Encouraging conscientious behavior about accessibility

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COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

Just like you, I really enjoy breathing, going to interesting events and just generally not suffering. Unfortunately, these things are not always possible for me, or for many other disabled students on campus.

I’m autistic, as are the majority of my friends. Being autistic comes with many variations in sensory perception, which can be a good thing (I get way more joy from touching soft things than allistics/non-autistics ever could), but also a bad thing. We have to be careful about which classes we register for based on their location, where we eat and at what time and balancing our sensory needs with the assumptions and aggression of allistics.

Some of these problems cannot be easily addressed. We all despise the hell of creaky-doored, squeaky-chaired Morton, and the air conditioning and other electrical systems in many of the buildings across campus can make pretty horrific noises. But there’s not much to be done about that aside from renovations.

Other things, however, are quite simple. As I mentioned earlier, it’s quite pleasant to be able to breathe. It’s quite unpleasant to walk into a classroom and immediately begin choking because someone decided to wear perfume in an enclosed space where other students need to be in order to learn. If you’re chilling in your own room and want a fun smell, good for you! But please don’t force me out of a classroom because you wanted to smell of flowers.

Organizations hosting events are also guilty of failing to consider the sensory needs of those who may be attending. Many things which can be enjoyable for some, such as flashing lights, loud music and large crowds, can completely prevent many autistic people from participating without pain and distress. The most important thing is to be clear about what your events will entail. I know not every event will be suitable for me, and that’s OK. What isn’t OK is when I muster up the energy to drive over to campus for events I’m excited about, only to find that people like me are not welcome there. Just as organizations give notice when events will involve alcohol or will have a cover fee, they should provide clear, complete accessibility information in their advertising.

Unfortunately, not only do people tend to fail to consider accessibility in the first place — they get very angry when I and other disabled students point the inaccessibility out. This past blowout, I very hungrily drove over to Sadler to get some pancakes from InterVarsity’s Pancake House event. Unfortunately, I was unable to even approach the dining hall in which the event took place because the volunteers were screaming and playing extremely loud music. I made a light-hearted meme about my disappointment at the unexpected sensory hell, as there had been no prior indication that the screaming or music blaring would occur at what sounded like a relaxed, casual event, and posted it in the SwampyMemes Facebook group. My autistic friends, many of whom also could not attend, enjoyed the meme, but others were very unhappy to be confronted with the idea that disabled people might exist and might even want to be able to go to events (just like abled people — a huge shock!).

This was far from an isolated incident. I skipped my high school prom because the menu wasn’t given in advance and I had no idea whether any of it would be edible due to sensory sensitivities. I’ve avoided going to plenty of AMP events that sound quite enjoyable because there was no information available to give me an idea of how loud or crowded they would be. Part of the reason I live off campus is because I wasn’t even safe in my dorm; I once had a nasty panic attack because an a cappella group decided that the best way to advertise the concert it was about to give in the lobby was to run up and down the halls shrieking (not even screaming about the concert — literally just shrieking).

Constantly navigating a world that is not made for you is exhausting. What hurts the most is when people fail to consider the needs of others in ways that could easily be prevented. One person deciding to wear perfume to class on one day can prevent me from attending that class for a whole week. Taking the time to learn about accessibility needs and making choices that respect those needs every day is essential for making our campus and our world a more autistic-friendly place.

Email Chloe How at ckhow@email.wm.edu.