The Beauty of Spaces Created For and By Disabled People
It is very rare, as a disabled person, that I have an intense sense of belonging, of being not just tolerated or included in a space, but actively owning it.
ThisisAn Unquiet Mind, a monthly column by s.e. smith that explores disability identity and its interaction with the world at large.
this space, is for me. us.
The creation of spaces explicitly for marginalized people and not for others has been fraught with controversy. Proponents insist they’re necessary for people to have intra-community conversations, and they create a safe environment for talking through complex issues. They also may say that people find them empowering; especially for people who have been cut off from their community.
It isn’t that non-disabled people are unwelcome at this dance performance. But the space has not been tailored to their needs and designed to seamlessly accommodate them, and they stand out. The experience pushes the boundaries of their understanding and expectations.
During the Q&A, the dancers roll forward and the ASL interpreter trails them.
“Any questions or comments?” one asks, the interpreter’s hands moving swiftly in time. The audience is momentarily frozen, as all audiences are at this question every time it is asked. The disabled people are still processing. We feel slightly giddy; this is a piece that speaks our common language, silently and beautifully, that reaches the deep parts of us we normally keep buttoned away and hidden. The non-disabled people are hesitant, nervous, unsure about what to say in response to the work-in-progress we’d all been invited to witness.
“I liked . . . the ramp,” one of the non-disabled people says, hesitantly, gesturing at the set.
It must have been an unsettling experience, to be invited into our space. To be on the other side of the access divide. To see disabled people spreading their wings and soaring. To see wheelchairs turned into powerful extensions of dancers’ bodies, enabling them to do things physically impossible for bipedal people.
Those in positions of power, evidently fearing that people are talking about them behind closed doors, persistently insist on barging into such spaces. They call these spaces divisive and their organizers are told that they aren’t valuing the contributions of allies. These bursts of petty outrage at stumbling upon one of the few places in the world that is not open to them inadvertently highlight exactly why such places are needed.
This is precisely why they are needed; as long as claiming our own ground is treated as an act of hostility, we need our ground. We need the sense of community for disabled people created in cripspace. Yet, like any ground, it comes with soft spots and pitfalls, a reminder that the landscape is not uniform, can even become treacherous.
Even as some of us find a sense of belonging within these corners of the world carved out for each other, not everyone feels welcome in them; disability is a broad sociocultural identity and experience, and not everyone thinks about disability in the same way. This can be the paradox of cripspace: When do we exclude others in our zeal to embrace ourselves, with our refusal to consider the diversity of human experience? How can we cultivate spaces where everyone has that soaring sense of inclusion, where we can have difficult and meaningful conversations?
When do we exclude others in our zeal to embrace ourselves, with our refusal to consider the diversity of human experience?
Cripspace is akin to a fragile natural place: It must be protected in order to preserve the delicate things within, while remaining open to change with the seasons and the passage of time. That protection sometimes requires sacrifice or challenge, awkward questions, but that makes it no less vital. Because everyone deserves the shelter and embrace of cripspace, to find their people and set down their roots in a place they can call home.
After the dance, after the Q&A, after the drinks and snacks in the lobby, we must regretfully disperse back out into the chilly December night. The theater is in the Tenderloin, a community in transition, nudie cuties cheek-by-jowl with hipster bars, and as we fan out across the sidewalk—stained with bird shit and mysterious sticky substances that cling to wheels and canes—we must return once more into the outside world, beyond cripspace. The barriers begin to reappear.
A child across the street points at the phalanx of wheelchair users, “look, mommy!” Two adults stare, surprised when an adult wheelchair user unaccompanied by an attendant, braving the world alone, transfers into his car and slings his wheelchair into the backseat, pulls away from the curb with the quiet hum of an expensive German engine.
At the BART station around the corner, the elevators are inevitably out of order.