Experiencing Harassment and Stranger Interactions as a Disabled Woman

The photo on the left hand side of the image is Emma, a young white woman with brown hair and tinted glasses, smiling into the camera whilst sat in her wheelchair. She is wearing a red check shirt, red leather jacket and a purple face covering around her neck. The blue text on the right hand side reads "Experiencing Harassment and Stranger Interactions as a Disabled Woman".
Original Photo Credit: Dev Place Photos. Image Description: The photo on the left hand side of the image is Emma, a young white woman with brown hair and tinted glasses, smiling into the camera whilst sat in her wheelchair. She is wearing a red check shirt, red leather jacket and a purple face covering around her neck. The blue text on the right hand side reads "Experiencing Harassment and Stranger Interactions as a Disabled Woman".

Recently, I experienced 3 different interactions in the space of 5 days that really stuck with me (in a bad way). Two of them were very clear cut harassment and one more what I would call a ‘stranger interaction’. This is something I know other people, and specifically other disabled people, have  talked about, so it’s something I thought I should discuss. Firstly, I wanted to just address why I have separated stranger interactions and harassment in the title, because frankly the answer is I don’t know why. Initially, I was going to address these two things as separate ideas in two separate posts, but as my friend Dev pointed out over on my Instagram, there’s a whole bunch of overlap between the two ideas. The definition of harassment  is ‘unwanted behaviour’ which the person finds ‘offensive’ or which leaves them feeling ‘humiliated or intimidated’ and asking a disabled person you have never met how they have sex (which strangers often do) is DEFINITELY ‘offensive’, strangers talking to me is also generally ‘unwanted behaviour’, like, if I don’t  know you, please don’t randomly spark up a conversation. I guess what I’m saying here is stranger interactions ARE harassment as a disabled person and I don’t know why it’s taken this long for that to click for me.

Now on to the actual incidents. This first one, the more ‘stranger interaction’ type incident, happened in the middle of my mission to vote in the latest round of elections. A woman stopped me in the middle of the pavement and started the conversation with “I don’t mean to accost you dear”.  BIG red flag here, if you “don’t mean” to accost me, then…don’t. If you say that then continue talking to me, your ‘accosting me’ is 100% intentional. She then proceeded to tell me this story about her disabled friend and some funny nickname a random kid had given to the friend’s wheelchair once. This struck me as odd for two reasons: 1) Don’t reveal your friend’s status as a disabled person to a random stranger, that’s personal information and I just… nah don’t do that, and 2) You thought that little anecdote was worthy of stopping a stranger in the middle of the street who was OBVIOUSLY in the middle of doing something? Kids say cute things about mobility aids all the time, I’ve heard stories like that at least weekly for like the past decade. I wasn’t entirely sure how to react to this rando, anecdote. This woman then became somewhat annoyed about my lack of reaction (my face is the kind that can’t fake a reaction if I don’t actually care about what you just said) which was odd. I’m not a performing monkey who’s going to react positively because you’re telling me a story involving a disabled person and I AM a disabled person. But at the same time I’m also trying not to anger this woman in case the situation escalates and she gets more annoyed and tries to attack me or something, which sounds entirely ridiculous. WHY am I still altering my response to harassment as a disabled person in the year 2021 purely out of fear of being attacked for reacting ‘wrong’?

I think I’ve figured out why I previously saw these stranger interactions as different from the clearer cut harassment  is that these incidents are often framed as people “just trying to be nice” or “just trying to communicate/start a conversation”. If all you can find to discuss with me is disability related, that doesn’t sound like you want to know me, that just sounds like you want a free disability encyclopaedia. Also why are we still giving people props for  “trying” to communicate with disabled people? it’s 2021 for pity’s sake, I’m disabled, I’m not an alien, communicating with me is NOT that difficult.

Now onto the incidents of clear cut harassment. Both of these involved strange men giving  “compliments” to my friends and I as we sat having coffee. As a  disabled woman, I’m always scared of these kind of incidents happening, because I can’t get away as easily. In the first of these two incidents, the man was ‘complimenting’ my friends but not me. Was that because I’m disabled? Was it because I was not responding to him? Who knows, what I do know is that I immediately jumped to making sure I wasn’t going to anger him and trying to find what weapons I could use to defend myself if he attacked. I grabbed at my keys, checked that my footplates were down so I could catch his ankles, and checked whether I was at the right level to drop kick him in the crown jewels if he grabbed me. I also began wondering what I’d do if I was alone in this situation, because I  couldn’t easily enter shop the coffee shop we were at to get help. I also noticed a severe lack of bystander intervention in both incidents, other than some shocked looks when I told the guy in the second incident to fuck off (*gasp* the disabled girl said a sweary word). Thankfully, I was able to get away from both harassers, in the first instance, I was able to drop a little signal hint to my friend who went inside the coffee shop to get help, and then the staff there were able to shoo the harasser away. However, in the second incident both myself and the friend were wheelchair users and so couldn’t  enter the coffee  shop to get help (and our path into the shop was also blocked by the harasser at some points). Luckily, we know the staff in that coffee shop quite well and so they saw us having issues and came out to stop the harassment.

I don’t really know why I wrote this blog post other than to get these incidents off my chest and show you that harassment does happen to disabled people, perhaps more often than you think.  Disabled women in particular are at higher risk of being harassed and assaulted. In fact, according to the disability and crime report published in 2019, disabled women are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted or harassed than non-disabled women. I don’t know for sure why this but I’d guess it’s because we’re seen as an easier target.  I think this is because it’s harder for us to get into a venue to ask for help and it may be harder for us to physically defend ourselves from attack.

Oh and while I still have your attention, asking disabled people random questions about their disability or their lives IS harassment, no matter how you frame it. Search engines exist, if you have questions about life as a disabled person, use them, disabled people are not your rolling encyclopaedias of disability knowledge. Orrrrrrrrrrr, you could just check out the rest of my blog and see if any of my posts answer your questions.

Stay Invincible!

Em (Invincible Woman On Wheels)

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