Practising Reflective Activism: I messed up, I’ll be better in future…

We all mess up sometimes. Having political consciences, and doing activism, do not make us immune to such failures. But they do give us a responsibility to hold ourselves to account when we make mistakes, and to commit to doing better in future. Yesterday, I made such a mistake. I have decided to write about it here, to encourage others to learn from my mistake, and to commit publicly to doing better in future, and to working to tackle the structural oppression and inequalities that form the context of my mess-up.

My Day Yesterday

Yesterday, I went into my local town for shopping and to meet my mum for coffee. It’s only the second time I’ve been out like that in the last 5 months, and the first time I’ve been out at a weekend, so it was a little confusing and disorientating. There are some things that are now harder about navigating the space as a wheelchair-user than they were before the Pandemic: for example, most of the shops now have queuing spaces marked out on the pavement in from of them. This makes a lot of sense for maintaining physical distancing, but my town is built on a hill, and has lots of slanting pavements and cobbles. I know the pavements intimately, and am expert in navigating them precisely so that my wheels go exactly where they need to. But now, there are often people congregating where I need to be, and I have to be ready to explain to them that I need the exact bit of pavement they’re occupying because the bit just next to them is inaccessible. I think accessibility is more complex than many abled people believe, and until you’ve actually used a wheelchair out in the “real world”, there are lots of things you just don’t consider. As I’m autistic, I find that the words I need for spontaneous social interactions are often hard to find too – so I’m having to memorise appropriate “scripts” for finding my way around this new landscape.

But some things are now much easier as a result of the Pandemic. Many shops have changed their layout to enable physical distancing – removing lots of displays, and creating one-way systems in their premises. This makes such places much more accessible for me – given my wheels, and my “challenged” (read: virtually non-existent) sense of direction. Indeed, I may (or may not) have spent extra time in such shops yesterday, purely for the purpose of doing laps – the sense of freedom and sensory joy, after months spent in my tiny flat, was just wonderful.

I had also forgotten quite how exhausting “outside” can be, and if I’m honest, I think I overdid it a bit. It was at the end of this tiring afternoon that the event alluded to in the title of this blog took place – what follows is a “confessional” reflective account, and a public commitment to try my best to do better (and to be better) next time…

My Mistake

I had finished my shopping, and was ready to get back in my car and head for home. As I say – I was tired. I was about to go pay for my parking when I figured I needed to use the bathroom and couldn’t wait to get home (a 5-minute drive, but augmented at each end with around 10 minutes of hoisting my chair in and out of my car). Like many disabled people, I don’t generally get a lot of warning when I need to use the bathroom, so I headed into Marks and Spencers (other chain-stores are available – though in my hometown, M & S is the only one with an accessible bathroom – “This is not just any bathroom…” etc etc). When I got to the bathroom area, I found that the accessible bathroom was occupied. For context – I should explain that there is also a “Ladies'” and a “Men’s” bathroom, as well as a totally separate room for changing babies (though there is no Changing Places facility). I then began the familiar experience of waiting…and waiting…and waiting, while listening to the voice of a female adult and a female child inside the accessible bathroom. People came and went from the other bathrooms, and I sat and waited. As I said, I don’t get a lot of warning when I need to use the bathroom, and I was getting anxious (as well as feeling the usual frustration and humiliation at the structural reminder of my “difference”, my “otherness”, and my social inferiority). As I waited, I reminded myself that I should not be judgemental. There was probably a completely legitimate reason why the people occupying the accessible bathroom were taking (what felt to me like) an inordinately long time. I generally take longer than most abled people when I use the bathroom myself, and I should be the last person to police other people. And I reaffirmed to myself that not all impairments are visible, and no one has appointed me Bathroom-Judge. But I was getting more and more anxious, as well as distinctly fed up that this was realistically the single only bathroom available to me as a wheelchair user in the town (there are actually 4 other accessible bathrooms in town – but three are in cafes/restaurants where you’re expected to purchase food/drinks before you can use the facilities, and one is in an independent department store at the other side of town, on a very inaccessible street). So I waited, and checked my prejudice…

Then, a woman and girl (around 7 or 8 years old) came out of the accessible bathroom. Usually, when this happens, those coming out of the bathroom make brief eye contact with you as they leave – if it is someone who feels guilty for having used the bathroom when perhaps they didn’t need to (e.g. abled people who “sneak” into an accessible facility because the place in general is quiet, and they don’t expect a disabled person to need it, or a parent with multiple young children), they look apologetic, and sometimes even say “oh, sorry”. Or if it’s another disabled person, there’s a kind of expression of comradeship as we both acknowledge the experience. But in this case, there was nothing. The woman and the girl just ignored me, and continued their conversation as they walked past me.

And this is when it happened, the thing of which I’m quite ashamed…

…I was so fed up at having had to wait, and at having been totally ignored, that I called after them “Couldn’t you just have used the regular bathroom?”. It was a split-second decision, and I was inside the bathroom with the door locked before I fully appreciated that I’d spoken. I don’t think there was any reply, but I don’t know for sure.

It was at the point when I was on my own with the door locked that I realised how in the wrong I had been. I was angry, fed up, anxious, and tired – that is true. There are not enough accessible bathrooms in public places – that is also true. Lots of people use accessible bathrooms for convenience, when they could go to the effort of using regular bathrooms – that is also true. And other social groups apart from disabled people are not adequately catered for when it comes to access to public bathrooms (parents of small children, trans people – as just two examples) – that is certainly true.

These are all political concerns, and should be focuses for activism (indeed, they are – see, for example, the campaign for Changing Places facilities, that has seen recent success). But they should not have influenced my individual behaviour towards the woman and the girl in that moment.

My actions were a “venting” of personal frustration, but they were probably socially and politically harmful. If the woman and girl were using the accessible bathroom illegitimately (for convenience or added privacy, or to jump a queue, maybe) then my calling after them in a challenging and confrontational way is unlikely to have made a positive difference to their future behaviour. It probably just confirmed prejudices about disabled people. Indeed it’s possible that if I had just sat and waited for them to leave without saying anything, they might have reassessed their own behaviour, and felt guilty themselves – and I’d have made a greater political intervention by staying quiet. But – far worse than that in my view – they may have had an entirely legitimate reason for needing to use the accessible bathroom. And my behaviour may have simply added a long list of times when they have not been believed, or have encountered hostile responses for using accessible facilities. I may have contributed to existing fears they have about accessing public places.

My Commitment

I have no way of knowing what their reasons were for using the accessible bathroom (that is exactly the point – I had no way of knowing), or what impact my words had on them (I was all ready to apologise when I came out of the bathroom if I had seen them – but I didn’t). But I do know what kind of person I want to be – I want to be a person who contributes to making the world a better, safer, kinder, more accessible place. Yesterday afternoon, I briefly failed to be that person.

Next time. I will be better…

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