Yasmin Sheikh got in touch to share her story (she has agreed to be published under her real name). She is a disability consultant; qualified lawyer, and stand-up comedian (amongst a long list!) Yasmin is the Founder of Diverse Matters and tweets @diversematters. She also has a fabulous TEDx talk here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5uiu2ndZo8c&t=132s
I have been a wheelchair user for almost 12 years and have experienced non-consensual touching probably twice a month, which ranges from people pushing me without asking and with no warning, which has not only been rude but dangerous, as I have nearly lost my balance and fallen forward out of my chair to people leaning on my chair or touching it without my permission.
People have also asked very quickly, “do you need help?” and then proceeded to “help” anyway or attempted to “help” by trying too push me without waiting for a response, just assuming that the answer is obviously “yes.”
I feel like I am public property having such a visible disability and people’s reactions although well-intentioned at times are just a perception of what they think having a disability means – needing help all the time.
People’s reactions are also interesting when i refuse help or am pushed without my consent and 12 years in since my injury, I am still trying to work out how to respond. Usually when pushed without my consent I get quite angry as it really takes me by surprise and I have nearly fallen out of my chair. The presumption that I need help all the time is bad enough but to just push a person without even asking assumes that I am a charity case and someone to be rescued who obviously need assistance constantly to get around. How do people think I manage on a daily basis? It’s such an instinctive reaction.
I have had some people be apologetic when I respond to them but they tend to then follow it quickly with a justification, “oh i was only trying to help” or “you looked like you were struggling” or they will just shrug and look bemused as if I am being so ungrateful. It’s really tiring and I find dealing with people harder than the disability itself. I seem to have got over it but it seems others find disability so confronting that they feel they need to react in some way either by their behaviour or even making some kind of comment about the chair. Sometimes you just want a day off.
I get probably daily comments about the way i move around to the usual “jokes” directed at wheelchair users, “oh you should get a licence for that”, ” oh don’t drink and drive” etc which I find so boring as I’ve heard it probably 400 times or more. I think people are so awkward about disability and feel they need to say something when “hello” will suffice.
I have a sense of humour (I like to think and even do stand up/sit down comedy) although I am expected to always take these comments with good humour when really it would be nice to just get a normal greeting and maybe if we get to know each other better we can do the banter. I prefer if it’s on my terms though as it’s just boring for others to bring up the disability straight away when we don’t know each other. I can think of better ice-breakers. Why is it that society thinks that the way we talk to disabled people, in this way, is fair game? If you react to it then you’re perceived as bitter, angry and humourless.
Criminologist and Co-Director of Centre for Gender Studies at University of Sussex