A few days back, frequent commenter Engineer Scotty did a much discussed guest post on the problems of travelling with small children on transit. He suggested, I thought, a reasonable range of accommodations that transit agencies should make (many of them good things to do anyway) and also talked through some things the parent can do to make the situation easier.
Scotty has twins, so he often drives a double-wide stroller/pram. To people who don’t like the company of small children, a double-wide pram seems to evoke the same emotions that a Hummer evokes in car-haters like myself. It seems huge, excessive, “in your face.” As Scotty observes, it can get on a bus in pretty much the way a wheelchair does, but like a wheelchair it takes a lot of space and demands some accommodation from other passengers if the bus is crowded.
It’s been interesting to watch this post’s reception for several reasons. First of all, a lot of this blog is about explaining concepts that not everyone has thought about, and on which many don’t have a strongly-held view. But when the subject is children on transit, everyone’s interested and everyone has an opinion. Scotty’s post was featured by Streetsblog, and it drove my traffic to a level not seen since Portland shock-blogger Jack Bogdanski attacked me for suggesting he pay the real price of parking in downtown Portland.
But it’s also been interesting because if Scotty pushed his double-wide into a room where I was sitting — a bus, a train, a restaurant — I’d instinctively try to move as far away as possible. I seem to have a condition called hyperacusis. It means that I hear sounds as being louder they are, high pitches in particular. A sudden high-pitched sound is literally painful, and from the reaction on my face when that happens you’d think I’d just been stabbed. Young children make sudden high-pitched sounds all the time, so it’s often painful to be around them. I can have the same response to women who are inclined to soprano bursts of excitement. Not surprisingly, I have no children of my own, and my closest female friends are all mellow contraltos.
Now, reading the last paragraph, you may have the same reaction that many people have when hearing of someone else’s disability: Sorry to hear that, must be tough for you, perhaps there should be organizations to help you out, but really, there’s a limit to the accommodation you can expect in a public place.
That’s exactly what used to be said to people in wheelchairs, but in the 1980s they pushed back hard and got a range of legislation — including the transformative Americans with Disabilities Act — that guaranteed their accommodation in public space, and their right to be treated as equal citizens rather than objects of pity.
I suppose I could start a campaign to have hyperacusis treated as a disability under those laws, but the changes I’d need to adapt public space to my disability would be too destructive to other people’s equal enjoyment. Children make sudden high-pitched noises that hurt me, but children are also a necessary part of society and need to feel welcomed if they’re to grow into healthy adults. A society in which hyperacusis was a fully accommodated disability would be a society where “children should be seen and not heard” — a sentiment that was common in my grandparents’ generation but that now seems uptight, Victorian.
What this means for me is that people with children — and groups of excited young women — often cause me to move away. I adapt, defer, and if possible, avoid. When I enter a cafe or bus, I immediately scan the space for children and groups of young women, and identify the spot most distant from them. If I’m already there and they sit near me, I may move; in a worst case, I may feel I’m being chased around the space, or even chased out. The other day in a cafe in Sydney, one such woman saw me moving away from her and asked if she and her friends had been too loud. So I actually had the opportunity to explain all this: No, you’re not too loud; you’re a young woman making sounds that young women make; I’m just unusually sensitive to loud, high sounds. I’m grateful to her for making me articulate this. Most of the time, when moving to avoid painful sounds, I just have to accept being perceived as an angry, uptight killjoy.
What does this mean for public spaces like transit? Transit is the consummate public space, but it’s enclosed and constrained by its transport function; more like a cafe than a public square. It’s likely to put us in direct contact with difference, including differences we find painful. This is why transit was a major battlefield in struggles over segregation and apartheid. Transit remains a site of anxiety about being near people who are different, and who behave differently.
Every society finds an ethical line between differences we can object to (certain levels of rudeness, hygiene, noise) and those differences that we are expected to welcome (not just race, class, age and gender but language, body type, styles of dress, styles of behavior, and of course a range of disabilities, not including mine). There are a lot of subtler lines that are hard to draw, because they’re matters of social convention that properly shift over time and space. Does people’s right to speak their own language extend to profanity, for example? I’ve seen people thrown off of buses in Texas simply for saying f**k, while in most big cities, that word is just normal urban noise.
Everyone who gets on a transit vehicle is already consenting to substantial accommodation and compromise. Some of us are even consenting to a high risk of pain. Successful transit is crowded, so it puts us in confrontation with difference, and sometimes, for some of us, the results can be physically painful. Yet I see no alternative to transit, and no alternative to children, so I’ll also advocate for Scotty’s right to bring his young kids onto a bus with me, even though I’ll try to move away if he does.
(Photo: lauratitian via Flickr)