As a visually impaired woman who navigates the world with a white cane, I get touched by total strangers every day.
I’ve been pulled onto the wrong train or dragged into moving traffic by members of the public who have decided to act without asking me first. Many people want to help, but they don’t think through how frightening it is to be grabbed without being asked if I want assistance. The reason this silent non-consensual touching can be so terrifying is because I never know whether it’s a helping hand or another sexual assault.
“People simply can’t imagine that female wheelchair users get catcalled or blind women get groped on trains”
Recently, I was waiting at a pedestrian crossing and a man announced “I’ll look after you”. He pulled me into the road and wouldn’t let go once we got across to the other side. He started stroking my arm, and touching my breasts, telling me that he wanted to take care of me. I struggled free but as I started walking away he followed me, asking where I lived, if I had a boyfriend, which train I was going to catch and saying he would come with me. I was terrified. Luckily, I knew my way into the nearest station and, as usual, the excellent TFL staff came to my rescue, gave me a shoulder to cry on and made sure I got onto my train safely.
This isn’t an isolated incident. As a disabled woman, my right to decide who touches me is constantly ignored. I feel like public property and it’s exhausting.
After sharing a few of these incidents on Twitter, Dr Hannah Mason-Bish, a Criminologist at the University of Sussex, contacted me. She was horrified to read about the intrusive behaviours and unwanted touching that I and others frequently experienced. As an expert in hate crime and gender violence, Dr Mason-Bish decided to investigate existing research into disabled women’s experiences of public harassment. She didn’t find any.
Despite the efforts of activists like Imani Barbarin creator of the #4OutOf5 hashtag and Emily Flores in Teen Vogue, disabled women have been almost entirely excluded from movements like #MeToo and Everyday Sexism. In the UK, women with a disability or long term illness are nearly twice as likely to experience sexual assault. Yet, people simply can’t imagine that female wheelchair users get catcalled or blind women get groped on trains. Disabled women are often seen and represented as sexless, undesirable and innocent. This actively encourages the belief that disabled women are vulnerable and powerless.
Dr Mason-Bish’s research has revealed that to be disabled in public can lead to two particular reactions. One is hostility from members of the public, now termed a “hate crime”, it often takes the form of verbal or physical abuse. Second, the perception of fragility and pity, which can often lead to forceful offers of “help”. If this help is refused, then what follows is often an increasingly hostile encounter whereby the disabled person is seen as ungrateful.
So together, Dr Mason-Bish and I decided to set up the Private Spaces, Public Places project. This research project aims to explore the way that disabled women and non-binary people experience unwanted physical touching when out in public spaces. Importantly, we recognise that disabled men also experience unwanted touching in their daily lives. We decided to focus on women and non-binary people as they can experience particular threats of sexual harassment. It is our hope that this project will help us secure funding for further research looking at how other groups experience hate crimes.
We’re asking disabled women and disabled non-binary people to share their stories with us via the website. With the contributors’ permission their anonymised experiences are added to the blog to help raise awareness of the impact of unwanted touching on disabled women and non-binary people.
We’ve already had over 20 responses in the first week of the project. These brave stories reveal the distress and fear caused by non-consensual touching. They show the unrelenting nature of having strange hands on your body and the impact on physical and mental well-being.
Disabled women’s voices deserve to be heard and our experiences should be recognised and included in campaigns against sexual violence. Without the support of non-disabled people and the feminist movement, we will continue to be seen as easy targets and our right to consent will keep being ignored.
If you really want to help, listen to us and respect our bodies.
Dr Amy Kavanagh, visually impaired activist and Dr Hannah Mason-Bish is a Criminologist at the University of Sussex.