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.
Criminologist and Co-Director of Centre for Gender Studies at University of Sussex