What We Talk About When We Talk About Access
When we think about accessibility, usually we think about it in physical terms. Staircases, for instance, are not accessible, whereas elevators are. Ramps improve access, and cluttered spaces decrease it.
But the idea of accessibility isn’t limited to physical issues. When we examine accessibility for cognitive disabilities like Asperger’s Syndrome, the issue becomes thorny and complicated.
I mean more so than usual.
What does an accessible space look like for someone with Asperger’s Syndrome? Because the symptoms vary so wildly, the definition of accessibility varies, too. I’m hypersensitive, so I’ll be looking at autistic accessibility through that lens.
There are three issues that are particularly problematic for me: noise, crowding, social interaction.
First of all, Jesus Christ, you people are noisy. There’s so much unnecessary sound in this world. It seems like most people are deathly afraid of silence. Why? What catastrophic event would occur if the world was quiet for just a few minutes?
I can’t go into most stores without being followed around by ambient sound. Even bookstores have music piped in. Even Catholic churches.
What is the point of this?
Sound makes it hard for me to concentrate, because I often can’t tune it out. The more sounds there are, the worse it gets. If I’m in a restaurant and there’s music in the background, that’s bad enough. If people at the next table are talking, that adds to the problem. And on top of that, I’m supposed to hear and participate in what’s going on at my table.
All this noise creates a subtle but cumulative amount of stress. I don’t even notice it build, but throughout the course of the day, it does.
Participating in relaxing activities can help take the edge off. I love reading, for instance, but how am I supposed to concentrate on my book on the subway or in a library when there are people talking in the background or playing music?
Here’s the problem with autistic accessibility: creating a space that’s accessible for us would almost certainly decrease other people’s enjoyment of the space, and probably negatively impact its usability for neurotypicals.
Who’d want to shop in a store with no piped-in music, or eat in a food court where conversation was forbidden? Traffic creates a lot of noise. Cutting down or eliminating traffic would result in a lot of complications.
Basically in order to create a world with a comfortable amount of noise, we’d have to conquer you.
And believe me, we’re thinking about it.
Now, noise by itself isn’t that big of a problem. Like I said, this shit is all cumulative. So there’s usually more than one factor at play, and crowds often co-exist with noise.
My sense of proprioception is oversensitive. That’s the awareness of how my body exists in space, and the awareness of what’s going on around my body.
One thing I hate is having people walk, stand, or move around behind me. It makes me feel like a sheep in a field with pterodactyls flying overhead.
So when I go into a restaurant I’m always hoping that I can get a seat where my back is to the wall. If I manage that, then I only have noise to worry about.
And subways- oh God, subways. When they’re crowded, if I can’t find a seat, I quickly become non-operational.
Most street festivals, carnivals, and fairs are out. I don’t like parties or, really, any large social occasion. Clubs, bars and pubs are usually no-go zones. There are things like karaoke that I’ve never even seriously considered.
But restaurants can’t really be avoided, and there are certainly some that are more accessible than others. But I’m in a relationship with someone in a wheelchair, and I already have food issues, so inevitably I have to compromise because what are the odds we’ll find some place that’s completely accessible for both of us?
(We have actually found a few places)
A few years ago I described my ideal restaurant to my friend Timothy, who is a hyposensitive Aspie.
“It would be a series of sound-proof rooms, totally silent, devoid of any decorations, well-lit, and you wouldn’t have to interact with the server. You’d look at the menu, check off the items you wanted, and put it through a slot in the door. Then your food would be given to you through the slot.”
Timothy was horrified.
“David, that’s not a restaurant,” he said. “That’s prison.”
Then there’s social interaction, which is the most difficult factor to figure out. Not difficult for me- just back off, for God’s sake- but difficult for other people.
I’ve been told that things like eye contact, small talk, and simple exchanges like “hello” or “how are you” serve as social lubricant, and make people feel comfortable, welcome, and at ease. Basically, they help keep society going.
I would much rather have people cut this shit out right now, because it’s slowly killing me.
You people need a constant, low-grade patter of civility to feel connected to others and, I guess, feel secure and emotionally fulfilled. In an environment that was accessible for autistic people, this stuff wouldn’t exist. Our emotional needs are incompatible with yours.
We’re all good people here who want the best for other people, so what the hell are we supposed to do for each other?
A few years ago I found out about a conference for autistics. It was an attempt to create a real-world autistic culture; a fully accessible space for folks on the spectrum. The website warned neurotypicals that the experience might be too intense for them, which is reasonable because- as I’ve pointed out- what’s good for us is poison for you, and vice versa.
The conference- I wish I could remember its name- had an innovative approach to social interaction. Everyone at the conference wore a badge: red, yellow, or green. A green badge meant the person was totally open to engaging with other people. A yellow badge meant they were open to being approached, but didn’t like initiating social contact. A red badge meant that they didn’t want to socialize.
Presumably people could change badges based on their mood. I think something like this could be really useful in society, though for some reason a lot of people are resistant to being labeled.
But disabled people get labeled all the time. We’re freaks, weirdos, leeches, lazy, incompetent, incomplete, unlovable, unwanted, stupid, crazy, crippled. We’re the worst-case scenario.
That’s why it’s important for us to own our labels. If an autistic person starts every day deciding which badge to wear, that creates a certain power. And there are so many other people- even non-disabled people- whose lives would feel richer by making that kind of choice.
And what about the rest of it, the noise and crowds? Well, I don’t fucking know. It feels like I’m surrounded by aliens, but I know that I’m the real alien. This isn’t my world.
Autistic accessibility is, for the most part, next to impossible. We can build all the ramps and escalators we want in order to make the world accessible for the physically disabled (and why the fuck haven’t we?), but in order to create a society fit for autistics, we’d have to burn the world down and start over.
I mean, I wouldn’t be entirely opposed to that, but I suspect there’d be some pushback.