I’ve not even been using a long cane for two weeks and already have a story! I had been out and was on my way home, so headed to the crossing, went to put my hand where the spinner is, when someone to my left said something to me. I didn’t hear as I’m also moderately to severely deaf in both ears. Then as the spinner went, i put my cane back in the right hand and felt her touch my arm as I went to walk. As I was moving forward and she hadn’t (I presume), it felt like a pull. It really angered me as I’m obviously trained so am fully aware how to cross the road safely. I was never even asked if I wanted help!
* When I was still using a walking stick and going out alone, a man grabbed my walking stick from next to me on the bus to give to an old lady who’d just got off the bus, then yelled abuse at me when I asked for it back.
* Incident at an airport where the employee who was meant to be pushing me in an airport wheelchair became increasingly verbally abusive, then shoved the wheelchair more and more until it went spinning in a circle.
* Two medical staff at a dentist’s surgery grabbed me to pull me out of the wheelchair when it was time for me to get into the dentist’s chair.
* A nurse at a dermatology clinic heard that I was going to go to the toilet and about to get out of my wheelchair, dived in to start taking my footplates off, then seemed affronted because that’s not how I use my wheelchair and I wanted space to move. There’s probably been other incidents with grabby people in hospitals that I’m not remembering, and certainly my A&E experiences have been grim, including being roughly dropped on the floor twice in ten minutes. I freeze up when that sort of thing happens, so I don’t know if this nurse also handled my legs. She probably started lifting them away from the footplates.
* A stranger at a party heard that I was disabled, started telling me all about his minor medical issue (a metal plate in his finger), and kept grabbing my knee, and also taking my hand and making me squeeze his finger. I’d told him I was partnered, and I didn’t expect him to be hitting on me, so it took me a long time to realise I needed to get out of there. This was two years ago and I haven’t been out alone since, which cuts down on the risk of assault.
* A doctor at a consultation committed minor sexual assault.
* A man saw my partner pushing my wheelchair down the street one evening and deliberately very nearly ran us down, shouting, “I’ll put *you* in a wheelchair!” at my partner. He stopped just before he hit us, with inches to spare.
I was outside kings cross station having just been to the RNIB. It was dark and traffic was heavy. I was nervously waiting to cross when a drunk/high man came up to me and took me by the arm tightly saying he could ‘help me across’. I was relieved that someone was willing to help but nervous about the fact he had taken my arm (which was both intrusive and unhelpful) and that he was clearly intoxicated and therefore unpredictable. As I didn’t know how he would respond to being corrected, i responded amiably. He took me across to the central reservation and, whilst we were waiting to cross the other lane, told me that I should ‘touch his face’ so that I could recognise him again in the future. He turned me towards him, took my hand and put it on his face which was covered in body piercings and chains. It felt pressurised and overly intimate. I tried to laugh it off without appearing to reject him. When we got to the other side, I told him I knew the way from here. He’d already told me that he wasn’t going into the station, But yet he followed me into Kings Cross. I felt really scared and darted off into the biggest crowd of people I could see. I didn’t know if he was still following me as I went down to my tube line.
As a visually impaired woman using a white cane I experience unwanted touching in public every single day.
I have been dragged across roads, pulled out of train carriages and pushed around shops, without being asked if I wanted assistance first.
These experiences can be distressing and disorientating, occasionally they cause me physical harm. Whenever I share a story of being pulled into moving traffic or pushed on the wrong bus, people respond “but they had good intentions! They only meant to help!”
I created the #JustAskDontGrab campaign to channel good intentions into positive action. Through encouraging other disabled people to share their experiences, I hope to educate the public about how to offer help in a respectful and useful way, instead of making assumptions about ability.
I also use the campaign to explain the impact on the physical and mental wellbeing of disabled people who experience daily unwanted touching, and the fears and anxieties often associated with it. After all, how do I know that someone has good intentions when they touch me and say nothing?
The reason non-consensual touching is so distressing for me, is because it often turns into harassing and intrusive behaviours, and even sexual assault.
There was the man who offered to help me across the road, and then followed me for five minutes, asking dozens of personal questions, trying to find out where I worked, asking if I had a boyfriend, and asking which train I was getting on.
Or the man who crept up next to me, startled me, asked if I was lost, and then walked next to me making sexually suggestive noises until I used Siri to start calling the police. There was the man grabbed my arm as I stepped down from the bus, loudly announcing “I’ll help you”, as he held onto me and groped my breast.
In the UK women with a disability or long term illness are nearly twice as likely to experience sexual assault (Source: Office of National Statistics). The disabled perspective has been frequently absent from the #MeToo movement and discussions of street harassment. Despite the efforts of excellent activists like Imani Barbarin creator of the #4OutOf5 hashtag, Emily Flores in Teen Vogue and Nidhi Goyal, disabled women are forgotten when we discuss the public experience of intrusive behaviours, unwanted touching and harassment.
Therefore, in order to better understand and reflect these experiences I have collaborated with Dr Hannah Mason-Bish at the University of Sussex on a new research project.
Taking inspiration from #JustAskDontGrab and Everyday Sexism Private Places, Public Spaces invites disabled women and non-binary people to record their experiences of intrusive behaviours, harassment or unwanted touching. We are requesting stories via the website or email, contributors can give as much detail as they feel comfortable with and all stories will be anonymised.
Using the anonymised contributions, the project seeks to understand the nature and impact of these interactions. It will explore the ways in which this might affect or limit the freedom of movement that disabled women and non-binary people have and what measures they take to avoid these behaviours. We hope that this project will provide an essential intersectional perspective on street harassment and finally recognise the specific experiences of disabled women and non-binary people.