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When I'm Excluded From Accessible Spaces as a Person With Dwarfism

A few weeks ago I attended my first concert. I went to see Cher live at the Manchester Arena. My brother, another avid Cher fan, joined me. This was reassuring, because as a woman with dwarfism, I don’t do well in crowds. I am knocked and shoved by people who tower over me.  As an average size man, my brother was able to guide me through the crowds. It was a great night, obviously because it was a Cher concert, but it was also ruined by the four fans in front of us who refused to sit down.

I purposely booked seats as I knew I would not be able to stand in a crowd, because I can’t stand for long and also because of my short stature I needed to ensure that I would be able to see over the crowd in front of me. However, just after the show started, the four people in front of us stood up. A man did ask them to sit down, but this led to a full-blown argument, which I really did not want to get involved in. There was no point in me standing as I would be even shorter standing than sitting. The woman next to my brother was also unable to stand as she had a cane, but this didn’t seem to bother the four in front. They wanted a good time even if they ruined it for the rest of us.

You may think I would have been able to use the accessible area, however, I’m not a wheelchair user so it is not as simple as that. When I was conducting my Ph.D. research on the experiences of people with dwarfism in public spaces, one of my main findings was that we are often denied access to disabled spaces, including low counters. One participant even told me how she was denied access to the disabled area when attending a Bon Jovi concert as she was not a wheelchair user. This is despite explaining to the staff manning the area that she could not see over the crowd. This dismissal of our access needs often occurs because people with dwarfism do not match the stereotypical image of a disabled person. In society, “disabled” is often equated with “wheelchair user.” Whereas we are the “happy little people” you see at Christmas performing in pantomimes, not in any images demonstrating disability access.

Whenever you see imagery denoting access for disabled people, the image depicts a wheelchair user. The media’s disability stock images seem to be dominated by wheelchairs. What’s strange is less than 10 percent of disabled people use a wheelchair, but it is the most obvious sign and thus used to represent all of us. Disability needs to be visible, it seems, for it to be believed. Even the image to denote a disabled space in a facility is a stick figure of a wheelchair user. This is problematic as disabled spaces and facilities are meant to be for all disabled people, yet those who don’t “look disabled” are often denied access. For example, recently Paddy McGuiness spoke about his anger when someone questioned him for using a disabled parking bay. Paddy has two sons with autism, another invisible disability, but they are nonetheless entitled to disabled spaces.

Recently, there was a BBC news article claiming that Ticketmaster would be making concerts more accessible for Deaf and disabled people. However, once again when they say disabled people or the “disabled community” they mean, you guessed it, wheelchair users. Apparently all fans deserve equal access, but it seems some are more equal than others. Now, I am all for better access for wheelchair users, but what about the rest of us? If you are claiming to provide access for the “disabled community,” then you should really mean the whole community, not just those you perceive to be disabled. The article once again used a stock image of a wheelchair user at a concert and provided quotes from wheelchair users sharing their experiences of attending concerts. This just reinforced the perception that you have to be a wheelchair user to be disabled.

The article went on to claim there would be more accessible seating: “In participating venues, accessible seats will be clearly labeled on the seat map like any other ticket — whether that’s in the range of a hearing loop, or in a wheelchair-friendly zone, with a free companion ticket.” The wheelchair-friendly zone, also known as the unfriendly zone for people with dwarfism. I may seem cynical, but I guarantee I will have to argue with staff to gain access to the wheelchair zone due to their inability to see how a small person, who is actually shorter than the average wheelchair user, needs to be in a space where she can see over the crowd. Their claim that Ticketmaster is making concerts more accessible for disabled people while continuing to label the accessible section the “wheelchair zone” only reinforces the belief that to be disabled you must be a wheelchair user.

For true disability access to be achieved, we need to change social perceptions of disability. Disability imagery needs to be more varied. We shouldn’t just have to rely on lazy stereotypes that make it easy to spot “the disabled person,” but rather we should be challenging society’s perception through including a diverse range of disabled people. Why can’t a dwarf be included within an image denoting disability access, or the lack thereof?

You may think that providing access for all would be difficult and costly because there are so many different disabled people, but actually it can be done. There is a design concept called Universal Design and it actually shows how design for all is achievable. It is also evident in numerous places. For me, it is simply a case of providing multi-level facilities. If I’m at a public restroom and there are several sinks, what is wrong with having one low and one high (there are also some very tall people) and the others at a medium height? Or in some cases adjustable facilities that can be made to go higher or lower. Or failing that, you could just let me access the already low facilities you seem to think only a person sitting in a wheelchair needs to access.

Getty image by sicko2003.