I’d like to introduce you to Dawn. She wrote a blog article called “Not a passive rag doll – keep your grabbing hands to yourself” about her experiences as a woman with a visual impairment and unwanted physical attention from random members of the public. You can check out the article here because I’m not going to paraphrase it –read it in Dawn’s own words!
I think this is an important topic and one that we usually avoid, although I’m not sure why. I wonder if wheelchair users have similar but different issues with complete strangers invading their personal space without asking or considering how it feels?
There are several issues. Firstly, even for someone who isn’t easily scared, have you any idea how terrifying it is to be walking along and suddenly feel a hand touching you, with no warning, and you had no idea that it was coming because you couldn’t see the other person?
Sometimes we do need help or directions. I know some people have trouble giving directions – “that way” or “over there” are not helpful when you can’t see which way someone is pointing, but neither is someone attempting to drag or push you where they think you want to go.
I’ve heard examples of blind people being dragged across the road even though they didn’t want to go that way. I don’t understand that, because nobody drags me anywhere, and I don’t think making sure they let go has anything to do with politeness or a lack thereof.
If I take help from a stranger in a place that I don’t know, chances are I will ask to take their arm, especially if it’s crowded and I could lose the other person. But that’s a lot different from being manhandled or grabbed. It’s a negotiated exchange, not one person thinking they have the right to make decisions for the other.
In fact, I do remember a time when someone tried to hurl me across a busy crossing before the lights had changed. I forcefully disentangled myself and told them what I thought, after which the woman asked someone behind me to “make sure she gets across safely. That guide dog isn’t very good.” I was furious. Firstly, it’s my decision, not my dog’s decision, when it’s time to cross the road. Secondly, surely the best way to ensure my own safety is to make sure the lights are actually in my favour?
On the same lines, it’s not cool to talk about people as though they’re an object or a piece of luggage. “Put her in the chair over there”. I was at an airport and decided I’d rather stand.
Another unpleasant side to this coin is the inappropriate ways in which people have tried to come into my space in an attempt to be “helpful” such as trying to lean across me in a car to reach the seatbelt (which I didn’t need, but which also put the other person much closer than I had given permission for). I turned my back on the person in question and took hold of the seatbelt myself, but that’s not the point. Sometimes it’s not clear whether people think a disabled person won’t be bothered about such a clear invasion of their personal space, and sometimes, I think people are just trying their luck because they think a disabled person won’t protest – like when someone attempted to touch me inappropriately as they were “helping” me out of a vehicle. That wasn’t an accident. Yes, I will never know how much unwanted attention I would have had as a non-disabled woman, but the fact that someone has a disability can make them appear more vulnerable and the presumption is often that they’ll be less likely to stand up for themselves. Not true in my case, but then I’ve always been direct and outspoken. What happens to the people who aren’t?
I wonder how people feel who need assistance with personal care. I don’t, but do people always treat them and their personal space with respect?
I don’t mind people asking if I need help, and if I do need help, I’ll ask for it. I’m not afraid of being touched. Human contact is a good thing, but it has to be consensual. It’s never ok to grab, push, pull, or attempt to manoeuvre someone without asking because you think you know what they want or what’s best. It’s dehumanising and really annoying!
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