I saw a “comedian” post an image of a poster from a bank window advertising quiet hour on Tik Tok this week and she made a joke of the concept. The post attracted many ableist comments from the public, with the tik toker defending the premise of the joke by challenging disabled people who argued the post was ableist by replying “why do you care, only an hour a week is tokenism” and that if “someone cannot cope with being in the quiet non-busy environment of a bank they should stay home”.
If you haven’t heard of quiet hours, sometimes also called ‘inclusive hours’, they were created as a response to improve accessibility for those living with hidden disabilities such as Dementia, Autism, and Mental illness.
The concept of the quiet hour is that businesses can make simple adjustments to the environment, creating an overall less sensory stimulating space by doing things such as dimming the lighting, reducing music/background noise, turning off display boards/screens, provide a quiet room for one to one appointments, and making staff available who are trained to support disabled customers.
Many businesses have and are continuing to consciously choose to offer a quiet hour to their clients, customers, and shoppers. Well-known stores like Morrison’s, Asda, Selfridges, and large shopping outlets are now providing opportunities for low sensory shopping experiences.
So is the Tik Toker right, are quiet hours tokenism?
Usually one would associate tokenism with employing somebody from under-represented groups to give the illusion of inclusion and equality. Providing a quiet hour it is more a response to the support needs of the public. To understand that we have to a know a bit more about why the quiet hour has been created.
There is a whole range of reasons why people with hidden disabilities may need to access a quiet hour I’m just going to give a couple of examples.
Imagine a person with autism who has melophobia (aversion to sound) has to shop whilst listening to loud pop music whilst also having to cope with the normal environmental sounds of people talking, typing on keyboards, stacking shelves, tannoy announcements.
Dementia can create changes in how the person living with it perceives the same external stimuli such as noise and light, so imagine an older person becoming distressed and disorientated.
Or a person living with panic disorder who becomes overwhelmed and has a panic attack. When you have a panic attack you can collapse or lose consciousness. I recall adults telling me how they have been on the floor post attack trying to regain their breathing and customers pushing them out of the way to get to something on the shelf. Or wheelchair users telling me how customers would step over their legs whilst they were seated and stationary to get a piece of clothing from a hanger.
Businesses and services who serve the public face the challenge of meeting the needs of both its disabled and non-disabled customers.
On the one hand an hour a week could seem tokenistic in the sense of it could be seen as the only public display of their effort to be ‘inclusive’. A kind of virtue signalling to show the disabled community, hey look at us, we are pro-equality.
On the other hand there are almost 1million people in the UK with dementia, around 700,00 Autistic people, and around the same amount living with panic disorder. So given that the 2.4 million people mentioned does not include those living with physical disability for whom a substantial proportion have a higher likelihood to have a hidden disability including mental health needs is it fair to say a weekly quiet hour could appear not to be doing enough to be inclusive.
Disabled people have said there has been some drawbacks to using quiet hour, including; having no choice of when to shop, quiet hours may be limited to a time of day like early in the morning for example which is maybe ideal for older people with dementia but less accessible for someone with mental health needs.
Having less face to face, personalised service was also an issue. I recall one of my most favourite shopping experiences was on a visit to the shop where I was greeted by staff, the staff member I told my access needs and they immediately took me to a quiet area of the shop sat me down asked me if I would like the music turning down and the lights dimming. The staff then personally went round the shop choosing items and brought them back to me to show me them and to demonstrate them to me before I made my purchase. This was a positive experience mostly except for the fact I had to go to the till to make the purchase.
Of course with the advent of the lockdown the shape of the future of shopping and using services is changing as quick as the digital landscape, with online ordering, quicker delivery, online chat, and video appointments. And for some of these online services are more accessible than the in person options. It may mean that other support needs such as mobility needs, of moving and travelling to and from and around spaces do not have to be considered.
Overall, the quiet hour benefits both the business, services, and disabled and non-disabled community alike. The hour is a response to the public demand and companies including this in their polices and practice give them a sense of control that they are able to make small changes to meet disabled people’s support needs. Whilst the impact on non-disabled shoppers is minimal as they are often not disadvantaged by the adjustments made to the environment and some may in fact prefer a low sensory environment.
The only token I think that is being used here is the one I am putting in my shopping trolley.
Neurodivergent, Disabled blogger.