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Safe Spaces

I can’t even begin to tell you how nice it is to have Schuyler present with me when I speak publicly. When my book first came out nine years ago and I began giving speeches at various conferences and gatherings, Schuyler would often accompany me, sitting politely but disinterestedly in the audience as I spoke. As she grew older, she began to really listen to what I was saying and would often come up to where I was standing to give me a hug when I was done. Occasionally she would write something short to say on her speech device or her iPad, which I would share at the end. Little by little, she was becoming invested in her own story.

Now Schuyler participates. Over the past weekend, she stood up in the middle of my speech to the Texas Library Association and delivered a solid fifteen minutes or so on her need for an inclusive environment. I’m particularly proud of her because like our previous presentation at SXSW, we presented to an audience outside of the disability world. Schuyler’s confidence is building, slowly but steadily. She’s finding her voice, and she’s feeling inviolable as she tells her story. That safe space is important for her. Like all kids with disabilities, Schuyler depends on inclusive, comfortable environments to thrive.

Safe spaces seem antithetical in some ways to the idea of eventual independence, but the truth is, we all need our supports. It’s different for kids like Schuyler as they grow out of childhood, of course. Her independent life is probably always going to come with an asterisk, and the thing I’ve been working on lately, with a good deal of success, is being okay with that. Schuyler requires safe spaces, but they’re not fake places, nor are they segregated or isolated. And within those tended gardens, I think astonishing things are going to grow.

Shortly before we left for the TLA conference in San Antonio, Schuyler received a letter from the Texas Workforce Commission offering her the chance to participate in a five week paid internship this summer. She could have the opportunity to train in a number of high-growth occupations, skill trades and crafts. We have no idea what any of that could actually look like, but the potential for development feels ripe with possibilities. Schuyler could have the chance to develop skills that might lead to real world employment opportunities one day, and she gets to do so from the safety of an internship developed specifically for young people with challenges like hers.

At seventeen, Schuyler is going to run out of safe spaces soon. Some of them already feel threatened. This week, we kept receiving disturbing emails from her high school principal, informing us all that graffiti has been left in the bathrooms threatening violence against the school on a specific date. That day was yesterday, and it passed without incident, although apparently a large number of students elected to stay home from school that day. Schuyler was not one of them; she plucked up her courage and got on the bus this morning, even though she was genuinely concerned. I asked her what in particular she was nervous about.

“There’s going to be a lockdown,” she said. “Because of the shooting.”

She was convinced that there was actually going to be a shooting at her school. Interestingly, this information apparently came not from her fellow students, but rather from one of her special education teachers, one whom I’ve noticed has an unfortunate taste for drama. I’m pretty sure Schuyler misunderstood the gist of what her teacher was saying, of course. I can’t imagine there was an announcement to the class that someone was going to come shoot up the campus the next day (“So make sure your homework is turned in early!”), but it nevertheless brought home an important point.

Schuyler still believes the truth of a thing based on who says it. That won’t always be true, but it is now, to a certain degree. It’s one of the the reasons we get so annoyed when other adults try to talk to her about topics like religion. Schuyler is still something of an unreliable processor of information, and her truth comes from the heart and how it feels about the person sharing that information.

I admit, I was irritated that somehow this teacher managed, either through carelessness or a failure to follow up with her students to make sure they understood her, to scare the crap out of at least one student, the one who matters to me most of all. And it brought home to me how even at seventeen, Schuyler requires safe spaces to process information. Her fear that her literal safe space was being threatened turned out to be unfounded, but it reminded me once again that Schuyler will need accommodations for her place in a world that is big and loud and wondrous but terribly cruel at times.

I’ll continue to advocate for those spaces and build them myself when I have to. As Schuyler grows and blossoms, however, I’m beginning to see, just a little, how one day, she’ll build them herself.

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2 Comments
  1. April 27, 2017 |
  2. Jess
    April 27, 2017 |