I usually get a funny look when I say that my PhD research focuses on parking. It's not exactly a ‘sexy’ or particularly exciting-sounding topic. However, a mundane activity like parking can tell us much about the everyday oppression disabled people experience in public spaces, and more broadly about the importance of taking account of lived experience when considering the effectiveness of policy.
For many disabled people, negative encounters with strangers in public spaces are a frequent occurrence. In urban environments where public spaces and buildings systematically exclude different bodies, accessible parking bays are one of the few spaces specifically designed for disabled people. But in practice, the spaces can be fraught with anxiety. Disabled people may have their legitimacy questioned, may be targeted simply for being disabled in public, or may even initiate the encounter by confronting someone abusing a space.
While encounters can be positive, they are often based somewhere on a ‘continuum of hate,’ ranging from microaggressions and staring to unwanted help, intrusive questions, threats and verbal abuse, and even physical violence. Recent research (for example by Jane Healy and Sue Ralph) links a sharp increase in disability hate crime to austerity rhetoric by the government and news media, scapegoating disabled people as ‘fakers’ and ‘scroungers,’ with public transport and parking spaces particular hotspots.
For many disabled people, negative encounters with strangers in public spaces are a frequent occurrence. Recent research shows a sharp increase in disability hate crime.
Some disabled scholars have criticised the International Symbol of Access, or the wheelchair symbol, which marks accessible parking bays. While designed as a universal sign of disability, the symbol tells us what kind of disabled people are expected in this space. This assumption is illustrated by one of my own encounters. While parking in an accessible space outside my local library with my Blue Badge on display, I noticed a member of library staff watching me suspiciously. I readied myself for a potential encounter as she clearly thought that I, a young(ish) woman with a small child, should not park there. But suddenly, when I got out with my walking stick in my hand, she walked off immediately. In this case, it was the stick that legitimised my right to park in the space, not the badge that was on display in my car.
What is crucial is the cumulative effect of parking encounters; as disabled writer Lois Keith puts it, “Doing disability every day can be an exhausting process.” Navigating these encounters often involves considerable emotional work, whether to diffuse the situation by ‘playing along,’ educating strangers about disability, confronting them about their behaviour, or trying to avoid the encounter altogether. Feminist disability researchers (such as Carol Thomas and Donna Reeve) have highlighted how the psycho-emotional impact of these encounters systematically undermines disabled people’s wellbeing, and can be just as effective in excluding someone as physical barriers. On some days, people may just not feel up to leaving the house.
In 2019, the Blue Badge scheme in England was extended to include various non-mobility impairments which, in Department of Transport communications, were described as ‘hidden disabilities.’ Fuelled by the idea that disability equals use of a wheelchair or other mobility aid, ‘invisibility’ of impairment can be a key factor in leading to an unpleasant encounter. However, many wheelchair users also face encounters, whether by being ‘hypervisible’ and therefore a target for harassment, or by behaving in an incongruous way that doesn’t fit in with how society expects disabled people to act. A classic example of the latter is that of a wheelchair user getting out of their wheelchair. This challenges the stereotype that wheelchair users cannot walk at all, despite ambulant wheelchair users being the vast majority.
There are many intersectional factors that may lead to someone being questioned as ‘legitimately’ disabled, including age, gender, race, body weight, even the type of car someone drives. This is often rooted in ableist ideas about disability. There are assumptions that disabled people don’t work, are poor, and can’t have children. Rather than focussing just on invisibility, it is important to understand how stereotypes of disability as complete inability, and as being fixed, static, and easily recognisable, harm all disabled people. However we try to manage these situations, this comes at a considerable cost that impacts on our wellbeing over time.
By exploring disabled people’s experiences in parking spaces, we can understand better how disabled people, and indeed other marginalised groups, are impacted by seemingly mundane everyday encounters. This also highlights the interpersonal and relational aspect of policy and its implementation into practice. While the Blue Badge scheme may remove physical barriers, this comes at a cost and is not equal to the access that many non-disabled people take for granted.
This is not to say the Blue Badge is not useful in allowing disabled people to park near their destination. For many disabled people, despite the risk of encounters, the Blue Badge is essential for greater participation in society. The issue lies with society’s attitudes and assumptions about disability, which need to be challenged. This highlights how disability is socially produced. The social model of disability was developed by disabled activists to explain disabled people’s experience of society. In particular, a focus on encounters highlights that disability is relational, and it is not just physical barriers but the attitudes and assumptions of other people that ‘disable’. To achieve meaningful change, we need more disability representation in wider media and culture to challenge stereotypical ideas, and active involvement of disabled people in designing policy that affects them, in the spirit of the disability rights motto: “Nothing about us without us.”