Friday, April 11, 2014

Feeling vulnerable

Two days ago, I was on my way home, crossing the street, when suddenly I felt someone pushing my wheelchair. If you are not a wheelchair user, it is probably hard to imagine what that feels like. It is startling – suddenly, someone else is governing the way you want to move around. It wasn’t a situation where I was struggling and in need of help. I didn’t ask anyone for help, not even with my eyes. Yet, this middle-aged white man feels that he can impose his charity on me and invade my personal space. You might not be surprised to hear that this happens a lot, and that it is usually middle-aged white men who I find behind me, grinning benevolently, while they fondle my wheelchair handles.
Still, I feel startled every time. Of course, there is and acute sense of danger: What if this person steers me somewhere I don’t want to go, or snatches my bag while pretending to help me? Then, it is also incredibly patronising to assume I cannot cross the street myself. It is also dangerous to violently force me to interact, while actually crossing a busy street. “I don’t like this” – I shout at him, with an angry look. He looks at me, puzzled, insulted. As I try to wheel off, he comes after me. “You didn’t need to be rude, I was just trying to help!” – “I didn’t ask for help, and you need to ask someone before you do that”. He clearly doesn’t understand, and gets angry. “You don’t have to be so bloody rude when someone is trying to help you!” – “Rude?! It is rude to touch a woman without her permission!” Now he looks even more confused, angry and aggressive. But he leaves me alone. For him, that is not what happened. To him, I am not a woman (or was I?) – maybe I am a child, a charity case, an invalid, certainly not someone who has a right to autonomy, to personal space, to move freely in my own rhythm.

Then, a day later, a similar incident happens: I am running late and decide to take a cab from Aldwych to Vauxhall. The cab driver seems friendly enough first and gets the ramp out without grumbling. But then he says: “When you’re in, I’ll turn you around and strap you in”. I am offered a bit of bondage, right there and then. Lovely! I decline and tell him that I won’t need my wheelchair to be strapped in, that I’m fine just holding onto the safety handles inside the car. He seems ok with that, but as soon as he starts driving, he begins to lecture me about how he’ll have to drive carefully because of me, and whether I am aware that there is a “correct position for wheelchair users” in cabs. I respond that I am aware but that it isn't the correct position for me, and try to change the topic. He does a little rant about another costumer, but then suddenly blurts out: “So, what’s your disability?” I feel my skin crawl.
I don’t mind it if strangers ask me what it’s like to move around in a wheelchair in a specific city, how I navigate buildings, public transport etc. But why do so many people feel the need to diagnose me? What does the name of my disability even tell about me? I have been friends with people for years without them asking about my disability. Sure, sometimes it would come up in a conversation; sometimes I bring it up myself if I feel like it somehow contributes to the conversation, to their understanding of me or my disability. It’s not that I feel uncomfortable if people know. But why does a stranger feel the need to know – why does it have to be the first thing he wants to know, before he wants to know about my job, where I live or about my husband or family? My does he feel the need to reduce me to a medical diagnosis that says nothing about the way I live my life?
“What do you mean?” I ask, pretending to be naïve. “Umm…did you have an accident?” Yes, the other day I accidentally grated my finger instead of the cheese. Do you mean something like that, dude? But the witty or assertive comebacks that I usually have ready do not come easy this time. I say “no” and then stare into my phone for the rest of the journey, while he eventually starts talking about something else.
The thing is, I need this man’s help to get out of the car. I am vulnerable, completely at his mercy. If I am acting, in his eyes, ‘rude’, it might compromise my safety or dignity. There is no one else around who I can look to for support, it is just me and him, and he is calling the shots, even though I am the paying costumer. I feel angry at myself for not telling him how incredibly rude, invasive and objectifying his behaviour is, knowing that he will probably act the same way with the next disabled person who shall be so lucky to be his passenger.
In both situations I felt violated, as a human being, as a disabled person, but also as a woman. Does my gender somehow make it easier for those men to patronise me, to disrespect my personal space? Or would they have done the same if I was a disabled man – do experiences like this feel even more humiliating to disabled men? Or just different? I have had countless similar experiences with women, where they imposed their ‘help’ on me or wanted to know ‘what’s wrong’ with me. I get just as angry, yet the power dynamic often feels somehow different. I feel more annoyed, less scared, don’t have such an acute sense that I need to protect myself.
I know that those situations usually happen because, when people see me, they are confronted with their own humanity and vulnerability. They need to know ‘what happened’ to me, so they can frame it in narratives that are familiar to them, but also tell themselves that the same thing will not happen to them. They need to help me to assert themselves of their strength, their health, their invulnerability.  Yet, it is not my impairment that makes me vulnerable, it is their invasiveness, their disrespect, their intrusion.


  1. I have been using a wheelchair for two years now, and the feelings you describe in this post as so familiar. I hate the idea that situations like the ones you describe will keep happening to me, I had hoped that maybe people felt the need to 'help me' because maybe they pick up on my inexperience. That they can tell that being a wheelchair user is new to me and that I am still adjusting. But as you have been a wheelchair user for a much longer time and it still happens to you, I suppose I must get used to these encounters and work out my own witty retorts.

    The worst incident for me happened on a bus, I was travelling with my partner and he usually helps me get on buses as I don't yet have the upper body strength to manage the steep ramps. The bus driver had got out of his cab and put the ramp down with a smile and no complaint and I relaxed because often my requests for the ramp were met with grumbling and comments about how other wheelchair users didn't need the ramp. I started the wheel my chair up the ramp where suddenly I realised someone was pushing me, I presumed it was my partner and I turned my head to tell him that actually I was ok, the ramp wasn't too steep. Except instead I saw the bus driver. At first I didn't say anything but when he continued to push me along the aisle of the bus, I told him that I was fine and I didn't need any more help. But he ignored me. So I told him again and again. But still he ignored me. Then he started trying to steer me into the wheelchair space. At which point I grabbed the wheels of my chair and very firmly said I didn't need anymore help. And he looked at me with a puzzled expression but he let go of my chair. In Reading, the wheelchair space on some of the buses has a pole positioned in the worst possible place, so you have to wheel further up the bus and then reverse into the space at a diagonal and then straighten up. Plus my chair is only 15 inches wide whilst a standard chair is 18 inches, so my wheelchair only just fits around the backboard in the wheelchair space. All of this means that manoeuvring into the space is not always easy, especially not when you are feeling shaken and there is someone looming over you waiting to 'help'. Obviously I was not getting into the space fast enough for the drivers liking, so he grabbed hold of my wheelchair again and wrenched it into the space. My disability is related to chronic back pain, so being wrenched into the space hurt me a great deal. I sat through that bus ride with tears running down my face, partly from the pain and also from the shock of being treated like that. Like I was a piece of baggage that didn't fit into a space. My partner was furious at the way I'd been treated and kept apologising that he hadn't helped me, but as he said the driver had pushed in front of him as soon as I was on the ramp and bus aisles were too narrow for him to have got around the driver.

    I reported the incident to the bus company, but was fobbed off as 'he was one of their best drivers'. I told the woman I spoke to that as far as I was concerned their driver had physically assaulted me, she said he was just trying to help. I wish I could say that was the last time I had an problems on their buses, but I'd be lying. I feel like all I ever do is complain to them, usually about their drivers refusing to put the ramp down so I can disembark the bus.

  2. Sophie, thank you so much for your response!
    I'm sorry you had that experience with the bus driver, it sounds horrible! I think what is so painful about those incidents, at least for me, is that in the eye of the assaulter, they did everything right, and we get blamed for being upset. For me, that's almost worse than a bus driver who is just "too lazy" to get up and put out the ramp. The response of the bus company is atrocious, and I would try to explain the incident to them again - they cannot just touch costumers without their consent, and certainly not move them around without their consent.
    I have been a wheelchair user from early childhood, and yes, those incidents still happen to me. You can try to come across as assertive and self-sufficient, but there will always be some d*cks who fail to read our behaviour like this and only see the wheelchair, at which point their "charity alarm bells" go off.
    Realising that your behaviour has little to do with those incidents is frustrating, because it means you cannot control it. But for me, it is also liberating. Sure, for a moment, their intrusion is our problem. But ultimately, it is theirs. They are the ones who do not get basic principles of respect, of boundaries and communication. Not us.
    Sometimes, we are too upset for witty comebacks, but what I try to do in those situations, even when I am really upset, is making people aware of their behaviour by asking them things like "why are you doing this when I didn't give you permission" or "why do you want to know that?" - to me, this asserts that their behaviour is not the "natural" response to my body. Cause it sure isn't, and luckily there are many, many people who get that. xx