Blogging Against Disablism Day: Street Harassment Edition

Blogging Against Disabalism DayMy older sister was born with several kinds of disabilities and from an early age I looked out for and helped her. She passed away from complications related to some of those disabilities at age 12, when I was 10. I don’t engage in a lot of activism around rights for persons with disabilities because it makes me sad. But when I read about Blogging Against Disabalism Day, I thought I’d participate and try to put a street harassment spin on it.

I don’t remember my sister being a target of street harassment per say, probably the closest was just curious/nosey kids who’d ask questions about why she was or did X, Y, Z, and the occasional adults who’d stare. I’m sure if she’d lived longer, or if I had been older, I would have seen her be a target of worse since so much of street harassment is about power and control issues and unfortunately, she would have been an easy target.

In my on-going quest for street harassment stories, I haven’t come across many written by a self-identified person with disabilities about how their disabilities contribute to their gender-based street harassment experience. (And of course, there are many people who can’t type on a computer due to their disabilities, like my sister wouldn’t be able to if she were alive, so their stories in general are lost in this format unless they’re told by others.) I did find one story, however, in the comment section of a street harassment post on the F Word blog in the UK which has stuck with me, so I’m re-posting it here.

Anon said: There’s a low-level harassment that seems go without saying, but sometimes things happen that stick. Men have often kicked, grabbed or forcefully pushed me (even at the top of stair cases) when I’m out in my wheelchair. It’s scary. Sometimes it’s just plain hurtful. Once or twice, I’ve been in a shop waiting to pay for something and the man behind me decides to wheel me out of the line. Just like that!

The first time I went out in my wheelchair my mum and I were so shocked when an aggressive man leaned over me, shook my wheelchair and quickly thrust his groin in my face as he squeezed past. There was about three feet of space in front of us he could have easily used without pressing up against me or moving my chair at all. I was sixteen. The second and third time a man did “the groin thing” it still bothered me. Now I just see it as something that happens but it’s still upsetting to think about.

On good days I walk, and my disability is completely invisable to the rest of the world. On some “walking days” I feel incredibly vulnerable. Three years ago, on one of these vulnerable walking days, a man cornered me in a park. I was 18, he seemed about 40. I’m petite, fragile from my disability and slender. He had huge muscles and stood head and shoulder over me. He leered. He gave me this grin and nodded his head over and over and over again as he looked me over. He goes, “Yeeeeah. Oh yeah,” and keeps nodding and grinning. I felt sick. My heart was pounding and I didn’t know what to do. How do I get out of it? How do I make him go away? It took me three years to go back to the park he scared me so much. I felt dirty. I felt ashamed. I even blamed myself. It was a hot day but I flung on two jumpers when I got home to cover myself up. I wanted to take a shower so I could somehow shower him away and how he looked at me, but that would involve taking off the jumpers. I couldn’t do that. Didn’t want to be seen, even alone in my bathroom…”

My heart goes out to her. No one should be disrespected like this or feel so unsafe or unwelcome in public.

Do you have any stories to share about yourself or others relating to gender-based street harassment compounded with harassment for having disabilities?

5 Responses to Blogging Against Disablism Day: Street Harassment Edition

  1. NTE says:

    Unfortunately, I do think that people with disabilities are quite vulnerable to this kind of harassment. Luckily, I have not experienced any sexualized harrassment since needing to use my wheelchair, but I do get the people who just move you, who think nothing of pushing your chair out of their way, as if you weren’t a real person for them to have to even acknowledge – the fact that it’s your body they are moving means nothing to them.

    However, back before I acquired my current disability, I was a dancer, one with fragile ankles. Once, after I’d broken my ankle and was hobbling along on my crutches, making my way to school, a man in a car pulled up along side me and offered me a ride. I was 14, and he was, at the very least, 40. I didn’t know him and politely declined, thanked him and kept on hobbling. He started to follow me, kept asking me why I was being so stubborn, how he could see that I was in pain, and he kept pressuring me to get into the car. I started to get more and more uncomfortable, even though he hadn’t said or done anything overtly threatening. (besides not taking my “no” as an answer, that is).
    As I turned the corner to a one way street, he continued to follow me, going in the wrong direction, even. It was then that I went from creeped out to totally terrified: I could not have escaped him in my condition, and I think he realized that he was frightening me, because his demeanor changed from cajoling to demanding very quickly. He started calling me names, and making lewd suggestions; my ‘hurried’ pace made him laugh and taunt about how he’d have to drive faster now to catch me. Another car happened to be coming the right way down the street, at just the right moment, and the other driver honked at him, then yelled out his window to ask me if I was alright, so the driver who had followed me quickly backed up and drove away. Although nothing physically happened to me, that feeling of being threatened was just so intense, and I still think I owe that other driver a huge debt of gratitude.

    Thank you for blogging against disabilism and for seeing how so many things intersect with our prejudice against people who have disabilities.
    Also, I am very sorry to hear about your sister.

  2. Seahorse says:

    Someone once shouted at me ” I’ve seen you walking”

    The word fluctuating isn’t in their vocabularly.

  3. Thank you both for sharing your stories.

    NTE – Wow, I had never heard of or seen people getting moved in their wheelchairs by strangers in that way until I read the story I posted in my blog and I’m sorry to hear you’ve had similar experiences. I’m also sorry about the man who followed you in such a threatening way and I’m glad another car came along. Even with as many stories as I’ve read and heard, I still get outraged when I read new ones like yours.

  4. The thing about people just moving a wheelchair user without talking to them or asking them, at least from the stories I’ve heard (and I’ve heard MANY stories like it) seems to happen to both women and men. I don’t know if it happens to women more frequently or not.

    I have one friend who specifically bought a wheelchair without any handle bars on it to help cut down on the number of strangers tempted to grab her chair and move her. It can be annoying, occasionally scary (if it happens unexpectedly or if you didn’t realize someone was behind you) and very dehumanizing. I guess some people think it’s okay to do this because it seems easier to them to push a wheelchair user out of their way instead of just ASKING the person to move. And they don’t stop to think that it’s incredibly rude for them to do this. It would be rude if they did it to a person could walk and doesn’t become any less rude just because a person in a wheelchair is easier to push.

    I’m a deaf woman (no wheelchair). I’ve had a few incidents with sexual harassment, though I”m not sure that my being deaf necessarily played a role in any of these incidents. (In fact, in one of those incidents, the perpetrator was himself deaf.) I can believe, though, that sometimes disability may play a role in who is targeted. Research about violence against people with disabilities does often find that some abusers target people with disabilities because they see them as more vulnerable, less able to fight back, less able to speak up (especially if a speech-related disability or intellectual disability), less able to identify them (if blind), less able to escape, less likely to be believed (esp. if intellectual disability or psychosocial disability) etc. I would guess that a similar dynamic comes into play with street harassment or bullying.

  5. Vicky says:

    As a child I was repeatedly targeted by a gardener who worked in our neighbourhood when I was out in the street, even if I was with or near a group of other children. He would walk up to me and attempt to touch my genital area; if he encountered me on my own he would make lewd suggestions. I used to blame myself for it, because I could see that he didn’t target other children in this way – he just used to walk right up to me.

    It was only in my early twenties that I realised: it was because I look different. I walk differently. I behave differently. I’m autistic and severely dyspraxic, and it shows. Until then I hadn’t noticed just how much I can stand out when I’m in a group – it was friends from university who told me.

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