Kerry’s story – ‘Just navigating the city as a disabled woman comes with a drain of energy, sapping at your self esteem and patience’

As a disabled woman in a busy northern city, I am regularly touched and “felt up” in public, and in situations where I had no control over my surroundings. Simple journeys like getting to and from work on public transport are filled with unexpected violations. Instances such as getting into taxis and on to trains and planes, sometimes complicated by extreme behaviour from the public that is both well intentioned and not. In the days before mobile phones, I felt a lot of eyes on me. At a time where I used a lot of public transport in my youth I encountered far more instances such as groping from taxi drivers (black cabs in particular – avoid them) inappropriate questions such as “whats wrong with you”, hostility in pubs, stares and many seemingly innocuous instances where I have even been congratulated for entering a room or a doorway, or considered going down a kerb as “showing off”. I have been spat on while I was waiting for taxi, by a man who looked pretty drugged up, and spat on by people that weren’t looking where they were aiming. Waiting for an accessible space on a bus late at night has also resulted in arguments with drunken strangers who question you and make you feel you must talk, and if you don’t you are “a bitch”. A title which I am proud to have reclaimed. I used all these experiences to my advantage and I now work as a transport consultant.
Most often literally everything I do as a wheelchair user, someone is likely to comment on it when I am out in public -friends excluded. I was accustomed to this but in recent years I drive, so am less in contact with all the range of inappropriate interactions and I have far more energy to focus on my goals, life and my interests. Just navigating the city as a disabled woman comes with a drain of energy, sapping at your self esteem and patience. It has made me shut down parts of my personality that slowly come back through being nice to yourself, and having more awareness to avoid public interaction on the whole, but now I attend more well managed events at accessible places. I am happy that people are finally sharing their stories, and i’m proud to share mine.

Sindy’s Story – ‘I believe that most people mean well however there are some people out there that have taken advantage’

I have been disabled for nearly 30 years. At first I used walking sticks and I was sexually assaulted whilst on a ordinary pavement. Eventually I had to use a wheelchair and my experiences since then have been astonishing. From people trying to help me onto a train and dropping the wheelchair onto its back, drunken people trying to help me into a pub and endangering my life by mistake, I have found that People are frightened by wheelchairs and really ask the person or even see them. I believe that most people mean well however there are some people out there that have taken advantage. A friend of mine was mugged when someone pulled their wheelchair down onto the floor deliberately. When my power wheelchair broke down outside my home, kind people towed me back however I was told by one that I was not to leave my home again. Before I was in a wheelchair, people never treated me like this before. I feel like a pleading, kicked, grateful for attention puppy and I do not like it. That is not the person I am. I am a strong, independent person. I define myself as non-binary and differently abled. I strongly believe that society is disabled, not me. I have a project to help raise awareness of wheelchair users for the not yet disabled people in our society.

Danielle’s Story – ‘This sort of thing has happened so many times that I almost barely register it anymore’

This sort of thing has happened so many times that I almost barely register it anymore. Since this project was announced until now I have been trying to remember a specific incident, because so many of them blur into one. When I’m trying to get through a crowd and get the glancing caress because my hands are occupied by my crutches to when I’ve been patted on the shoulder and sometimes head by some well meaning older person (I’m 5 foot 10, it’s not an easy feat for them).
My best examples though both come from buses.
-A car parked badly meant that a bus had to stop away from the raised curb, and as I was supporting myself up the now large step an older man behind me touched my rear to “boost” me up the step, with no previous indication that I needed any help. I was wearing a rucksack too, so it wasn’t an easy reach. When I looked around in shock and moved away he stopped, but I was at the front of a bus and felt like saying anything would hold everyone up.
-I had just got on the bus and was sitting down, taking off my rucksack at the same time. Then a woman grabbed my bag off my back and pulled it backwards, ostensibly to help but which knocked me off balance and of course made me think that someone was trying to steal my bag. She did not seem to have any understanding of why when someone grabs my bag I would assume someone was trying to steal it? Again I didn’t do anything other than hold onto it tight and try and make it clear that I required no “help”

Charlie’s Story – ‘I have come to learn for myself just how painful the simplest touch can be.’

I have a friend who has ME, whose mother died several years ago. He called me at the time with the news, and was in terrible distress, so I rushed to his side, as I was concerned for him. My instinct is to offer hugs and reassuring pats and back rubs when someone is in emotional pain. I completely forgot how his condition affects him and kept touching and hugging him. I meant well, but I didn’t appreciate the physical pain I was inflicting upon him. It’s difficult to understand how even the lightest touch can cause so much agony to some people.

I have since been diagnosed with my own neurological disease and, over the last decade, I have come to learn for myself just how painful the simplest touch can be. I’m only sorry that it took my own lived experience to fully comprehend what I inflicted upon my friend all those years ago. The old adage about walking a mile in another man’s moccasins is very true indeed.

Denise’s Story – ‘I have been touched or grabbed on most places on my upper body, usually with force and I am often left bruised. ‘

To add some context, I am small (5 foot 3inches) and from an ethnic monistic ( I look Indian). I believe these factors contribute to my experiences.

I work with a Guide Dog, and we have been together for 7 years.  Before that I was a white cane user for 5 years.

My office is in Victoria and I use public transport to get there.  I also have a busy social life which usually takes me out and about in central London.  I live in London with my (male) partner.

As a visibly disabled woman, I experience non-consensual touching by strangers in public on a daily basis.   As has already been documented by many others, this is generally unexpected and unwanted.  I have been touched or grabbed  on most places on my upper body, usually with force and I am often left bruised.  The  contact is startling, frightening and disorienting.  It is impossible to discern whether the contact is from a well—meaning person clumsily trying to impose help, or whether it is something more sinister.  This always has me on my guard.  

My initial response is usually to politely ask the person to let go of me.  If I feel that their grip is too tight or that theory are trying to drag me, my request is usually louder or more insistent.  However, in the split second that the grab occurs, it’s not always possible to discern the difference.  

The response from the grabber is generally one of defensiveness and usually passive aggression along the lines of “I was only trying to help”. They very rarely apologise for their misjudgement.    I have never been legitimately grabbed – i.e. in order to prevent an accident.

Forced help happens all the time. Examples are:
an assumption that. I am incapable – “Are you lost?”,  
assumption that I have other mobility issues – “Can you walk?”, 
being forced to do something such as having my hand grabbed when I have my freedom pass in it and forcibly placed on the card reader
Being pushed from behind whilst I am taking a split second to navigate a step or doorway because they think I need help moving forwards.  This often ends up with me falling. I have been pushed off buses and trains.
Being pulled when I’ve asked for directions or an orientation point such as a counter.  I’d rather they answered the question than made physical contact.
People routinely shoulder-barge me out of the way.
There are dozens more examples.  I believe I am more vulnerable to this behaviour because of my height and ethnicity as well as gender identity.  On days that I wear a suit to work I am less likely to be harassed.

I am often asked intrusive and personal questions, without any introduction or asking if I mind. These are often about my dog, but also very personal questions such as my age, whether I| live alone, my level of vision (apropos of nothing) and what I can see.

I am often asked out of the blue by complete strangers where I am going.  I refuse to answer this question because as a visually impaired woman I feel that this makes me vulnerable to being followed. It’s a weird question – why does a stranger need to know?  Asking me where I am going is not an offer of help.

The above highlights generic issues but there is a catalogue of more specific, serious incidents.  I will give you two examples:

1. When I was using a white cane, I emerged from an underground station on my way home. It was dark, about 6pm.  I crossed the road and walked past a parade of shops – my usual route.  A group of men cam e towards me and I heard one of them say “It’s ok, she’s blind so she cant do anything” and he grabbed both of my breasts. He smelled of alcohol.  I screamed and the group of men laughed and walked away.  A woman saw what happened and  came to my assistance and the police were called but they did nothing other than take a report even though they could probably have been caught.

2.  I was being escorted by a member of London Underground staff on to a platform.  He asked me to wait at the platform entrance whilst the train pulled in.  A man behind me grabbed the tops of both of my arms and said “I want to get on the train” and forced me out of the way, still holding on. I though I was being pushed under the train.  I screamed and pulled free but was left with severe bruising. 

Alesha’s Story – ‘Each time I feel sick to my stomach because I don’t know if they are going to try to grope me, to violate my personal space, treat me like an object, or if they are trying to help in a misguided way.’

CW – sexual assault

A year and a half ago, I traveled to another state to acquire and
train with a new guide dog. We had about eighteen students in the
class, and my dog was (is) a true gem.

While I was there, one of the students, who used to work at the
school, but was retired, groped me twice. Once he offered to hold the
stairwell door for me, then groped my breast as I tried to walk past.

The second time, he did the same thing with the elevator door.

I had been sexually assaulted more seriously in the past, so this
triggered that horror, and I reported it to my trainer. He reported it
to his supervisor, as was required.

And they sent me home.

They put me in an office with two men and the door closed, the men
between me and the door, and tried to get me to recant. They claimed
they had video and could check if I was lying. I told them to go right
ahead and look. They tried to assassinate my character by saying I
complained about everything. I pointed out I had some food allergies
the kitchen seemed to think they could solve by serving me plain
salads with no protein and I couldn’t walk several miles a day on a
bowl of lettuce. The kitchen managed other food restrictions just
fine, so what was the problem with mine (soy allergy).

I also pointed out that I was quick to encourage and praise my fellow
students and had nothing but great things to say about the trainers
and training.

They didn’t care. They sent me home. Me! As though I was the
perpetrator not the victim.

I went home with my dog. I wasn’t leaving that campus without her. But
we hadn’t completed our training and I felt set up to fail because the
dog and I had not worked in the city together and I live in the city.

I “persuaded” them to sent a trainer to my house within the week to
finish my training.
But once I got home, I fell into a deep depression over how I’d been
treated. I began to have panic attacks and couldn’t work.

Finally, a friend helped me find a therapist and I’ve been working on
my issues with being touched ever since. People touch me all the time
on train platforms and just on the street. Each time I feel sick to my
stomach because I don’t know if they are going to try to grope me, to
violate my personal space, treat me like an object, or if they are
trying to help in a misguided way. Sometimes I even scream when
grabbed because I’m taken off guard and feel particularly vulnerable.
Each time I react negatively toward being grabbed, I am treated like
I’m the bad guy. “I was just trying to help” is one of the most
offensive statements in the English language. Their “help” triggers my
fear of assaults and how I was made to feel shame for having been
assaulted, as though I asked for it.

Gaia’s Story – ‘ He was so close to me, I was scared he could hit me easily and I couldn’t get away, pinned in by all the people. ‘

I was on a bus in a large city. The bus was packed with schoolchildren. The wheelchair space was set up that in using it, I ‘blocked’ 4 pull down seats. I felt terrible as people kept complaining about how few seats there were. At a bus stop, a very old man tried to get on, but there wasn’t a seat. I gestured to the seat facing me, he sat in it. During the journey, he kept touching my legs and telling me I was “very beautiful” and was “coping so well with my disability”. I was very scared and situated very close to him. I felt guilty as I had invited him to sit in the first place. I told him, “I’ll tell my husband that you think I am beautiful”. As a feminist, I didn’t want to have to invoke another man’s “claim” to me. But it worked, he took his hands off my legs. But he kept saying he “hoped my husband knows how beautiful I am”. I was worried that if I pushed him away or said “no” or shouted or asked for help that people would say he was “only being friendly” and that I was “overreacting”. He was so close to me, I was scared he could hit me easily and I couldn’t get away, pinned in by all the people. I got off as soon as I could. But as I got off, an old lady was struggling with her grandchild, buggy and a dog. She said “please, someone help me!”. I was behind her and offered to help (I could have held the buggy on my lap, held the dog’s lead or even held the child [I am trained to work therapeutically with children and DBS checked]). But she shouted at me “Not you!”. When I got off the bus I was shaking and crying. I felt scared to be in the city alone. I have often had similar experiences. Even when it doesn’t happen, I am scared of it happening. 

Sai’s Story

This story was shared on Twitter – the full thread is here

Follow Sai @saizai

A few days ago, I was walking through a @TfL station with my partner. I paused in an area with interesting echoes & few people around to test ideas on dual-impulse echolocation using my cane. Fascinating #caneadventures.

Suddenly, a drunk guy came up to me, ranting aggressively.

Drunk guy was ranting e.g. “we have you on camera”, “we know you’re not really blind”, “stop faking it”, etc. I ignored him, talking w/ partner, but going full alert. He continued & got nearer, ~2 cane lengths away. I told him calmly to kindly fuck off. He got more aggressive.

“Make me”, he said. So I yelled at the top of my lungs, “hey station staff, this guy is harassing me, please make him go away”. He laughed. (At the same time, I covertly switched grip & position of my canes, preparing to defend myself if necessary. And started dissociating.)

Running away isn’t an option for me. I’m good at #blindnavigation, but I ain’t @Daredevil

(& my walking stick isn’t for funsies). So I stood still, in full alert. I didn’t know whether he was armed. (My partner later told me that he had a bottle in his hand.)

Fortunately, a little while later, he finally left, still raving. I stayed there until I was sure he’d gone. He might turn around & attack me from behind while my concentration’s on O&M. Too risky.

Despite my very loud yell for immediate help, @TFL

station staff didn’t interact with me (or the drunk) at all, during or after. My partner later told me a staff member had been nearby and watching.



:Maybe next time, intervene earlier, and don’t leave a blind person to have to deescalate & prepare to physically fight off a drunk aggressor? Or at least come running when I yell for help? I know you’re not @BTP, but you could help divert him & stand between us.

Elle’s Story – ‘The harassment I’ve experienced ranges from a man more than twice my age shoving hand-written notes in my face on the tube (saying things like ‘you’re so gorgeous for a deaf girl’ and ‘will you go for a drink with me?’), to the numerous people who insist on speaking for me, thus taking my voice away. ‘

I usually feel empowered as a young, Deaf, and fiercely independent woman living in London. I love my work as a professional musician, I have a great group of friends and an amazing fiance, and I enjoy campaigning for greater Deaf awareness in my free time. The only problem is that I suffer from severe anxiety, exacerbated by the public harassment I often endure at the hands of strangers. The harassment I’ve experienced ranges from a man more than twice my age shoving hand-written notes in my face on the tube (saying things like ‘you’re so gorgeous for a deaf girl’ and ‘will you go for a drink with me?’), to the numerous people who insist on speaking for me, thus taking my voice away. 

As a Deaf individual, I use spoken English and British Sign Language to communicate. In some situations – especially noisy environments – I will choose to gesture and/or write down my order on my phone. 

Any method of communication that differs from the norm (spoken English) has the potential to attract unwanted attention, and I would like to share something that happened to me recently:

A few months ago, I was in a noisy pub, so I typed my order onto my phone ready to show the barman. As I was waiting for my turn, a large man approached me from behind and tried to grab my phone. I called out and held onto it tightly. 

After what felt like several minutes (but was in fact probably seconds), the man finally took his hand away and began to sign in very basic BSL, telling me he was hearing and he would place my order for me. 

Still recovering from the shock of him grabbing my phone, I replied with a firm “no”. 

He insisted that he would place my order, telling me to put my phone away and sign what I wanted to him instead. Again, I told him “no”. 

At this point, he began to get upset. “WHY?” he yelled and signed.

“I am deaf every day – I think I know how to handle these things myself”, I signed back. “I really don’t need your help.” 

The man continued to argue with me about why he, as a hearing person, was better placed to order my drink for me, despite my (now numerous) requests for him to stop and leave me alone. He also expressed frustration about how ‘ungrateful’ I was being. 

When the barman approached to take my order, the man proceeded to tell the barman that I was deaf and he would place my order on my behalf. 

Again, I said “NO”, this time raising my voice. I then informed the barman that I was being harassed. 

The barman told the man to leave me alone, and he finally backed away. 

Now, as I reflect on the incident, a whole host of questions come to mind. What part of ‘no’ did the man not understand in the first place? Why did he continue to disrespect my boundaries and ignore my requests to be left alone? Why did he only back down when a warning came from another (hearing) male? As a (Deaf) woman, am I not allowed to have the same boundaries as others? 

This is just one of many incidents, and it certainly won’t be the last. 

Mo’s story ‘It felt violating, especially since I was away from my partner who usually helped me with my chair and would have stopped the woman if they had seen her. ‘

I am a latino/arab/jewish, white-passing trans man who used a wheelchair when I had cancer a few years ago and had very little energy. At the time of this story, I had not started on HRT, so to the rest of the world, I did not pass at all and cis people perceived me as a woman 99.9% of the time. My partner and I went to Disney World for a vacation a few months after I had surgery to remove my cancer, and I was exhausted for most of the trip. We rented a chair at the park and for the most part had an okay experience using it. At one point, my partner was getting us food while I looked for a table, navigating my chair through a very crowded restaurant. There were people using the tables meant for wheelchair users already, and the other chairs/tables cluttered the space. I was trying to find an empty table in the center of the room, when suddenly I feel someone pushing my chair for me. I turned around and this white woman had her hands on my chair, and was trying to “help” me. Honestly, I don’t remember if she was trying to push me out of the way or actually get me where I wanted to go. I was at a loss for words and had no idea what to say—I knew this was a thing that happens to disabled people all too often, but I was hoping it wouldn’t happen to me at the park. It felt violating, especially since I was away from my partner who usually helped me with my chair and would have stopped the woman if they had seen her. Because we were in a loud restaurant I had trouble figuring out what I could say, and in the end, she had walked away by the time I had the chance to process what had just happened. The worst part about it was the fact that it was in a public place, where other abled people saw this happen and probably even thought it noble. After that, I felt much more hesitant to use/sit in my chair without appearing to “actively” wheel it while away from my partner (e.g. if they were in line somewhere, ordering food, etc). Compared to other instances of non-consensual touching I have experienced, this one still felt just as violating despite its lack of similarity to the groping and assaults I have experienced in the past without a chair. I do not use a wheelchair now since I have been cancer-free for two years, but worry that, if I do use one again or use other mobility devices, I could have another experience just like this one.