Dim lights, no music, clear aisles: Wednesdays at 2:30pm offer only a sliver of time for those with accessibility needs. Andi C. Buchanan explores the intersections of time and disability in public spaces.
In 2019, Countdown rolled out a weekly quiet hour across its supermarkets to widespread attention. For one hour a week, lights are dimmed, no music is played, shelf restocking is kept to a minimum and announcements made only when essential. It’s a change that’s potentially useful for autistic people, but also for some with anxiety, brain injuries or chronic migraines – or even just those who don’t like music and bright lights.
The general reaction was, as far as I could tell, very positive. For some, it made their daily lives much easier; for others it was a change they hadn’t thought of but they could now instantly see how it would make a difference. It felt like a rare good-news story for a national retailer to make a positive change.
In autistic and other neurodivergent spaces, I found the reaction more muted. It wasn’t that anyone thought of it as a bad thing, and some found it genuinely useful. But for many of us it came with pitfalls and access issues of its own. It felt like one more thing that had been done without us that we were expected to be grateful for. Sometimes, these things are exhausting.
What does it mean to be able to access a space, but only during some of the hours it is open to everyone else?
As quiet hours and their cousins – quiet rooms and relaxed performances – become increasingly common, including in arts and cultural spaces such as museums, I want to ask whether they are an imperfect but ultimately positive step forward, or simply adding another dimension to exclusion and restriction.
“We’re disabled, Daniel, we’re not werewolves.” Author Jennifer Lee Rossman’s response to a claim that accessible parking is unnecessary after 5pm has become a widely circulated internet meme, and for good reason. It was a clever response, but it also captured a world of frustrations with the idea disabled people don’t need – or don’t deserve – anything but the essentials, an idea often supported by funding and other regulations.
like the werewolf, who is human except at specific times – this liminality can also be mediated by time
For me, though, the comparison with werewolves made me think about the liminal spaces disabled people inhabit, the ways we are made half welcome, shown that we only half belong. The idea that we are people sometimes, part human, part something else. Often we think of this in terms of spaces or events or activities – you can go to one place but not another, you can take part in this but not that, but – like the werewolf, who is human except at specific times – this liminality can also be mediated by time.
There are many layers to the ways time and disability interact. Some of us have energy-related impairments that limit how long we can be out of the house; others have symptoms that are exacerbated by temperature or humidity or sunlight; some find pain lessens or worsens at particular times of day. Some people are disabled in ways that cause unpredictability or difficulty with planning itself – others struggle without solid and unchanging plans (some of us are both, it’s not ideal!). Most of us find we have to spend time managing our health and bodies, and managing bureaucracy.
support workers have schedules, and good luck getting a wheelchair-accessible taxi in Wellington, at least, during school rush hours!
Then wider schedules and restrictions may have a disproportionate effect on us – public transport schedules for those of us who cannot drive, for example. Lifts may shut off or certain entrances close at specific times. Services or accommodations for some disabled people can operate to particular schedules: support workers have schedules, and good luck getting a wheelchair-accessible taxi in Wellington, at least, during school rush hours! Not to mention the tight schedules – bedtimes, yikes! – that can be imposed on those in institutional living situations.
“Daniel”, the poster who didn’t understand why accessible parking was needed after 5pm, is a particularly regressive example, but he’s far from alone in making assumptions about disabled people’s schedules, which – while affected by the numerous considerations above – are as diverse as anyone else’s. Some have many demands on their time, others are looking for ways to fill it. Some have strict schedules, others highly variable ones. And while not everyone works an office-hours job and likes to enjoy evening social and entertainment events, there are plenty who do.
Maybe, rather than werewolves, it’s Cinderella we identify with, constantly aware our transport option disappears at midnight, when everyone else is still dancing at the ball.
We’re not werewolves, but we must pay attention to time in ways others don’t have to. Maybe it’s not the phases of the moon we’re watching, but changes in seasons that aggravate our health. Even when we’re permitted to occupy the same physical spaces as others, restrictions on time mean we can’t enjoy them in quite the same way, can’t stay as long, can’t quite relax. Maybe, rather than werewolves, it’s Cinderella we identify with, constantly aware our transport option disappears at midnight, when everyone else is still dancing at the ball.
If you look up a location on Google Maps, you can see a small graph that shows how busy it usually is on different days and at different times. This can also show you how the current time compares, whether it is busier or quieter than typical. It’s obviously a rough measure, but a clearly useful one, whether you struggle with crowded spaces and noise, are short on time, or just want to gauge your odds of getting a table at your favourite café.
Maybe, rather than a one-hour exception, such a quiet, low-stimulation environment could be the default.
What the existence of this feature tells me is that it’s not just autistic people, or even just disabled people, who care about how busy a place is, and who might benefit from an environment resembling that provided by quiet hours. Maybe, rather than a one-hour exception, such a quiet, low-stimulation environment could be the default.
In 2020, as the pandemic hit, everything from theatre to medical treatment moved online. For some, this was the next best thing, and I was one of many who took the opportunity to listen to live readings and watch plays and even concerts, watching with friends for a collective experience. But for a lot of disabled people, even though they found this useful, something about it really stung. It demonstrated that the ability to make things so much more accessible and inclusive has been there all along. Worse – people who had given up work or education because they had been told there was no way it could be done online had to watch as jobs and courses were immediately moved to remote the moment non-disabled people needed it.
So it’s understandable that we might look at quiet hours, feeling a bit exhausted and a bit cynical, and think, uh, excuse me, if you can do it for an hour why not make your space accessible all the time?
it’s an hour, out of all the hours a supermarket is open. It’s a couple of slots, for all the time an exhibition is running
There can be good reasons. Shelves have to be stocked at some point. Dimmed lights may cause problems for those with low vision. If a session allows fewer people – such as in a museum – then limiting numbers all the time would reduce people’s access overall.
But, yet, it’s an hour, out of all the hours a supermarket is open. It’s a couple of slots, for all the time an exhibition is running.
More than that, it’s an hour for people who may well walk or process information more slowly. Who may have less access to transport than the average person, making it difficult to time it around a set slot of time. Who may be disabled in ways that make it hard to plan or to gauge time. Who may need support from others who may also be less punctual for all kinds of reasons. And for those who need support workers – or support from family – who may or may not be available at the specified time (and if a support worker supports multiple people in the same area, they can’t all get their groceries at the same time).
Then there’s the timing of that hour. I’ve found quiet hours or low-sensory sessions are usually on weekdays, during the day. Countdown’s quiet hours are mostly Wednesdays from 2:30 to 3:30pm. It could be worse, but it’s not a viable time for many people who work or have other office-hour commitments. The reality is, no one hour is going to suit everyone – which is why most people are not restricted to a designated hour to do their shopping!
autistic adults are made invisible and infantilised, whose every action places them in a double bind where either their abilities or their needs are ignored
Another subtext in the timing is that it isn’t for autistic people doing their own shopping at all. It’s primarily for parents of young autistic children who do not have other care arrangements. Obviously, the needs of this demographic are important – the one thing that sounds harder to me than going to the supermarket is going to a supermarket with a child (any child). But this ties into a whole wider issue where autistic adults are made invisible and infantilised, whose every action places them in a double bind where either their abilities or their needs are ignored. This sits in a context where autistic people are seen as burdens on family members, who are solely deserving of sympathy.
Sometimes it’s easier to criticise those who are making progress too slowly than those who have shown no interest in making progress at all (I haven’t even mentioned the other main supermarket chains, for example, who sometimes have quiet hours but not on a national basis). There are always going to be complexities – someone might struggle with dim lighting but also need audio to be quieter – and, as someone who works in neither museum nor supermarket management, there will be aspects I’ve missed.
Still. It feels as if improvements, though still short of perfection, can be made. What if there was one weekday afternoon and one weekend morning a week set aside as low sensory? What if exhibitions had two such sessions every week? What if there was a compromise outside these sessions – perhaps audio used for announcements but not for music?
the hardest thing can be challenging the impulse to be grateful, to accept anything we’re offered
I sometimes like to say the hardest thing is imagining how things could be different. But when organisations have already started experimenting with what could be different, the hardest thing can be challenging the impulse to be grateful, to accept anything we’re offered. Because if we ask for too much, maybe all those people who were excited by Countdown’s announcement will start saying we’re too demanding, that we expect the whole world to revolve around our fringe needs.
I’ve strategically avoided noisy and busy times. I’ve even taken advantage of quiet rooms a couple of times – and would do that more often if they were available when I most needed them. I’ve only intentionally used official quiet hours once. It was in one of the short-term international exhibitions at Te Papa – this time of surrealist art. Pre-booking was encouraged, with limited door-sale options. When I looked up the event I saw two low-sensory sessions.
On my way into town, I was worried the staff might dispute my eligibility, or that everyone else would have young children and people would be confused about why I was there. (I know some readers will think this unlikely, but neurodivergent families can be their own world sometimes. I’m still mentally untangling the Dalí exhibition I was taken to at the mature age of eight.) Would it have occurred to anyone that adults might be booking their own tickets with their own needs in mind?
like many who are disabled in less apparent ways, I’ve had my experiences disputed and my needs dismissed
These weren’t just anxieties – like many who are disabled in less apparent ways, I’ve had my experiences disputed and my needs dismissed. But this time things went smoothly. None of the staff even mentioned the quiet aspect – as far as they were concerned we had tickets for that session and that was all that was needed. The inconvenience of booking a specific time was mitigated by the fact that everyone was at least encouraged to book in advance, but the selection was much more limited than for everyone else.
Accessibility-wise, it wasn’t perfect. I’d have benefitted from more seating and less competing background noise, even if that meant shutting off a couple of exhibits – though I appreciate that’s a difficult balance. But compared to the last – really crowded – exhibition I’d been to at Te Papa it was so much easier on me. I noticed afterwards that I was in less pain than expected, and more able to go for lunch, to interact with people, to do other things with my day. It wasn’t that I couldn’t have attended one of the regular sessions, not exactly, so much as it would have had an outsized impact on me that may or may not have been possible to integrate with my life and health.
And for all the inconvenience, and for all the worry, the fact I could go and see something and not have to deal with unwanted health effects for days after, just like everyone else, was absolutely an accessibility win.
For those of us who have invisible or less apparent disabilities, who’ve spent a long time not being diagnosed or understanding ourselves as disabled, or who are dynamically disabled, we’re used to this liminality, this conditional accessibility, this half welcome. Dynamic disability fluctuates from day to day – a person may walk some days and use a wheelchair on others, they may have high pain levels some days and manageable ones on others.
Quiet hours are ultimately an accessibility improvement, and for some they’re a necessity.
Quiet hours are ultimately an accessibility improvement, and for some they’re a necessity. Quiet afternoons are much better. For our communities to be genuinely accessible we need to be radically changing, unpicking and rebuilding how we understand and exist in all dimensions, time included, but that doesn’t mean incremental improvements aren’t important.
However, while some may think of them as an open door, a welcome, a space changed to meet our needs, such simplifications ignore the complexity of our existence, the ways we wrangle and intermingle with time as well as space, the schedules and restrictions we have to wrap our lives around. We’re not werewolves, but time works differently for us too.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.