Recently, the University of Manchester’s Student Union, like many others before it, passed a motion to use British Sign Language applause (or, as the headlines often describe it, “jazz hands”) in its meetings. The rationale behind it is that more traditional clapping may be a barrier for those who have difficulty with loud noise, including autistic people as well as those with mental health conditions such as anxiety and PTSD. Now, you’d be forgiven for wondering why I’m telling you about a student union process at a university you probably aren’t studying at, but I can assure you this has, for some reason, made national news. Yep, really. Strangely enough, this isn’t even the first time it’s made national news – not so long ago, when I was at university, our Women’s Campaign got caught up in exactly the same headlines because the National Union of Students’ Women’s Conference used the same practice, as previous NUS events already had.
Back in 2015, it was an excuse for traditional and social media alike to laugh at “those irrational feminists”; this time around, it’s an excuse to laugh more generally about “those millenial snowflakes”. The disabled people at the centre of it all are, as ever, an afterthought – but when the accessibility benefits are made clear, it’s met with a defensiveness that reveals some ugly truths about attitudes to difference.
“You need to learn to deal with these things” is a startlingly common reply to people who don’t have the option of being able to “deal with these things” in the first place. (Yes, gradual exposure can be helpful for anxiety; no, gradual exposure is not the same as being forced into the situation before you’re ready; no, sensory processing is not “just” anxiety.) The result isn’t people learning to magically remove their disability for convenience – it’s people avoiding these spaces, events and opportunities altogether. Of course, going by the responses of “Nobody’s forcing you to go if it’s so difficult”, that seems to be what a vocal minority want. This time around I’ve even seen “just wear headphones” – good advice for study spaces, bad advice for meetings you’ve attended specifically to hear the views of others, and no use whatsoever for the deaf community that created BSL applause in the first place.
“How on earth do these people cope with the real world?” they tweet, dangerously close to an epiphany – that too often, they don’t. To give one example, almost 8 in 10 autistic adults have at least one mental health condition; there are of course many factors behind that, but you can see how the constant barriers in society as it stands is likely to play a part. This shouldn’t be a thought of derision – it should be a thought about just how much more needs to change.
Besides, maybe “these people” have coped with enough today, and the inaccessibility of the “real world” (no, I’m not sure when universities became fictional either) is all the more reason to make small changes to your little corner of it. Student unions haven’t decided they can get rid of every single sensory trigger ever – they’re different (even opposite) amongst different people, and some things are out of our control (though if anyone figures out how to safely turn down the sun could you please let me know?). However, changing one small thing that is within your control, making the effort not to add quite so much to the never-ending barrage of Things To Cope With, could be the difference between someone having a meltdown and not, and that can be huge.
It’s also argued that encouraging people not to clap in this one group is suppressing a natural expression, which is an interesting perspective. To put it mildly, I expect a lot of autistic people would have a lot of things to say about having their natural expressions suppressed everywhere all the time. Funnily enough, BSL applause happens to coincide with the stimming of many autistic people, which is why you’ll sometimes come across the term “flappause” at autism events. It’s worth noting at this point that some people’s stims are loud (maybe even clapping specifically), and some people need the stimulation of noise to focus, and some people wouldn’t be able to see that they’re being applauded silently. Conflicting access needs are a thing, they’re important to consider, and this particular approach isn’t the perfect solution that would be appropriate to use in every single context. Let’s be real, though – all this furore about clapping all over my Twitter feed isn’t because people are highlighting the access needs of others.
For the most part, it’s because people want to laugh at the access needs of others. What it boils down to, effectively, is access needs being seen as a weakness – in effect, mental illness and disability being seen as a weakness. (It’s a similar story with “triggered” jokes, but that’s another blog entirely…) Back in 2015, when it was student feminists being targeted, it was disappointing to see some older feminists on Twitter completely conceding that point to the trolls, criticising the measure because “it makes women look weak”. If people think anxiety looks weak, that’s their problem. Ultimately, it’s the same stigma that stops people seeking support when they need it.
Clapping at a student union meeting sounds trivial. Arguably, it’s supposed to sound trivial – the faux-outrage over one instance of a small change made by many is framed to ridicule those who benefit. But really, the debate is about so much more than that one small change – it’s about the sheer number of people that show their stance as being “This person’s experience is different to mine, so it can’t be serious, let’s all laugh at it”, with implications far beyond this one non-event.
Perhaps it’s time they learned to cope with our reality.