(Originally published on another blog in 2014. My writing voice has changed a lot since then, but I still agree with everything I said here! I have a lot more to say on disability and harassment, and am reposting this older piece here to get the conversation started.)
Every time I leave my house I may experience being seen as less-than, or incapable. I may be touched, poked or prodded, physically directed, spoken down to, stared at, pursued by people, all in the name of helpfulness and kindness.
Every time I leave my house, I may be touched without my permission, not a handshake of greeting or a tap on the shoulder, but an arm-grab, an arm around the shoulders, hands against my torso propelling me towards where it is thought I need to go, an uninvited hug. My body is used instead of words. I’m touched in these ways in the name of helping me.
All of this because I am visibly disabled, some of it because I’m a small woman.
Every time I leave my house, someone will get into my personal space when I want to be left alone—in places and at times when one would expect that I could be left alone—and yes, people do follow me. In most contexts, following a stranger is called stalking. When you’re disabled it’s called the follower being kind and concerned, or not knowing better.
When disabled folks get to talking about personal experiences, the discussion usually comes around to all the times people touch us without our permission.
We tell each other stories. There are frequent nods of recognition and rueful, sometimes amused, sometimes mirthless, laughter.
We’ve all been there.
Recently, a friend blogged about walking down a street, training her service dog, while a woman—a stranger to my friend–tracked her progress, following them in her car. One imagines that this woman must not have had anything important to do right then; one also knows how incredibly rude and creepy it is to stare at someone, and that it’s considered predatory to follow anyone without their expressed consent.
Another friend adjusts his work schedule (when he can) so as to not ride the bus at peak times, when there are likely to be more people engaging in what he calls “the grabby”–physically grabbing and directing him to an empty seat, or on or off the bus. Sometimes (not always) this grabby is accompanied by queries as to whether he needs help, but people rarely listen to his “no.”
What never seems to come up in these commiseration sessions about our experiences as disabled people in public spaces is exactly what to call what happens to us. For lack of a better term, I call it street harassment.
Unlike many forms of street harassment, what people with disabilities experience in public spaces is all but invisible, not because onlookers are accustomed to it, not because they want to pretend it’s not happening, but because most of the actions comprising this harassment are chalked up to kindness, ignorance, concern, helpfulness, or good intentions. Who wants to put down anyone’s good intentions?
How do I know it’s perceived this way? Because people make these excuses for their own and others’ behavior. Frankly, it’s tiring after a while to hear that someone getting into my personal space, or making assumptions about me, or handling my body or my mobility aid without asking is just trying to be kind, or doesn’t know any better, or thought they were being helpful.
As a human being living in North American culture, I have certain expectations of privacy and personal space. Most of us who grew up in this culture grow up expecting that we won’t be touched by random strangers, that there is a hierarchy of touching (where your new acquaintance on the bus doesn’t stroke your arm or put their hand on your back).
As a woman, I have an expectation that people will be conscious of gender in their interactions with me. I’m often startled by the way men touch me, many of whom, I would like to think, would think twice about touching women they don’t know in the ways they touch me. The touching is obvious, out there; there’d be no way to deny it if someone was trying to be sneaky and manipulative with their intrusions.
Perhaps part of the problem here, part of the disconnect, is that I am genderless in these people’s eyes. I’m disabled first, woman second. Indeed, for some, I’m disabled first, negating my womanhood and putting me somewhere in a nebulous space of being childlike but having a woman’s body and doing adult things (like going out and buying my own groceries).
it’s also tiring not having words to describe this experience, this sensation of always being on guard, for there’s no place, time, or way this might or might not happen. it just does…single women, married men, concerned citizens of all genders may think they know exactly where I want to go (without asking me, or if they ask, not waiting for an answer) or draw attention to me I don’t want or need, or blow a need or want I do have into far greater proportion than it needs to be.
Most of what I’m describing here isn’t explicitly violent, though physical and sexualized violence against people with disabilities does happen, in both private and public spaces, at alarming rates.
No, it’s not explicitly violent, but not being aware of it also paves the way, I think, for more violence. The more often something happens, the less likely people are to notice it.
Plus, it truly does unsettle me that disabled people’s space is invaded every day.; that this invasion leads to people feeling worn out, so demeaned, so reduced—and yes, so threatened by actions which onlookers see as considerate. It’s alarming that a disabled woman was surprised when her friend apologized for having to physically hustle her through an airport security line in response to TSA agents’ curtly given directions to hurry up (after all, that physical manipulation to follow the rules is seen as something that just has to be done, and we aren’t supposed to have feelings about it).
I’m sometimes alarmed by the strength of relief expressed by disabled people (including me) when a trip out in public is positive, with people talking to us like adults, respectfully assisting us only when asked and giving us loads of personal space.
We’re frequently objects of curiosity in public spaces. If it stopped at curiosity, we’d be doing fine, but that curiosity often translates into intrusiveness.