There is something about a shared space held in commonality with people who have similar experiences that is deeply important, which is why so many marginalised communities are working so hard to create such spaces. It’s often hard, though, to articulate why they’re so important, and the functions they serve — it’s not about us and them, creating a secret insider space that others aren’t allowed into where nefarious plotting occurs, but rather about creating an environment where it is safer to be independent and confident in yourself. That plays out in your life outside, making such spaces especially vital for people who are just starting to assert their independence and tap into their community resources.
For me, disability spaces (among others that I frequent) serve a very important function for me. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon such spaces that I had an opportunity to examine myself and the social model of disability, to think about how I identified and to challenge internalised disablism as well as the models of disability I’d accepted throughout my life as the norm, and as reasonable approaches to the rights, concerns, and needs of disabled people. It’s a gift that I want to pass on to others by creating and protecting such spaces for those who want them — I’m not going to force disability safer spaces upon people, but I do value their role and I want them to be accessible (in multiple senses of the word) to disabled people who need those networks and connections.
Not all disability spaces are open to me and not all of the spaces I am in are open to all disabled people, because we aren’t a mass and have very different needs and concerns. This is as it should be. My experience of disability is different from that of a wheelchair user, from that of a disabled woman of colour, and while we may share some spaces, those groups also need their own refined safer spaces; disabled women of colour have specific issues they need to talk to without white people and those of other genders around. It’s my role not just to respect those spaces, but to protect them.
What do these spaces look like? What happens inside them? People who are respectfully asked to stay out of disability spaces often seem to imbue them with mystery, thinking that some sort of grand cabal is meeting behind the curtain to plot global takeover. The truth is much more mundane than that, and I’m not going to be drummed out of the Disability Society for talking about it — and perhaps knowing will give people a better understanding of why safer spaces for disabled people are so important.
Within a safer space filled entirely with disabled people, there’s no pressure to perform. You don’t need to be conscientious about being the ‘right kind’ of disabled person, about meeting up to nondisabled expectations, about being nice and sweet and all the other things people seem to expect. You can relax and take a breath with people who are like you and people who automatically get it. While disabled people don’t magically understand everything about all disabilities, the probability that people will be familiar with accommodation issues and community concerns is much higher, and the risk that you will have to educate people about basic things is much lower.
You can also have fun. You can be casual, you can make jokes about disability, you can share your commonality and revel in it. You’re not accountable to a society that wants you to behave in a certain way and take disability very seriously all the time. Disability can be funny. Our lives can be funny. We can make sharp, morbid jokes that don’t go over well in the outside world without being labeled as caustic or nasty. I don’t necessarily care if people are angry about the way I manage my relationship to disability, but it gets exhausting to be continually tone policed, and it’s nice to have a space where I don’t have to worry about it.
But you also get the benefit of a private space to have conversations that you need to be able to have without interruption from outsiders. Maybe you need to think as a community about how to respond to an issue, or to strategise a line of approach. Maybe you want to work together to discuss fissures and problems within your own community without being watched by people who don’t have a vested interest in the conversation—for example, conversations about the hierarchy of disability need to take place in private before they can take place in public. These conversations are charged, and some of them involve old wounds, complicated politics, and the need to come together to discuss how to work in solidarity with each other while acknowledging differences in lived experience.
Or maybe, yes, frankly, people want a place where they can vent about disablism and make snide comments about people who make daily life frustrating. Yes, people may well be talking shit about the collective you in private safer spaces, and that’s their right — we need a safe environment to be able to blow off steam and commiserate with each other. Dealing with these day to day small cuts as a collective helps us focus on the big battles that will help us change society in the long-term. If I can toss my head at someone making snide comments about mental illness when I’m in private, I have a chance to process that so I can focus on a radio appearance or essay or panel appearance the next day in which I’ll discuss mental health stigma and work with people to develop concrete tools to fight it. That’s incredibly valuable and important.
These spaces aren’t a big mystery. Yes, we do hang a sign on the door to remind some people that they aren’t allowed, but setting aside safer spaces isn’t discriminatory or wrong. It’s just a survival tactic in a hostile world.
Image: Speak out: Sign language interpretation, Grant Neufeld, Flickr