safe spaces

Disability and power

A group of people with disabilities is not always a group in which everyone has equal power. 

Some examples (by no means an exhaustive list, and not all of these examples apply all the time):

People who are better at asserting power can have more power.

People who speak more easily can have more power.

People who think more quickly can have more power.

People with the most common disability in the group can have more power.

People used to being ok with their disability can have more power.

Power dynamics in a group always need to be monitored and taken seriously.

Restricting the group membership to people with disabilities can be part of the solution, (because it can eliminate the part of the problem involving nondisabled allies and parents taking over), but it can never be the whole solution. Power dynamics exist in all groups, even with members of the same marginalized group.

Communication problems vs boundary indifference

These things are different:

  • Difficulty reading social cues
  • Indifference to other people’s boundaries

These get conflated all over the place, in part because they both lead to breaking certain social expectations. But they’re actually fundamentally different (although it’s possible for someone to have both problems)

Both of these things get called social awkwardness. This causes a lot of problems, in particular:

  • People are pressured to accept boundary-violating behavior as innocuous awkwardness
  • People who are more innocently awkward are read as threats because people can’t tell the difference

People who don’t care about other people’s boundaries often actually have exceptionally *good* abilities to read social cues, for instance:

  • Creepy guys in geek space tend to know exactly how much they can harass women without being expelled from the space
  • And they’re really good at staying just shy of that line
  • And these dudes often get referred to as just awkward, and women get pressured to accommodate their boundary violations

So, if you want to create spaces that are safe for good people who have trouble reading social cues:

  • Stop tolerating boundary violations
  • Start making your spaces more accessible
  • Use interaction badges as a way to help people understand who welcomes interaction and who doesn’t
  • Wait a few extra seconds in conversations to give people who process language slowly a chance to speak
  • Don’t insist that people make eye contact
  • When you’re organizing loud events, create quiet space people can retreat to
  • Create multiple ways of contacting event or space organizers (phone, email, etc.) Some forms of communication are very difficult for some people, and spaces are more inclusive if there are more options

It's important to care whether you and others are ok

In some groups, people are taught to follow rules. And told that, if they follow the rules, things will be good. And that following the rules is the only way things can be good.

And then… the consequences of the rules aren’t actually what people say they should be. People get hurt. And then, people who get hurt are pressured to think that nothing is wrong. And that’s bad.

Because you matter. Everyone matters. And if the rules are hurting people, there’s a problem with the rules. Magical thinking won’t make the rules work better, but it will prevent people from fixing them.

Some examples:

Religion:

  • If you’re in a religious group that has rules and,
  • Following the rules as your community requires is causing you serious problems, and…
  • …everyone tells you that if you just keep following all the rules, pray harder, and have more faith, everything will be ok…
  • …something is seriously wrong.
  • (Common examples: gay men being told to pray harder and date women, women being told to pray harder and accept that they shouldn’t have as much power as men because God gave them a different role)

In social justice space:

  • If you don’t feel safe in a Safe Space
  • Or you have reason to *think* you’re not safe in a Safe Space
  • And everyone is telling you that the space is definitely safe and that you’re just imagining the problem…
  • …something is seriously wrong, and you’re allowed to care that it’s wrong and seek to fix the problem (whether within the space or by finding somewhere else to be)