To add some context, I am small (5 foot 3inches) and from an ethnic monistic ( I look Indian). I believe these factors contribute to my experiences.
I work with a Guide Dog, and we have been together for 7 years. Before that I was a white cane user for 5 years.
My office is in Victoria and I use public transport to get there. I also have a busy social life which usually takes me out and about in central London. I live in London with my (male) partner.
As a visibly disabled woman, I experience non-consensual touching by strangers in public on a daily basis. As has already been documented by many others, this is generally unexpected and unwanted. I have been touched or grabbed on most places on my upper body, usually with force and I am often left bruised. The contact is startling, frightening and disorienting. It is impossible to discern whether the contact is from a well—meaning person clumsily trying to impose help, or whether it is something more sinister. This always has me on my guard.
My initial response is usually to politely ask the person to let go of me. If I feel that their grip is too tight or that theory are trying to drag me, my request is usually louder or more insistent. However, in the split second that the grab occurs, it’s not always possible to discern the difference.
The response from the grabber is generally one of defensiveness and usually passive aggression along the lines of “I was only trying to help”. They very rarely apologise for their misjudgement. I have never been legitimately grabbed – i.e. in order to prevent an accident.
Forced help happens all the time. Examples are:
an assumption that. I am incapable – “Are you lost?”,
assumption that I have other mobility issues – “Can you walk?”,
being forced to do something such as having my hand grabbed when I have my freedom pass in it and forcibly placed on the card reader
Being pushed from behind whilst I am taking a split second to navigate a step or doorway because they think I need help moving forwards. This often ends up with me falling. I have been pushed off buses and trains.
Being pulled when I’ve asked for directions or an orientation point such as a counter. I’d rather they answered the question than made physical contact.
People routinely shoulder-barge me out of the way.
There are dozens more examples. I believe I am more vulnerable to this behaviour because of my height and ethnicity as well as gender identity. On days that I wear a suit to work I am less likely to be harassed.
I am often asked intrusive and personal questions, without any introduction or asking if I mind. These are often about my dog, but also very personal questions such as my age, whether I| live alone, my level of vision (apropos of nothing) and what I can see.
I am often asked out of the blue by complete strangers where I am going. I refuse to answer this question because as a visually impaired woman I feel that this makes me vulnerable to being followed. It’s a weird question – why does a stranger need to know? Asking me where I am going is not an offer of help.
The above highlights generic issues but there is a catalogue of more specific, serious incidents. I will give you two examples:
1. When I was using a white cane, I emerged from an underground station on my way home. It was dark, about 6pm. I crossed the road and walked past a parade of shops – my usual route. A group of men cam e towards me and I heard one of them say “It’s ok, she’s blind so she cant do anything” and he grabbed both of my breasts. He smelled of alcohol. I screamed and the group of men laughed and walked away. A woman saw what happened and came to my assistance and the police were called but they did nothing other than take a report even though they could probably have been caught.
2. I was being escorted by a member of London Underground staff on to a platform. He asked me to wait at the platform entrance whilst the train pulled in. A man behind me grabbed the tops of both of my arms and said “I want to get on the train” and forced me out of the way, still holding on. I though I was being pushed under the train. I screamed and pulled free but was left with severe bruising.
Criminologist and Co-Director of Centre for Gender Studies at University of Sussex