Many neurodivergent people struggle with loud noises and are unable to attend events where people clap and cheer. Manchester University Students Union recently made headlines when reps from the union voted to introduce British Sign Language (BSL) clapping at students’ events and encouraged societies and student groups to do the same. The reason for this measure was to make student events more accessible and inclusive.
Predictably, the response on social media was negative, with people claiming that clapping is a human right, that “they’ll be banning breathing next,” and that people who can’t handle noise are weak snowflakes. One of the frequent arguments I encountered against use of BSL clapping was that it would be inaccessible to blind people.
In fact, quiet environments can be inaccessible to many disabled people and policies like this can do as much harm as good, because disabled and neurodivergent people are not a monolith. Disability is complex, and experiences of being disabled are diverse. Different people have different access needs and sometimes those needs are incompatible with each other. As disabled writer Karrie Higgins recently said, sometimes conflicting needs can even exist within the same person.
There are many examples of how we can make things inaccessible to one group by making them accessible to another. A good example is captioning films at the cinema. As an autistic person who is hard of hearing, subtitles make films more accessible to me. Often I am unable to watch movies with captions at the cinema, because even though my local cinema has nine screens, there is only one subtitled film per day: The cinema chooses the most popular one and plays it in the middle of the day. Often I am not interested in this film, and I work during the day. I used to be of the opinion that all films should have open captions. After all, D/deaf and neurodivergent people deserve to watch whatever films are available to hearing and neurotypical people at times that are convenient for us. I had thought that by captioning all films they would be accessible to everyone—but then I read a twitter thread by an autistic, hyperlexic person who explained why subtitles make films inaccessible for her and some other hyperlexic people.
There are many more examples that I can think of from my personal experience alone. My sister is claustrophobic and can’t use lifts. I have fibromyalgia and often can’t use stairs. I have a friend who can only see the cinema screen if we sit right at the front, but this hurts my neck and triggers my fibro. Every summer I joke that my fibro loves the hot weather because my joints hurt less in the sun, but my autism hates it because I have sensory issues.
In autistic communities I think we generally understand that it’s not always possible to make things accessible to everyone. The ways that being autistic affects different people are so diverse, and our access needs can be so different, and often incompatible with each other.
Like many autistic people, I need quiet spaces. I can manage noise for a limited period if I have somewhere quiet to retreat to. Other autistic people can be very loud and need spaces where it’s acceptable for them to make noise. I’ve attended autistic events where organisers did everything in their power to be accessible to as many people as possible, but in doing so made it inaccessible for me. For example, at one event the feedback from the microphone was causing people a lot of pain so the speaker switched it off. I’m agoraphobic and needed to sit at the back and could no longer hear what was being said. At another, the lighting was dim to accommodate people who are sensitive to bright lights and, being visually impaired, I could not see anything.
I think it’s just about impossible to make one event accessible to all autistic people (although I hope we keep trying and improving). When I think about one of my favourite pasttimes, going to the theatre, I can’t help but think about how the theatre is inaccessible to many neurodivergent people, but sometimes in different ways. As someone who is sensitive to noise, I can struggle with the clapping and cheering that takes place throughout performances. I find it easier to go to the cinema where, except for the occasional conversation and rustling of sweets wrappers, it’s mostly quiet. I also have friends who struggle at the theatre because they have verbal tics and it’s generally not acceptable to make noise, outside of clapping and cheering, at the theatre. In fact, one autistic woman, Tamsin Parker, was removed from a cinema recently for laughing too loudly. There are relaxed performances, where it’s acceptable to make noise and move around, but these are generally aimed at children.
The argument that BSL applause would make events inaccessible to blind people was a red herring, a way for people to justify their ableism. Many of the people who made this argument probably never thought about how it takes more than applause to make the visual parts of a performance or event accessible to blind people. Often blind people can’t attend events because there is no audio description, and I imagine the same people who complained about BSL clapping would moan if a blind person had their friend describe what was happening during events or performances. Most of these people have probably never considered that people can be blind, deaf, and autistic, or any combination of the three, and that for those of us who are, accessibility is a balancing act.
Accessibility is difficult and it’s complex but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t bother with it. In a recent survey conducted by Autistic Not Weird, over 75% of autistic people said that they felt socially isolated. I was not surprised by this at all. We live in a world where most events are not accessible to us and when steps are taken to improve accessibility there’s a backlash. Of course, that results in us feeling isolated, and in turn that probably affects the higher rate of mental illness and suicide among autistic people.
It’s vital that every disabled and neurodivergent person can attend events that are accessible to them. Accessibility is too important for us to ignore just because it can be difficult or unpopular. We also can’t choose one group and decide to make everything accessible to them, and inaccessible to other people. It’s not acceptable to sacrifice one group of disabled people for another, nor is it necessary.
It may not be possible to make every single event accessible to every disabled person but there are steps we can take to make sure that every disabled person has events that are accessible to them. For example, rather than making every film at the cinema captioned, we could have a fifty-fifty split, with all films, captioned and uncaptioned, being available at various times of the day. It’s also important that there are events where people can make noise, and events where people can expect it to be relatively quiet and free from sudden noises. It’s important that the type of applause we use is accessible to the performer or speaker, so if that person is blind in most cases it would be inappropriate to use BSL. If the performer is D/deaf or if clapping and cheering would likely cause them distress, BSL is likely to be more appropriate.
The idea of making something fully accessible is attractive and I have come across policies (often but not always written by abled people) that aim to create inclusive and accessible environments by being prescriptive about what accessibility is. The intention is usually good, but the outcome is often that some disabled people have their needs and experiences erased. In the worst case scenarios this can result in the policies being weaponised against neurodivergent and disabled people who don’t fit into people’s idea of disability.
Blanket rules for all events ignore the different access needs of disabled people and can be used to harass, bully and exclude disabled people, which is the opposite of its intended purpose. There is no such thing as fully accessible, but what we can strive for is a world in which everyone’s needs are acknowledged, accepted, and catered to. And that begins with listening to disabled people.