Taking up too much space

Last night I had the incredibly pleasant experience of realizing I was in a crowd but no one was considering me as “in the way” and I didn’t have to worry about that with the same level of awareness I do in crowds where I am the only or one of few wheelchair users and where people are sadly ignorant of their own bigotry. Instead I was in a crowd where audience and performers were people with disabilities and their friends.

A layer of tension dropped away from me. I would not have to be apologetic, diplomatic, and assertive to the point of defiant all at once just in order to sit and watch the show or move around the room. No one leaped out of my way or yanked their children closer while I was 20 feet away from them. If I was in line, no one acted like I was the one person in line who was just where I should not be. If someone needed to get between me and another person or people in the room, they were just ask likely to say “excuse me” to any of us, politely, rather than picking me out and letting me know I was the one In The Way. I thought to myself: How low my standards have gotten, my expectations for other people’s behavior! How sad! But what a relief at least for this moment, this event!

This particular kind of bad behavior seems to me like it is unconscious but it reflects deep unwillingness to have people with disabilities in public at all or to consider us fully human. We are not considered citizens of the world. When we are in it we are always In the Way. A person with a suitcase might be in someone’s way. But just by being anywhere in a wheelchair people want to decide where I should be and put me there. It’s like, get in the corner!

This happens to me every day in every store, street, bus, or event I go to. It happeend last weekend at my conference and in the airport and in restaurants and bars and everywhere.

OMFG, you damn walkies!! Chill out!! We are all just people co-existing in space! Say “excuse me” if you want to get by, like you do with every other situation! Like I do if I want to get by as well! Don’t be acting like I am too big or too fast or must be specially humble and apologetic before I get to take up space in the world!

Tuesday I was at a conference party sitting around a table on a big, open patio. Behnd me there was a little group of people talking. After about the 10th person shoved into me trying to go between my scooter and the group standing a few feet behind me, some guy said something about how I should move so he could get by. I had had enough. I turned on him like a motherfucking cobra and said, “Why do you not just ask the guy right there, the guy behind me, tell HIM to move? Say excuse me to him since he can step aside easily and I can’t.” About 1 out of 100 times this happens, I explain it to some random stranger who wants to walk through a line or a crowd and point out they can just as well ask a standing-up person to move.

My loved ones and friends are very familiar with watching this play out. I am comforted that they notice how it happens over and over and that they share my reality. Constant social aggressions (I can’t bring myself to call them microagressions) take their toll.

Last weekend at the end to my own work conference one of the conference organizers told me I was in the way because “PEOPLE” needed to get by. She gestureed at the scooter with a sweep of her arm. PEOPLE might need to get by!

My scooter was not in the way. It was parked behind my own chair at a table with plenty of space behind it and not blocking any corridors. She did not seem concerned that ALL OTHER WAYS and all other places to sit were blocked for me, because in her mind, I am not “People” who might need to get by. I am an inconvenient Thing — that unfortunately can speak. I told her I had parked carefully so that no access for anyone else was blocked. The people next to me could get up from their chairs without any trouble. Others could walk past in every direction. But her sense of the rightness of the universe was perturbed, for her, unbearably by my presence.

That sort of thing happened over and over in the course of the weekend. It is why I talk about community education. People need to think through their assumptions and their bigotry. I can’t teach everyone how to behave, on the spot, all around me, every day. Don’t shove into my wheelchair like I don’t exist. Don’t pat me! And don’t fill up a room so I can’t get around, then tell me I can’t be in the one spot I can get to! Don’t lock the elevators and don’t act like I’m a liability waiting to happen! How hard can it be to treat me like a person?!

Last night I was overwhelmed with the feeling of not haveing that feeling. Then as I paused in an alcove of the lobby of the SF Women’s Building to call a cab. An usher for the event, I am fairly sure a volunteer or associate from the building not from the event itself, was standing to the side and in front of me. She told me I was in the way and asked me to move so that people could get by. Amazing! I looked up at her and pointed out, the corridor between the alcove I was in, and the central bit where the elevator was, was enough for at least 3 people to pass, 2 moderately sized wheelchairs, I was not in the way of anyone, and, she was standing more in the middle of the corridor while I was off to the side, so really, she was in the way much more than I was.

I asked her why she felt I was especially in the way more than herself or anyone else. She was unable to answer. I said it was egregious and horrible for her to say this to me and put it onto her to think about for her future. I said it at some length but diplomatically and included the words “I am angry.” I was extra sad because she looked like someone I would in most situations be friends with and want to talk to. Meanwhile people rolled on by us leaving the building and sometimes pausing in the hallway to chat with each other, as people do. No one evidenced impatience or acted like anyone else was in their way.

Well, I must report that I stayed in the spot. I took a picture of people passing by me and then called my son over from where he was sitting with his book, to cross the lobby and take a photo of where I was sitting so that I could write this up and show how very Not in the Way I had been and why this stupid incident made my head explode. I could hardly have been less in the way of anyone at all!! You can go to that exact spot in the Women’s Building and stand or sit there and see for yourself how unobtrusive it is.


The sign in this photo is offset (way closer to the camera) and not in line at all with where I was sitting. It may also not be clear but I am fully in a little alcove, ie, my wheels were inside the curve of the stairwell. In other worse this was my effort to park temporarily in a place where I would not block any traffic or be stumbled over.

It would have been maybe more sensible of me to go wait and text on the other side of the lobby. I get that. But…. I had the feeling of just being a person in some space that many people were using. Many people were standing around. They were not told to move. I could not believe I was considered to be in their way but they were not in mine. My fellow chair and scooter users were just hanging out and were capable of saying excuse me to each other if there was any inconvenience. I *knew* if an able bodied person had been standing there, in the same spot, taking up the same space, the usher would not have perceieved her as an obstacle.

Here is the view from my niche as people went by.

Corridor womensbuilding

I don’t think I swore at the usher and I remained “polite”; it was full on fierce coherence from me as I explained exactly how bigoted her action was. At some point my child and I went to the door to look to see if the cab was there and then we went to stay on the other (totally empty) side of the lobby.

As we waited for our cab at one point I looked up and saw a woman talking on her phone, standing right smack in the middle of the corridor several feet directly in front of where I had been waiting when I was in the way. She stood there a few moments as the usher looked right at her. Finally I rolled up and addressed the usher conspiratorially. “Hey, I just wanted to point out how very In the Way that lady is. You should tell her!” The usher said “UMMMM . . . . DO YOU WANT TO HELP ME MONITOR THE HALLWAY?” Nice move, actually, that made me laugh! It was a pretty decent attempt at defusing, but she had already gone too far and was a little too condescending for me to bear at the moment because she never bothered to apologize. How hard could it be to think it over for a moment and say, “Oh, I guess I did that. Sorry!” Apparently harder than figuring out a strategy for how to co-opt the angry cripple. What the hell is WRONG with people! Hahahah!

I go into a place, I think about where to put my scooter or wheelchair and where I can sit, and whether I am going to need to park it away from me if I sit in another chair, and whether I need help to move things to fit into a space politely, and so on, ALL THE TIME!

But people want to scold me and explain how I need to behave no matter what I do, because disability is disruptive and they feel perturbed and in need of being in control of something they don’t understand. How many bus drivers scold me and tell me the right way i should wait for the bus, signal the bus, get on the bus, be on the bus, communicate with them at all, and get off the bus. Do they think I was born yesterday? They scream at me to tell them where I’m going, they refuse to let me on because there is “no room” though they just let 20 walking people on before me, they scream “WHEELCHAIR GETTING ON!!” 5 times at the whole bus before they extend the ramp for me as if I’m incapable of going the 5 feet onto the bus without ramming every person there without the Enterprise going on Red Alert. They can’t take any of this knowledge on themselves and they’re not scolding other people who might take a moment to fumble for their bus pass but it’s open season on wheelchair users to lecture us like you’re a goddamn social worker. Nuh-uh. Not having it.

I am not an emergency or an obstacle! Get used to it! My public presence will just have to be YOUR mild inconvenience!

This ends my minorly pissed off rant and I will now go write another post about how nice the event was and top-post it on top of this long angry assertion that I and my MONSTER TRUCK MECHA SUITS can exist in public.

11 thoughts on “Taking up too much space

  1. Thank you for taking time to put all this in words. As a service dog user, I cope with a lot of similar stuff. People either want to get in my space and fondle my dog “I know I’m not supposed to, but…” or else they want to tell me how to position her. Didn’t I go through training for that? If my reflexes aren’t fast enough or someone isn’t comfortable with my choice, it seems to be ok to push, pull me, etc. Like you, I think people would not behave this way toward adults who are not disabled–they assume that because I can’t see I am unaware of certain things, without realizing that I have other ways of knowing.

    Anyway, a good post, and I hope you won’t cover it too much with the nice ones. People need to see this.

  2. Thank you for writing this. I am about to share it on Twitter and Tumblr — I don’t have a bajillion followers but every single one of them needs to read it, either to learn and change or to say “hell yeah!”

  3. This is a fabulous post about a very common experience we have. I often position myself as you do in the photo, my back against a wall and out of the main flow, though it may not be “perfect.”

    I had more problems with people pushing past my scooter than I do in my wheelchair. When queued, people would *always* choose right in front of my scooter as a good place to cut through, jostling me, rather than asking someone to step out of line. I don’t get what in people’s brains make that seem like the best spot, or what the difference is between that and the wheelchair. (I do, however, sometimes get attempted lap surfing, as Lene calls it.)

    People will get angry if I don’t know they’re behind me, but I can’t turn my head well and I can’t see if they need around. They could just tell me, as you say.

    Once I got yelled at for sitting in an *empty* middle school hallway in my scooter; I’d moved close to another mom to hear her. And I’ve been yelled at for being “in the way” when I cannot move in crowds, when there are people right in front of me.

    A little kindness from others would go a long way, especially as wheelchairs are more difficult to maneuver and find space for.

  4. Also curious if other wheelchair users have the experience of pedestrians expecting you to go off the sidewalk into the grass as you pass or drop off the curb (often dangerous when sidewalk isn’t level, or impossible). They turn their shoulders/hips as they would if you were a walking person, which helps give more room, but then glare when you don’t move aside as well, even though you can’t. Wondering if this is just a local issue because we have less pedestrian traffic and people aren’t thinking through the consequences because they don’t pass many wheelchair users.

  5. ugh.

    i get to practice my bipedal privilege every day. i sit, stand, and even lie down wherever i want.

    i think there’s a fundamental problem in which too many of us do not see other PEOPLE when we are facing someone in a line, someone in a hallway, someone in our space. we see a condition or an employee or an obstacle. we see our embarrassment at not knowing how to behave.

    nearly unrelated: last week i was in a public space with full hands trying to juggle my way through a door. a wheelchair person politely suggested to me that it might be easier for me if i used the auto-opening press button for the door.

    she did not criticize me for taking too long or taking up too much space trying to manage the door on my own.

    next time i will use the button.

  6. “I and my MONSTER TRUCK MECHA SUITS can exist in public”

    Liz, if you ever get a true Monster Truck Mecha Suit, it couldn’t even make you more awesome. Thanks for this post.

  7. Thanks for this piece Liz. For walking parents with a kid who uses a wheelchair, we have to learn as we go, modelling what we think is ordinary civil behaviour to our little kids using wheelchairs so they grow up thinking they have the same right to move, exist! as anyone else. So I have been the mum who will remove a chair from a seating arrangement so my kid in wheelchair can sit in the row with friends, not stuck out in the aisle like a sore thumb. Or will ask people standing across a footpath chatting to move to the side so my kid in a chair – or anyone else for that matter – can continue to move. Now he’s a teenager he is conscious that the weight of his chair can cause damage to people to bang into it, but he is also aware that it is not his job to monitor little kids who run into him because they are unsupervised, or adults who crash into him because they are rude, or maybe lack spatial skills – hope they don’t drive cars 🙂

  8. I was nothing but thrilled to be at that conference with you and have been taking many opportunities to talk about some of your particular awesomesauce contributions. But also I am as usual generally angry about the way you and other friends of mine who use wheelchairs are treated in this world but I am EXTRA upset that it happened at our work conference – I was in a debrief today about that event where your (and a few other people’s, at a different venue) experiences with access came up and I said some stuff but now I feel I need to say more… if I may? I also emphatically waxed enthused about the awesomeness of blue taped off travel lanes as something the event planners need to do in future in addition to making sure (including with people who actually know…) that things that claim to be accessible actually are.

  9. Thank you for writing about this. Honestly, I had never considered that using a wheelchair would give you that “always in the way” feeling. Reminds me of how I feel when I take my son’s stroller into a cramped store and the annoyed looks start flying. My son is a wheelchair user too, but he’s only 17 months and is still in the everyone-thinks-it’s-cute phase. I’m glad I read your post. Helps me prepare for the future.

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