I’ve been at the point where I mostly need a wheelchair to go out for years, and I can’t self-propel. So I always have my partner pushing my wheelchair, and despite the life-endangering assault by the driver some years ago, I feel a lot safer for that. Men are far less likely to hassle women who have a man with them, and people also take you more seriously if you have a man to back up what you’re saying. On the rare occasions I walk with a stick (not this year, I think, not past pottering in the garden), I hold his arm on the other side. I’m mostly bedbound so I don’t get out much anyway, and the worsening PTSD has increased that effect. I haven’t been on public transport in years: far too exhausting and painful, high chance of not getting a space, high chance of verbal abuse.
Having a man push your wheelchair creates a protective barrier between you and the outside world. Wheelchairs do that anyway, although there are far fewer spaces you can get into with them, especially here in Edinburgh. It’s more trouble for people to get into your personal space, and harder for them to get as close.
But people do not give enough space for wheelchair users. It’s normal for us to have to weave around people in the street, even when they see us coming. The thing about how women get out of the way for men no longer applies if the man is pushing a wheelchair, we get blocked by people of all genders. I avoid crowded areas, which in Edinburgh covers a lot of ground during the summer. Accessibility is poor and I’ve been tipped out of my wheelchair by bad cobbling or a bad step twice.
The worst was when there was a scaffolding tunnel on my road, over a fairly narrow bit of pavement. I’m a bit claustrophobic anyway and it tended to give me the horrors, but it was between my flat and my partner’s so we went through it. One day there were three men chatting in that tunnel, blocking it even for a pedestrian. They watched us approach. They deliberately waited until we got all the way up to them and stopped, because they wanted to make us ask them to move out of the way. I think they were really enjoying the power over us, while I had to keep assessing whether we were about to be attacked. After that, we crossed the road twice to avoid using that tunnel. I’d been feeling silly for fussing about it before, there was a TV show we’d been watching where there was a serial killer who killed women in a white underpass, but that show tapped into a universal fear for women for good reason.
I grew up in London, where we all thought sexual assault on public transport was normal by the age of fourteen (I wasn’t yet disabled). I’m more scared of going out now than I was then.
Criminologist and Co-Director of Centre for Gender Studies at University of Sussex