I encounter access barriers whenever I am out and about with my white cane, especially when I am alone. I am grabbed, pulled, shouted at, patted, questioned, 'helped' without asking, and harassed by the public. Every time the environment I'm in makes me visibly struggle - in the eyes of others - it reinforces the idea that disabled people always require help and 'saving'.
Every time a disabled person encounters a barrier that causes them to stay at home, it makes seeing people with disabilities - going about their daily lives - an even rarer sight. Access barriers - combined with a lack of education and public information - make those disabled people who are getting on with their lives, out and about in public, to be viewed as somehow extraordinary, or heroic, or even a cause for panic!
This is a social media post I wrote two years ago. It is as true now as it was then:
Social Distancing: The Perfect Time to Stop Grabbing Disabled People.
“Surely people have stopped touching you now?”
Let me share the story of my day, 19th March 2020. I am functionally blind. I walk competently with my white cane, and I am always grabbed by strangers without consent. Today I counted.
I caught and changed buses, walked to the doctor’s, the fruit and veg shop, and the supermarket. Total walking, about five blocks.
In that short time I was pushed, pulled or patted by five different strangers, all on my shoulders. Usually it was the first I even knew they were there.
Two people also snapped at me. The first snapper didn’t actually touch me. This person asked four times if I needed help off the bus, despite my firm “No thanks” reply each time. They then shrieked at me when I felt for the ground with my foot. I said I didn’t need help simply getting off a bus. They muttered behind my back, presumably about how rude I was.
The second snapper was a man who patted me on the arm at a pedestrian crossing. I moved away, but when I was crossing went he put a hand on my shoulder and pulled, saying, “Here I’ll help you."
I said, “Please don’t touch me without asking.”
He snapped, “Be like that,” and stormed off.
I am not sharing this because my story is unusual. It wasn’t even a bad day. This treatment is my normal.
In the past I have been gripped and pulled by my wrist, grabbed, pushed and pulled by my shoulders, around my waist, my hands, and even my backpack. My white cane is also often grabbed, this leaves me vulnerable and unable to sense my surroundings.
I’ve been screamed at, sworn at, snapped at, ignored, disbelieved and told I should be grateful.
I know that people often ‘mean well’, but at the end of the day, actions speak louder than intentions. Barring some life or death scenario, it is never acceptable to touch someone without consent. To clarify, being a disabled person in public is not life or death. Pulling me towards a drop could be.
But it happens. It happens to all my disabled friends too, whether they are blind, or are wheelchair users, use other mobility aids, etc.
It happens to disabled people all over the world.
Here’s what we need from you. Never ever touch a disabled person, or our mobility aids, without consent.
Stand beside us, support us, as we stand up to those who do try to non-consensually touch us.
Educate your friends.
Call out those who won’t stop.
Never ever defend it by saying, “They’re just trying to help”.
Please share. I have made this post public so that you can.
Many people don’t even know this is a problem disabled people face.
COVID-19 social distancing highlighted another layer of danger. I am asthmatic. Most of the people I know are vulnerable.
But I cannot keep myself or those around me safe because personal space is not a right disabled people get.
I want the Government's new access law to remove the barriers - physical, financial and social - to disabled people's access to public spaces, activities and general life. Accessibility legislation should increase education and public awareness. And the Government should lead by example in treating disabled people as valuable and respected members of society.
This is a story about the barriers many face. We're sharing it because we want a law that puts accessibility at the heart of an inclusive Aotearoa New Zealand.