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elizabeth brewer » community » safer spaces

Safer spaces

The second point that I borrow from the consumer/survivor/ex-patient movement is that community support is invaluable. A large part of this movement has been to form peer-run communities, such as The Icarus ProjectThis link goes to an external page, MindFreedom International This link goes to an external page, and the Hearing Voices Network This link goes to an external page, all of which have thriving online spaces for psychiatrically disabled people to exchange information and form relationships. The very existence of such communities provides evidence that individuals desire welcome spaces to gather with peers they identify with. The Icarus Project (2012), which is a peer-run activist group, has a section on its website for Community Support, which includes the statement, “There is nothing that gnaws like loneliness. Finding real community and contributing to it is a huge part of real, sustainable mental health. You are not alone."

At the same time that psychiatrically disabled people are advocating for things such as access to more treatment options, they are devoting energy to creating communities that envision psychiatric disability in positive ways. The existence of these communities is evidence that fitting in is not an afterthought or a bonus, but it should be thought of as equally important as getting in.

Of course, these communities serve different purposes than our classrooms do, and I am not suggesting that community support groups become part of the purview of our classes or institutions. As part of valuing efforts to make sure that people are both getting in and fitting in to our institutions, I propose using Margaret Price's concept of safer spaces to talk about access and the attitudes toward disabled people that are reflected by designs. In her book, Mad at School, Price (2010) discussed what Mary Louise Pratt called safe houses in her contact zone pedagogy. Pratt defined safe houses as “social and intellectual spaces where groups can constitute themselves as horizontal, homogeneous, sovereign communities with high degrees of trust, shared understandings, temporary protection from legacies of oppression” (as cited in Price, p. 40). Price clarified that her preference is for the term “safer” spaces rather than “safe” ones because no space is ever truly safe, in that it is free from legacies of oppression, for every student at every time. Price discussed “safer spaces” as one resource to make available to students in order to make our classrooms more accessible. She explained,

Safer kairotic spaces could take many forms, including gatherings of friends, sessions of private writing, or—as is suggested by Jane Thierfeld-Brown, who works with students with Asperger’s syndrome—‘safe rooms’ on her college’s campus for students to visit if they need a break from the constant stimulation of more public space. (p. 100)

Attitudes that encourage and welcome individuals with different bodies and minds go a long way toward making institutions accessible places.  

To Price's examples of safer spaces I would add the Icarus Project, MindFreedom International, and the Hearing Voices Network. I am interested in not just pointing out examples of safer spaces, but in using this concept as a guide for the way we approach our classrooms, encouraging us to think of access in terms of both getting in and fitting in.

The creation of safer spaces benefits more than those individuals with physical or sensory disabilities. The idea of safer spaces prompts us to ask how our students and colleagues who may not need physical accommodations could still better be part of the community. One benefit of this idea of safer spaces is that it includes psychiatrically disabled people. I don’t intend to stretch the concept of access to cover too much ground, but I do want to push the conversation to a place beyond saying that physical access is good enough, and that it is the end of the conversation and a goal that has been accomplished. I agree with what blogger Darren Hillock wrote in his 2007 Disability Studies Quarterly articleThis link goes to an external page:

Perhaps the most common way of thinking of access for people with disabilities is physical. That's a discussion of elevators and ramps and wider doorways. The true topic is much wider in scope. It's a discussion of economic resources, getting the attention of an indifferent majority and integration.