Guest Post from Yasmin Sheikh

Yasmin Sheikh got in touch to share her story (she has agreed to be published under her real name). She is a disability consultant; qualified lawyer, and stand-up comedian (amongst a long list!) Yasmin is the Founder of Diverse Matters and tweets @diversematters. She also has a fabulous TEDx talk here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5uiu2ndZo8c&t=132s

I have been a wheelchair user for almost 12 years and have experienced non-consensual touching probably twice a month, which ranges from people pushing me without asking and with no warning, which has not only been rude but dangerous, as I have nearly lost my balance and fallen forward out of my chair to people leaning on my chair or touching it without my permission.

People have also asked very quickly, “do you need help?” and then proceeded to “help” anyway or attempted to “help” by trying too push me without waiting for a response, just assuming that the answer is obviously “yes.” 

I feel like I am public property having such a visible disability and people’s reactions although well-intentioned at times are just a perception of what they think having a disability means – needing help all the time. 

People’s reactions are also interesting when i refuse help or am pushed without my consent and 12 years in since my injury, I am still trying to work out how to respond. Usually when pushed without my consent I get quite angry as it really takes me by surprise and I have nearly fallen out of my chair. The presumption that I need help all the time is bad enough but to just push a person without even asking assumes that I am a charity case and someone to be rescued who obviously need assistance constantly to get around. How do people think I manage on a daily basis? It’s such an instinctive reaction.

I have had some people be apologetic when I respond to them but they tend to then follow it quickly with a justification, “oh i was only trying to help” or “you looked like you were struggling” or they will just shrug and look bemused as if I am being so ungrateful. It’s really tiring and I find dealing with people harder than the disability itself. I seem to have got over it but it seems others find disability so confronting that they feel they need to react in some way either by their behaviour or even making some kind of comment about the chair. Sometimes you just want a day off.

I get probably daily comments about the way i move around to the usual “jokes” directed at wheelchair users, “oh you should get a licence for that”, ” oh don’t drink and drive” etc which I find so boring as I’ve heard it probably 400 times or more. I think people are so awkward about disability and feel they need to say something when “hello” will suffice. 

I have a sense of humour (I like to think and even do stand up/sit down comedy) although I am expected to always take these comments with good humour when really it would be nice to just get a normal greeting and maybe if we get to know each other better we can do the banter. I prefer if it’s on my terms though as it’s just boring for others to bring up the disability straight away when we don’t know each other. I can think of better ice-breakers. Why is it that society  thinks that the way we talk to disabled people, in this way, is fair game? If you react to it then you’re perceived as bitter, angry and humourless.

Viv’s Story

Consent

What is consent?

Is it a carer deciding what you are or aren’t going to eat. Is it when in a queue the person standing with you is asked what your order is although you are the adult!, is it when a nurse decides that you don’t need continence care so refuses to assist, thus leaving you in distress, is it when someone you have never spoken to before in a social environment wants to know ‘why are you in a wheelchair’ is it when a shop assistant insists you can’t possibly be able to push a trolley around a store or carry your shopping so insists on doing it for you, is it when someone decides that you would be better at a table your chair won’t fit under so you can see the nice view, rather than a table the chair fits under so you can eat easily, is it when someone starts messing with your hair when in a queue, or who decides that you can’t fit down a foot path you have used for decades, and so your forced onto three main roads, to go to the same place as they know best.. is it when a total stranger starts to tell you how to park the van you have been driving for years, is it when people in the hospital don’t know how to use a hoist so when they do it wrong won’t accept guidance putting me at risk… so often people think they know what’s best for me…. so often they are wrong….

April’s Story – ‘he then got really close to me sort of pushing his upper body into my right arm while putting his arm over my shoulders and then told me that he wishes me a good day and called me sweetheart and darling again’

A few weeks back, I was walking along the side of the road with my youngest son in front of me riding his balance bike on the way to nursery. We have to walk on the road as that part of the way has no pavement. I suddenly had a woman (i would say in her late fourties), shouting at me that there was a car coming. I  replied in a friendly way telling her that I knew . A couple of minutes later, the next car drove past us and she did the same, now walking next to my guide dog. I responded in a harsher voice telling her that I knew and that she should have realised that as I had just told my son to watch out for the car.  I asked my son to ride his bike faster and got my guide dog to walk faster in an attempt to get away from the woman as she almost walked into my guide dog. Then the third car came and she grabbed my left arm , reaching over my guide dog, and tried to pull me around. She was actually trying to pull me into the road as my dog always walks on the side facing the road. I tried to pull my arm away but she held on and shouted to me about  the car and that I needed to know that.  Once I managed to pull my arm away, I walked really fast and we finally got rid of her as she couldn’t keep up.

The following is an example of something that has happened in variation many times.:

I was in a shop with my guide dog and asked someone for help as I could not find what I wanted. A  man probably in his late fifties or early sixties responded and told me that he could help me of course, calling me sweetheart. Then he grabbed my right arm and tried to pull me along. I said that I would be happy to just follow. he responded by saying that it was fine and that he didn’t mind guiding me. I said again that I prefer walking on my own and managed to pull my arm away. Then once I had finally found what I was looking for, he then got really close to me sort of pushing is upper body into my right arm while putting his arm over my shoulders and then told me that he wishes me a good day and called me sweetheart and darling again. He had a very sleezy voice while doing that and stayed in that position for more than ten seconds despite my attempts to pull away.

Anje’s Story – ‘I’m already not a touchy person, but apparently when I’m in pain or suffering a weak spell, I need hands all over me?’

This happens to me constantly. I have chronic pain and sometimes I use a cane because of unexplained spells of weakness. Whenever I have a pain episode anywhere outside my house, there’s always someone there to unnecessarily put their hands on me, and it drives me insane. They rub my back, they grab my arms, they try to sit me up if I’m hunched over.

The most egregious example I can think of was when I was in a tech rehearsal for a play I was in last spring, and I collapsed. I stopped being able to really hold myself up, so I was on the ground, weak and in pain. All of a sudden, about 30 people rushed in around me, and every available space had hands on me. My stage manager even tried to forcefully pull me up, twisting my back and causing me to scream out in pain. A stranger I didn’t know kept rubbing my back even after everyone else backed off, and I wanted to just rip her hand off.

Then, when I had to make it into a car, a couple well-meaning friends just picked me up. When I said I could get there once we were down the steps, they didn’t put me down, and physically placed me in the car themselves. It was uncomfortable and demeaning. I hated every minute of it, and not just because I felt weak and sick. I just wish people didn’t feel the need to touch me all the time. I’m already not a touchy person, but apparently when I’m in pain or suffering a weak spell, I need hands all over me? When that happens the only thing I can focus on is my brain screaming at me that I want whatever hand is on me to be off me immediately. Because it’s not just a simple touch to make sure I’m responsive, it’s constant, and it’s rubbing, and I hate it.

Sarah’s story – ‘I feel so vulnerable that I no longer venture out alone’

I’ve become a wheelchair user in the last year. I live in a small town in a rural area. Each time I have gone out on my own I have had men (always men over a certain age) stop and stare at me openly! I feel so vulnerable that I no longer venture out alone. I used to run long distance, but now I feel that if I was attacked, followed, or any unwanted attention, I wouldn’t be able to get away or avoid it. It would be so easy for anyone to follow me home. I feel trapped.

Selina’s story

Every year, my small, Midwestern town has a festival. I use it as a training/testing opportunity to assess how my service dog is doing on his public access skills in a busy, crowded, high-distraction environment. This year, I was talking with a firefighter about the half-joking possibility of my dog becoming a mascot. We established my dog is very well-trained, not a behavioral liability in any way, experienced in all the necessary skills, etc. Then I was asked if he knows any cute tricks. After thinking for a moment, I opted for one of his tasks and dropped my walking stick to the ground before asking my dog to pick it up. A man who overheard our conversation picked up my stick and handed it to me. I made and held eye contact as I deliberately dropped it and repeated “Buddy, pick up my stick and give it to me.” Of course, he did exactly that once he was able.

Teagan’s Story – ‘Coming to terms with going blind is a massive thing to deal with so this additional unwanted attention can be very detrimental to one’s mental health.’

I am A severely visually impaired woman. I am very lucky to have a wonderful guide dog called Jackie. However we are constantly accosted by primarily unwonted verbal attention. For example people come up to me wave their hands in front of my face and go well you don’t look blind! If I travel on public transport people relentlessly callout questions when I should be allowed to remain quiet in my private space. Also, in supermarkets even though my guide dog has a massive sign on her back saying do not touch me I’m working people relentlessly come up and thrust the dog which means she becomes disturbed and any activity like shopping becomes untenable. Recently a man pushed me and my shopping trolley out of the way as he went past. My guide dog was attached to my trolley and she was badly shaken. There have been times when I have been in shops waiting to pay and somebody distracts my dog which ends up in my shopping and contents of my handbag going everywhere.

So for me it’s more verbal. I may have a dog and indeed hopefully that puts off and wanted physical attention however the public still feel they have the right to throw endless questions at you about the most private thing in your life which is your I diagnosis. Coming to terms with going blind is a massive thing to deal with so this additional unwonted attention can be very detrimental to one’s mental health.

Lena’s Story – ‘I heard her say to her friend “did she just tap me?” and glare at me as if I had assaulted her’

I had an accident in 2017 and have ongoing health conditions including vocal cord damage. My voice is very quiet and gravelly. I went to a concert earlier this year and was returning to my seat with a drink in one hand. There were several people standing around watching the concert. In normal circumstances I would have said out loud “excuse me please”, but because of the voice loss I have I knew that nobody would be able to hear me because of the music playing. I tapped one girl on the shoulder to get her attention and gestured that I would like to pass. I heard her say to her friend “did she just tap me?” and glare at me as if I had assaulted her. I tried to explain that I have lost my voice so I could not ask her verbally to let me pass. I do not know if she heard of understood me but I walked passed and went back to my seat feeling frustrated that my actions were considered rude and arrogant. I tapped her shoulder in order not to barge past rudely. So it seems that disabled peoples behaviour also on occasion involves unwanted touching and is considered inappropriate. 

Genevieve’s Story – ‘I am glad that someone is finally treating these invasions of our space and lack of bodily autonomy as what they are. Experiences that lead to violence or at least induce fear. ‘

I’ve lost count of the number of times strangers have just begun pushing my wheelchair without asking or even saying hello first. Once was on a busy hiking trail in the middle of the afternoon–a place where women never run alone because so many violent things have happened. I thought I was being attacked, and he told me “not to get hysterical he was only trying to help”. A ramp agent at my home airport refused to acknowledge that I had declined his assistance, saying no each time I asked him to stop pushing me. He pushed me so quickly that he hit the edge of the ramp and dumped me out of my chair. He groped both of my breasts and then walked away. When I complained to the airline they said he knew I was struggling and was only trying to help. A man once approached me at night while I was getting into my car, asking if I needed help. I said no oh, but he wouldn’t leave. He stood immediately behind me, watching me, until I shut my car door. As I was driving away I could still see him staring in the rearview mirror. there have been countless other times where people have “helped me” without my consent where nothing bad has happened other than my frustration but being ignored. I am glad that someone is finally treating these invasions of our space and lack of bodily autonomy as what they are. Experiences that lead to violence or at least induce fear. Im glad someone is starting to see the connection between incidents like those above and the massively high rates of violence against people with disabilities.

Neira’s Story – ‘We shouldn’t have to weigh up the fact that any firmer resistance might make things worse for us. ‘

Most of the times when I am out and about, I use an electric wheelchair, which is a very heavy machine. The wheels are fixed into position until engaged by my controls, so when people try to move my chair, they are attempting to move a considerable weight (including myself) without moving wheels. This is really dangerous to us both and if I try to operate my chair with anyone close by, I risk running over and potentially crushing their feet.

I have tried different ways of expressing this as quickly as possible, including, “Please don’t!” and “It’s dangerous!” followed by a fuller explanation and not one person has held off because of my repeated protests or warnings. After 20 years of wheelchair use, I am yet to find a safe strategy. 

The most recent example is a common one –  this time the person who attempted to “help” was someone who had come to my house to do some work for me. Because his van was on my drive way, I was on the edge of the tarmac and my wheels fell into a muddy patch. It would have probably taken me twenty seconds to get out of the mud, but after five seconds this man was attempting to drag the chair, despite asking him not to and telling him that he could hurt himself (but thanks anyway). So now I was truly stuck with this man heaving and huffing and painfully rocking me about. Eventually, I had to perform the necessary maneuver only very very slowly so to avoid hurting him (although that was mostly luck). I’m sure he thought he had performed a rescue.

I considered this one of disabled life’s many great frustrations until I experienced post-traumatic stress following a violent relationship. For a while, my body and brain responded to anyone moving suddenly into my personal space as a deadly danger and it was everything I could do not to scream and physically push people away. I had also realised through my experience of sexual violence that “Please don’t” and “No thank you” are such clear expressions of non-consent that it’s not unreasonable to feel frightened by someone who is prepared to ignore them and continue touching you. We shouldn’t have to shout or scream or find the magic words to make someone back off. We shouldn’t have to weigh up the fact that any firmer resistance might make things worse for us. 

Then there’s the cultural connection between this behaviour and all the other violence I had experienced as a disabled woman –  there’s an assumption that people can only ever have good intentions towards us and those good intentions are more important than anything else, including our agency.

So these days, such experiences make me very angry.