‘Don’t stare at me’ Is An Access Need Too

When I wrote about the concept of emotional access and making spaces psychologically as well as physically welcoming, I got a solid and interested response from people who wanted to learn more about integrating people with disabilities into public spaces. So often, the idea that a space could be considered psychologically hostile even if it physically meets standards seems disturbing and surprising to people, particularly in social justice communities. They seem genuinely astounded that people with disabilities might not feel welcome in their spaces, and sometimes it comes with a note of hostility.

‘We put in ramps for them and they still didn’t come.’

When I was at WisCon in May, I was struck over and over again by the totally amazing access team there. The con has an extremely thorough and detailed accessibility policy available to attendees, and throughout the con, people pay attention to a myriad of access-related issues, including not just those pertaining to people with physical disabilities, but also those with intellectual and cognitive disabilities. There is, for example, a quiet space at the heart of the convention for people who might need to step out from the noise and stimulation, and it’s well-received by attendees. The access team is also extremely responsive to issues that come up over the course of the event, and they work hard to make it welcoming for everyone.

Emotional access also tends to be high at the convention simply because disability is so normalised. There are a lot of disabled attendees; I almost never boarded an elevator without seeing someone using a mobility aid, for example (which was partly because the access team specifically asked nondisabled people to minimise elevator use, especially for short trips). This norming meant that people were used to seeing people with disabilities around, and some had some knowledge of disability politics, given the setting. Panels on disability and related subjects were lively and well-attended, and disability was an integrated part of the landscape rather than an Other.

But emotional access wasn’t perfect, as Andrea and I discovered in the course of our attendance, because she was working her service dog, and this was something many attendees had not encountered before. After a reminder at Opening Ceremonies to leave Sid alone, attendees seemed to get the message that they shouldn’t try to distract the dog while he was working, but they didn’t quite grasp the accompaniment to that, which was that they also shouldn’t harass Andrea about the dog.

‘I would just like to have a conversation about something other than my dog,’ she said, after the umpteenth person gave her a gooey smile or informed her that they were supposed to ignore the dog, like they were expecting prizes for following directions. Like a lot of disabled con attendees, Andrea has a lot of interests. She was also on several panels, and would have loved to talk to other attendees about those panels, or events, or cheesemaking, or any number of the other things she likes to talk about.

Yet she couldn’t, and it became an exhausting source of frustration for her that sometimes sent her back to our room to hide because she couldn’t deal with yet another person asking her about the dog. It was a strange example of how talking about access and communicating about access issues can sometimes create some problems while solving others. People became more aware of the dog and service dog etiquette, but then they wanted to demonstrate it, perhaps especially because they were in a social justice-oriented and politically sensitive environment. They wanted to prove that they weren’t like those other nondisabled people and they understood how important it was to ignore the dog for her safety.

The other day, I spotted a service dog and handler in Harvest Market. They happened to be in front of the mushrooms, so I had a conversation with the handler about mushrooms because he asked me whether I thought criminis or white mushrooms would be better. At no time did I acknowledge the dog in any way, shape, or form. Because I was considering his physical and emotional access needs; physically, he needed me to ignore the dog, and emotionally, he needed me to actually ignore the dog, as in pretend it wasn’t there, to say something other than ‘gee gosh golly, you have a DOG!’

There is this tendency in some spaces to perform for prizes, a need to show that you’ve learned something and you’re aware and sensitive and hip. What that translates into for marginalised people, though, is repeatedly being told the same kinds of boring stories (‘I knew a girl who…’ ‘in high school I…’ ‘I just can’t imagine what it’s like to be…’) or being subjected to statements in which people try to demonstrate how sensitive they are (‘I know I’m not supposed to talk to the service dog…’).

There is a neglect of the importance of emotional access, that maybe people want to talk about something other than their disability, that a physically accessible space can feel unwelcome when people are staring at you, are commenting on your mobility aid, are making it clear that it’s okay to be disabled! You’re totally welcome here! This, too, is a form of singling out, and it can be deeply awkward and uncomfortable.

Just as uncomfortable, in its own way, as active hostility directed at people with disabilities. A space can be physically welcoming but emotionally alienating not because people are engaging in active ableism, but because singling us out for attention as objects of fascination and deep interest is also a form of ableism, and many people don’t consider that when they think about accommodating disabled people in public spaces.