Quiet Please: A Personal Exploration of Public Inclusivity

A quiet room, with a dark space partitioned off with blue and red curtains.

Earlier this year, artist Gaelle Chassery undertook a residency with Neuk Collective, looking into quiet spaces in public life. In this post, Gaelle shares her findings and her thoughts on the critical need for these spaces, exploring both the challenges and transformative possibilities they present for neurodivergent people and people with invisible disabilities.

Pictured above: Quiet Space designed by original Neuk Collective artist Robyn Benson for the ‘who can think, what can think’ exhibition at Te Tuhi, curated by Bruce E. Phillips. Photo courtesy of Te Tuhi, Aotearoa New Zealand. Photo by Sam Hartnett..


Quiet Please: A Personal Exploration of Public Inclusivity

I recently completed a Research and Development Residency with Neuk Collective/Door in the Wall on the topic of quiet spaces in public places. The aim was to see what is out there in terms of resting spaces and to gauge the level of realism and helpfulness that has gone into designing them.


As a person at the intersection of invisible disabilities, chronic illnesses and neurodiversity, the research process helped me normalise my experience and confirmed that there is a universal lack of accommodation and access for a vast amount of people with many different conditions. This prevents us from going out as often as we need or wish, specifically due to the absence of adequate resting spaces that would help pace our energy through the outing.

An arid landscape with sand and cacti, under a giant glass dome.
All photos are of the Eden Project, and courtesy of the artist

My own experience

For as long as I can remember, I have found access to culture in public spaces exhausting. Only by routinely overriding my capacities could I get through those outings, pushing myself to last through whole exhibits with nowhere quiet to sit and decompress—sometimes nowhere to sit at all. Sitting on stairs with a constant flux of people giving me odd looks, I felt like a frustrating embarrassment to whoever my companion was on the day. I was flooded by crowds while trying to surf the relentless barrage of sensory input, both internal and external. Totally drained and grumpy within minutes, I felt ashamed and guilty with how quickly I ceased to function and enjoy the experience, and how long it would take me to recover afterwards.

The artist - a young white woman with dark hair, glasses, and a smiley face, standing in front of an enormous cactus at the Eden Project.

All in all, being in places of culture offered small nuggets of joy without ever being a positive experience, and the memories it left are not comfortable to look back on. As a person with many special interests spanning a huge amount of topics and an irrepressible drive to learn and share about them, going out to indulge those passions has been a constant juggling of extremes, and I eventually gave it up altogether. I now look after myself in isolation and wait for the world to change while I try to enact that change from behind the scenes.

Looking at what’s out there

My worst visit was the Eden Project. Access was so complicated and on a scale so far beyond my capacities that the day started and ended with meltdowns. The restaurant was one of the most overwhelming spaces I have ever been in, the level of noise and commotion exceeding those of a busy airport. For such a huge place whose focal point is to emphasise our connection with nature, to not have a single quiet space away from the constant milling of visitors feels baffling and misguided. Of course if you like you can go and sit in the greenhouse, which is pleasant and quiet enough, if it wasn’t for the fact that it is hot as an oven and therefore not fit for recuperation beyond a few minutes.

The artist sitting on a bench, looking deep into a bush.

I see they now offer quiet times, but these are too early in the morning, which is not ideal for neurodivergent, ill and disabled people, as so much time is dedicated to preparing for outings that it can take a while to get where we need to. Having to get up at 6 in the morning to go to a place of leisure is doomed from the start in my book!

Recently I was told that if you ask for a chair at my local museum they will bring one to you… You then have to carry it around with you for the duration of your visit, or have someone carry it for you. This simple fact deselects me and countless others from the pool of potential visitors: how can they not understand that if I need a chair to sit on, I also need help carrying it. Considering that my local museum has just been through a £7 million refurbishment, the oversight stings even more.

Both my research and my personal experience bring me back to the fact that the people who design, manage and staff public spaces need to be educated through the most basic facts when it comes to inclusivity and accessibility. The general ignorance and complacency always takes me by surprise.

An ancient, gnarly olive tree

Please do better!

Sadly these days inclusivity and accessibility remain theoretical and tend to be offered in name only to tick a few politically correct boxes. Stories abound worldwide about people asking to be admitted to quiet spaces during concerts, only to be told that they do not look disabled/neurodivergent/distraught enough to be granted access. I love and live music with every cell of my being. And yet, with the exception of classical music, which offers an easy and regulating live experience, I have never been to a concert, because I know there is no accommodation for me there. The ingrained discrimination and lofty attitude that is found in most places of culture is thought to contribute to its mystique, when in fact it excludes many people whose minds are exquisitely wired to absorb it in a passionate, all-encompassing way, with a unique filter and often the capacity to be astounding creatives themselves. It feels like as neurodivergent artists, we are refused entry to our very heart-home, to those spaces that should be where we feel in full alignment with the world, and which do have the potential to give us profound healing if only it could meet our pace for a bit.

Tree leaves sillouetted against the glass panes of the greenhouse

Beneficial agents

As my research progressed I discovered that some places do a great job when it comes to providing quiet spaces and understanding neurodiverse needs. They regularly train their staff and improve their space so that more people can be included and have a positive experience. It’s so easy to focus on frustrating experiences because for a lot of us, they are repetitive and disheartening, but it’s truly encouraging to see increased awareness and the determination to improve access and inclusivity in a practical and compassionate way.

It can take a long time to trawl through websites to see if a quiet space is offered, what is there and when it is available. I think more emphasis should be put on signposting quiet spaces on websites and in venues, where access can be maddeningly cryptic. When potential visitors and their carers are planning a day out, they benefit hugely by getting a precise idea of what support is available and how to access it. Lists and photographs go a long way into making the day easier and reducing the anticipatory stress of going out. It’s lovely to find that some websites increasingly include all this information with clarity.

Wide view of the Eden Project, showing the huge geodesic domes that hold the collection.

Although we are routinely infantilised, disability and neurodivergence do not equal lack of maturity. Maturity for us often means knowing exactly what our needs, capabilities and limitations are, and having the courage to ask for help with those. We need the wider society to be brave too and meet us halfway in facing our realities so that we get a chance to fully participate in the world.

Further reading

Have a look at this wonderful website which offers a lot of information and relatable content about people needing and creating resting spaces in public places:

https://www.cloudspotting.live/archive

Giant bee sculpture, in a hillside of flowers, in front of a blue cloudy sky.

Find out more about Gaelle:

Website: https://www.gaellechassery.com/
Instagram: @gaellechassery_soothing_art


Do quiet spaces in public venues make a difference for you? Why or why not?

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