The issue of taking up space is one that seems to come up time and time again in my life. As a young child, I was quiet and well behaved and easy to miss. As I got older, my depression convinced me that I was worthless, useless, a waste of space. I withdrew, I would withhold opinions, I wouldn’t challenge things I knew were wrong. I dumbed down my intelligence. Older again, and this time it would be anorexia that would convince me I took up too much space. I was literally too big. I was metaphorically too big. Fast forward again and this time the culprit is my disability.
Something happens when you start to use a wheelchair you take up more space literally and this isn’t always an easy thing to do. In this society we are told that women should not take up space. (If you’re a male wheelchair user, I’d love to have a chat about this with you, especially if you’ve not always used a wheelchair and can compare the difference.)
There’s no denying it. The chair takes up space. It doesn’t fit it a regular car, it doesn’t fit in some shops, in cafes people have to move for me. And all the time I’m apologising for it. I can’t reduce the size of my chair or the space I take up so instead I am constantly stuck in apology mode.
I’m so sorry that my existence is having some impact on you. I’m so sorry you’re having to adjust your path to get past me. I’m so sorry I’m trying to get a table in a restaurant and you’re having to move to accommodate me. I’m sorry I embarrassed you when you came out of the disabled toilet and got ‘caught’ by a disabled person**. I’m so sorry for existing as a disabled woman.
And yet I feel I can’t stop apologising. As a disabled woman my chance of having a crime committed against me is quite high. I’ve had people get annoyed (thankfully only in that British way of grumbling loudly to their friend so far) when I’ve not played the game and not apologised for the few seconds I inconvenienced them. I’ve had people grumble that I shouldn’t go into town on a weekend because it’s busy. I try to avoid this anyway as I hate crowds but that is my choice.
My wheelchair takes up space but I should still be able to go where I want when I want. Except again, this isn’t a reality. Because there are places where no amount of apologising will help me. I can apologise all I want but I’ll never get into the corner of the shop which is crammed full with displays in the aisles; “If you tell me what you want, I can get it”…”I’m sorry… I don’t know what I’m after…” and I leave.
With every half-finished sentence, every statement ended with a question mark, with every apology we offer to someone who has wronged us, minor or major, we deny ourselves, we deny our value.
With every tentative whispered proclamation, with every “I think…” when we know, we deny ourselves the space we are owed.
We are so socialised to believe we are not allowed space that we are complicit in our own erasure.
We make ourselves small so others are more comfortable. If I make myself small, people don’t have to face my disability and with it their own mortality, their own imperfect infallibility, the imperfection of me, the guilt I seem to impose on them. If I make myself small, they don’t have to face themselves, their lack of consideration when I turn up at the party and there’s a step into the house or the bathroom is upstairs. “I didn’t think…” they mutter…as if I’m the one who should be embarrassed.
Every time I tell a shop that it’s ok when they don’t have a ramp, I’m letting them off. I’m telling them that I’m not important and it’s ok that they aren’t accessible. I’m giving them permission to reduce the amount of space I can take up. Whether that’s in their shop or in their minds.
Every time you have to ask for the key to the disabled toilet or get a stranger to go into a shop to ask a member of staff to bring out a ramp or get told to go in the back entrance by the bins, you are told that you are not important. You are not as valued or as worthy as other people. You are told that you are a burden, a nuisance, an ‘other’. That you should not be there.
Letting yourself be who you are and owning that in a society which does all it can to prevent this is a powerful act. Without it, the issues which make us feel unable to take up space will be perpetuated and will continue to reproduce. We need to challenge the physical issues which keep us “in our place” but also the attitudinal issues. Why should I apologise because you need to let go of your boyfriend’s hand in order to pass me on the pavement? Why should I be embarrassed when I ask you to pull a chair in so I can get past? All I have done “wrong” is to exist with a disability. If you can’t deal with it, you should be the one apologising to me.
Taking up space is a truly political act. When I was at my worst with anorexia, I had no capacity to question or object to the way society treats women, the patriarchy was having a great time. When I can’t access buildings or facilities because of my disability, I can’t easily or effectively object – I can’t physically get to the people I need to complain to. I can’t make them see me. They’ve engineered that well. Preventing us from taking up the space we’re entitled to is a fantastic tool of an oppressor. Let’s try and break that.
Take up your space and take it up proudly. We are all human. We all deserve to take up space.
Check out Vanessa Kisuule’s “Take up space” for some excellent poetry about women and space.
*I’m going to use the word space a lot. I mean literal space as in the physical footprint I have when I stand or sit or lie down. I also mean audible space – the space that is inhabited by noise. Like all ‘spaces’ there is a finite amount available. In this case, people who are shouting take up more of it. Similarly, I might be referring to the space in societies’ consciousness. Or the space for ideas and thoughts and opinions. This idea of space as more than physical is talked about by Rosalind Jana.
**not all disabilities are visible but I’ve had a lot of cases of people who misuse disabled toilets, normally because they are getting changed or want a shit…