The other day, I was attending another SEED workshop. This time, the focus was on disability and social class (we’d already delved deep into race, gender and sexuality), and I was super-keen, as always, to get into the discussion. I felt I had plenty to say on this particular subject, and plenty I hoped to learn from others as well.
Unfortunately, the projection equipment in the training room was faulty. It had been crackling horribly during the previous workshop when we were watching a video, and one of the facilitators had brought her laptop out of the room and given me headphones so I could watch it separately from the rest of the group and avoid the painful noise. But this time, despite reassurances from the managers of the venue that the fault had been fixed, the speakers were crackling violently and excrutiatingly even when there was no audio being played. I couldn’t bear it. I announced that if the noise continued, I would have to leave the workshop altogether.
The only option was to power down the whole system, play videos using the small screen and tiny speakers of the laptop, and for the facilitators to read out presentation slide content, because the slides weren’t large enough for us to see.
And what did I do?
We’d all been given pre-reading on the social model of disability
We’d just watched a video on the social model of disability.
I’m well-versed in the concept of the social model of disability.
And yet, my automatic response to the situation was to apologise. My hypersensitivity to noise apparently meant it was “my fault” that nobody could watch the videos, or see the slides, on the large projection screen.
Other participants responded:
“Don’t be ridiculous!”
“Of course it’s not your fault!”
“Actually, I’m glad you complained anyway, because that noise was awful.”
The remembered trauma of the pain from the noise, and my anxiety over its unpredictability, meant I was rigid, tense, and nervous for the rest of the afternoon, even long after the source of the problem had been tackled. This had been difficult, make no mistake.
And yet still I felt embarrassed.
This kind of thing has got to stop.
These days, I’m far more “autistic” than I ever was. I’m more open in my stimming. I’ve made reference to some of the traits and features of my neurodiversity in some of the classes I teach. Sometimes I use it as a self-deprecating way of bringing levity to my delivery when things are going slightly awry – students really don’t mind a bit of humanity. You can make slip-ups, even when you’re a knowledgeable specialist (it’s far better to acknowledge your slip-ups before resuming your role as the expert – this is far more authentic than pretending you’re infallible when that’s evidently not the case).
Some of my “being more autistic” is because I’m more easily overwhelmed these days because my life is busier and more cognitively demanding than it ever used to be. And it’s true; I do seem to be more sensitive to noise, bright lights, and interruptions than I was a few years back.
But perhaps it’s simply that my self-awareness and acceptance of my autism means I’m more attuned to what bothers me, and less willing to tolerate it.
And yet I still apologise.
I have spent an entire lifetime apologising. And I’ve realised that this is something that isn’t unusual for autistic people, particularly those of us who are women, and who are adult-diagnosed. We’ve spent so long thinking we’re at fault because we didn’t realise that other people had access to an instruction manual we never received.
I apologise for misunderstanding people. I apologise for being rude. I apologise if I don’t understand a joke. I apologise if the lights are too bright, or a noise is bothering me and preventing me from concentrating. I apologise for wanting a set of instructions in writing. I apologise for wanting a bit of extra help.
And it’s ridiculous.
The fact is, it wasn’t that my autism meant we couldn’t use the projection equipment. The projection equipment was faulty, thus preventing me from engaging with the content being delivered. That wasn’t my fault.
One of the other participants told me about an occasion when she’d been invited to co-present a conference paper with a student of hers. On hearing of the conference location, the student stated that they wouldn’t be able to participate because certain features of the venue put them at risk of an epileptic seizure.
Not being able to present wasn’t this student’s fault. It wasn’t their epilepsy that meant they couldn’t present. The reason they couldn’t take part was down to the lighting, fixtures and fittings of a building that was poorly designed without adequately considering the needs of all its users.
(The very same building, incidentally, tends to give me migraines if I’m in it for too long).
Those of us who are disabled need to stop apologising for being disabled. Because when something is inaccessible to us, it’s not us who are at fault.
Being entrenched in a medical view of disability means endlessly having to evidence one’s deficits, deficiencies, difficulties, and disadvantages. It’s so often the only way we can evidence our need for support, ‘reasonable adjustments’, or even just basic understanding from those around us. But it also means we’re perceived as less. And it means we perceive ourselves as less.
And so we apologise.
But we need to stop.
At the next SEED workshop, the facilitators will bring a portable projector and speakers, and bypass the venue’s equipment altogether.
And this will make it possible for me to participate without extreme discomfort. But it’ll also mean the other participants aren’t subjected to a noise which, whilst not painful for them, is certainly a nuisance, an interruption, and not especially conducive to learning.
Nobody loses out by such an adjustment being made.
Reasonable adjustments are a tip of the iceberg. The world could be built in such a way that no-one would be systematically disadvantaged. But that’s a long way off.
But in the meantime, we need to stop apologising.
[Featured image: heavy-duty grey carpeting in front of a set of clear automatic doors. The carpet (or mat) is covered by metal grating in a ‘striped’ layout. This type of carpeting is one of the pet hates I have of so many commercial, educational, or corporate environments, and makes my eyes go ‘funny’ Every. Bloody. Time.]