stage but in a corner so we had some room to breath. As the club grew more crowded and once the show started, more and more people edged up toward the front in order to see. Some of the people, who were tall and I am guessing were non-disabled, stepped right in front of a few members of the Access Living group (interestingly, they stepped in front of the Access Living people who appeared non-disabled. Not the chair users and not myself). At one point, one of the Access Living group had to move from the spot she had staked out. She ended up standing right behind me. "There is a big dude blocking my space," she said. The actions of the people who moved up toward the front once the show started reinforce Hershey's observation. But I also witnessed several people wander in front of me. They'd stand in front of me a few moments, blocking my view, then look around, observing their surroundings. Soon enough, they'd spot me behind them. Each person, once he spotted me, would apologize and move on, enabling me to see the show again.

I think Hershey brings up an interesting point. But even she, in the piece, is quick to say that she is not an expert. She is just making observations. I do think that some people with disabilities, depending on the experience, are much more observant of their surroundings and as a result may be more sensitive when interacting with others who share a common space, (for goodness sake, I sometimes turn around to make sure I am not blocking someone's view (though I don't know whose view I could block)). And there are examples of people without disabilities who appear to be insensitive to others who share a common space.

But I think these are just examples, and by no means represent all people without disabilities. Perhaps they represent a majority in each group, but I am not sure. That's a great thing about a blog. One is free to share observations and experiences. Who knows if those experiences represent the majority. But what matters is that they resonate with the blogger.

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