Access at BBFD: update, clarification, apologies, thoughts

15 May 2010 by Jennifer

A follow-up to my previous post about Big Bi Fun Day.

A month or so ago, I posted about Big Bi Fun Day. Then I realised that in my enthusiasm, I’d clicked “publish” before discovering some access info, and hastily “edited to add”.

Two days later, Ian suggested in email I might remove that line, giving various reasons for why it was the wrong thing to say.

Well, I’m not a big fan of removing controversial words off blogs after some people have already seen them; i.m.e. it tends to leave later readers trying to piece together what happened. I suggested he make his criticism public & I’d respond to that instead. He wrote a comment similar to his email; see post linked above.

Since then, the access situation has actually changed anyway (in a good direction), so I wanted to make an update as well as some apologies.

This has taken a lot of thought to write, hence the delay in posting. I’m happy for people to argue back if they think I’ve got something wrong or missed something; and even if no-one does, I might have some other ideas later. But, at any rate, here’s a snapshot of some of my thoughts at the moment.

Update on access

BBFD is divided into four “zones”. When the event was first publicised, two of the zones were allocated to the upstairs space and two to the downstairs space.

It’s now changed. The “craft” zone has now moved downstairs, meaning that three zones are now downstairs and only one, the chatting zone, is upstairs.

I think, although I’ve not seen this spelt out, that the upgrade was the result of Sanji successfully negotiating some extra downstairs space with the venue; but in any case, yay for the improvement, and thanks to Sanji.

Of course ideally all the space would be wheelchair-accessible, but if one does have some inaccessible space along for the ride, then i.m.o. the least compromising use for it is as “overflow” of some kind.

In this case, anyone who can’t get upstairs would still be missing (as the description currently puts it) “interesting materials around the room”, as well as whatever unique vibe is created in the space. But at least chatting-in-general and cake are both pretty easily movable to where people are. So to me that’s noticeably better than having an inaccessible craft zone, with (if things go to plan) resources in it that people have brought.

It follows, I think, that my approximation “half” was arguably wrong. I meant two of four zones, which was numerically accurate – but looking at it again now, the chatting zone was somewhat less of a concern to me than the other. It may not have been “half” in terms of square footage, either. (I’ve not seen the building myself.) Sorry if I misled anyone.

The web page also spells out now that one of the toilets is a “proper” wheelchair-accessible one, which I hadn’t been sure of from the initial description.

Choice factors

The next morning after I posted, I’d also sent private email to the organisers’ address, asking was there still any chance of finding a more physically-accessible venue – in particular, wondering why they weren’t using the Leicester LGBT centre (which is). Sanji replied with a thoughtful and gracious email, explaining the factors which had gone into choosing this one.

Having seen the reasoning, I could get how it makes sense, given what kind of event it is. For myself, I’d have happily sacrificed the garden, but another reason not to use the LGBT centre was the fact that not everyone’s ready to be that “out”, and I recognise that as very important.

I offered to copy the full explanation here, but Sanji said it was headed for the public domain elsewhere and she’d rather I didn’t. (I’m happy to link to it if & when it becomes linkable.)

Lack of good venues

As it happens, I entirely agree that finding and booking an accessible venue in the UK in 2010 is a lot more difficult than it might appear to someone who hasn’t tried to do it.

Yes, there’s been some helpful legislation in recent years, ensuring that new building work meets certain standards; but that’s not at all the same thing as demanding that everywhere be immediately retrofitted. So it’s still the case that only a tiny percentage of non-enormous venues have proper wheelchair-accessible toilets. And those few generally have other limitations (e.g. lack of convenient public transport, or simply not having the size or number of rooms you need).

So it’s not necessarily the case that any particular town contains any venue whatsoever which meets all the criteria for a particular kind of event. Plus the acceptable places are often booked up months ahead for the “good” days.

The reality is that people usually have to compromise on one criterion or another, and the available wiggle room is in how the compromise is chosen and communicated.

So I understand why people may be sensitive to what could be interpreted as criticism of their inescapable compromise.

Clarification of my words

Regarding “The edge has gone off my joy”:

Despite how it evidently landed for some people, I wasn’t aiming that comment at the organiser(s), and it wasn’t intended to hold some kind of subtextual judgement of them. (As I’ve said above, I did ask in email whether it might be possible to use another venue; but that conversation was not this public statement. At the point of writing that line, it hadn’t even occurred to me that there might conceivably be a possibility of the venue changing.)

I meant it at face value: (a) there were some access limitations, and (b) I personally was therefore less unequivocally joyful about the event.

I have a vivid memory of a conversation a few years ago with someone who needs to use a wheelchair, and them explaining how they feel about only-partially-accessible events. Regardless of the reasons for compromising, it simply wasn’t and couldn’t be an emotionally neutral thing for them. It was a downer every time.

So when I read the details* and realised my error of omission, I was like: “Aaaah bugger. I’ve just done a public and unqualifiedly enthusiastic promotion of one of those same events that to at least one person I know would be a kick in the guts. That can’t be allowed to stand.”

* When I posted first, I’d only read the announcement email, not the event’s home page. I.e. one of my mistakes was the always-risky move of publicising, and linking to, a page I hadn’t yet read. That’s something I’d never normally do, and shall be doubly cautious of in future.

And even though I don’t know for sure that anyone in that situation is currently reading my blog, I certainly can’t assume that they’re not and never will.

Discovering the access limitations also called into question whether I‘d be OK with going to the event – this event which I’d just been getting so happy about. Over the last few years (since the conversation I mention above, and connected with some other thoughts about intersectionality and solidarity), I’ve become fairly reluctant to put energy into things that don’t have wheelchair access; and nor would I usually go to an event like this without making some kind of fairly substantial contribution to it. That’s half the fun!

So when I got the info, it was a bit like how I imagine it must be for someone vegan-on-principle to be told that their favourite chocolate bar now contains milk!

I didn’t want my post to cause that up-&-down for anyone else; I wanted the limitations to be up front with the good news.

If there was a subtext, it was something like “An event without full wheelchair access is not at all the same thing as one with“.

I’m not sure now where I’d have ended up with the “milk in my chocolate” dilemma had the situation not changed. I’m not saying now either that I’ll definitely come to the event.

But in any case, if I choose not to attend an event, it doesn’t necessarily mean I think it shouldn’t be happening. There are almost infinitely many places I could put my activism energy; prioritising some of them by my own criteria isn’t an insult to the others.

What I would like to do differently in future

In retrospect I see some ways I could have handled this episode better, and I’m sorry for any bad consequences which arose from my mistakes.

The root of it is this: I should never have assumed, without explicitly checking, that the event was fully wheelchair-accessible.

If I’d just managed to notice that gap in my knowledge before I posted, then I could have held off posting till I knew all the background facts. And then I could have written a more measured and balanced summary, less prone to interpretation as “advice” and less likely to result in anyone going “Aagh!”. Or I could simply have not bothered posting at all (as is the case for most events I hear of, however great they look like being).

I’m sorry too that I didn’t consider the organisers’ feelings (and possible interpretations) when I hastily wrote my “edited to add”.

I’m not saying that should have taken precedence over my responsibility to the people using wheelchairs. And I want it noted that what I actually wrote was neither “advice” to the organisers nor a “Yr doin it wrong”, but (a) a fact* about the event, and (b) a description of my own feelings, neither exaggerated nor disrespectfully put.

* Give or take the approximation “half”, as noted above.

But in an ideal world I’d have managed to write something that took everyone into account.

The hinterland

Without abdicating responsibility for what I said, I want to mention as well some of the territory into which my words arrived, which I suspect may have influenced some non-literal readings of them.

Part of this territory is of course the physical world and its lack of good venues. (That section above could have fitted equally well into this part of my article.) I’m also thinking here of the social territory and its rules and norms.

One of the dynamics I perceive in Ian’s warning to me is a protectiveness of anyone doing anything practical, connected with a fear that not enough people are interested in activism to sustain the community. (Quote, “it risks putting off there being such events at all”.)

I can see how, in that particular context, one might be tempted to assess every public statement about an event primarily or entirely on the basis of how it may affect the morale of current event organisers. (Ian’s comment does seem to me an example of this framing.) And in that context, it makes sense to construe publicly-expressed disappointment – or publicly-expressed anything-other-than-100%-gratitude – as mistaken or unacceptable.

I understand the underlying concern about activism energy supplies, though I wouldn’t have enacted it in the same way.

This all links up with some other UK-bi-activist-community norms around criticism and gratitude. I already knew I was at odds with some of those in some ways, though I hadn’t foreseen encountering them quite like this. I may return to that subject some time.


Finally, thanks again to Ian for the heads-up about how my words landed in some quarters. As I hope is evident here, I’m not endorsing all your analysis of what’s most important and what I’m supposed to have meant; but I’m very glad you put it to me directly rather than grumbling behind my back. Feel free to dispute further :-)

Here, have an index…
Access at BBFD: update, clarification, apologies & thoughts
Update on access
Choice factors
Lack of good venues
Clarification of my words
What I would like to do differently in future
The hinterland

Appreciation, criticism & new ideas all welcome...

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