Most of the times when I am out and about, I use an electric wheelchair, which is a very heavy machine. The wheels are fixed into position until engaged by my controls, so when people try to move my chair, they are attempting to move a considerable weight (including myself) without moving wheels. This is really dangerous to us both and if I try to operate my chair with anyone close by, I risk running over and potentially crushing their feet.
I have tried different ways of expressing this as quickly as possible, including, “Please don’t!” and “It’s dangerous!” followed by a fuller explanation and not one person has held off because of my repeated protests or warnings. After 20 years of wheelchair use, I am yet to find a safe strategy.
The most recent example is a common one – this time the person who attempted to “help” was someone who had come to my house to do some work for me. Because his van was on my drive way, I was on the edge of the tarmac and my wheels fell into a muddy patch. It would have probably taken me twenty seconds to get out of the mud, but after five seconds this man was attempting to drag the chair, despite asking him not to and telling him that he could hurt himself (but thanks anyway). So now I was truly stuck with this man heaving and huffing and painfully rocking me about. Eventually, I had to perform the necessary maneuver only very very slowly so to avoid hurting him (although that was mostly luck). I’m sure he thought he had performed a rescue.
I considered this one of disabled life’s many great frustrations until I experienced post-traumatic stress following a violent relationship. For a while, my body and brain responded to anyone moving suddenly into my personal space as a deadly danger and it was everything I could do not to scream and physically push people away. I had also realised through my experience of sexual violence that “Please don’t” and “No thank you” are such clear expressions of non-consent that it’s not unreasonable to feel frightened by someone who is prepared to ignore them and continue touching you. We shouldn’t have to shout or scream or find the magic words to make someone back off. We shouldn’t have to weigh up the fact that any firmer resistance might make things worse for us.
Then there’s the cultural connection between this behaviour and all the other violence I had experienced as a disabled woman – there’s an assumption that people can only ever have good intentions towards us and those good intentions are more important than anything else, including our agency.
So these days, such experiences make me very angry.
Criminologist and Co-Director of Centre for Gender Studies at University of Sussex