Disabled women are being constantly groped without their consent – even by people who think they are helping

Women who have shared their stories told me how daily abuse makes them choose to live a ‘smaller life’ or even avoid going out in public altogether

Hannah Mason-Bish
Monday 26 August 2019 11:45 BST
Michelle Obama on the critics of #MeToo

“There is nothing I can do to force people to see me as a human being and respect my boundaries. It is hell.” These are the words of Alyssa, a visually impaired woman describing her frustration at being touched by strangers without her consent.

Her voice is echoed by the many respondents we have had to a research project, Private Places Public Spaces, which aims to highlight how disabled women experience non-consensual touching. There have been more than 60 contributions so far, including stories of women being groped, punched and sexually assaulted; being dragged onto trains; being verbally abused and insulted, or pushed into the road. The most common theme to emerge is that being touched without consent is a daily experience for disabled women.

As a criminologist, I have been researching hate crime and sexual violence for the last 15 years. The emergence of the #MeToo movement and wider efforts to tackle street harassment have been an exciting opportunity to tackle abuse against women. However, the experiences of disabled women have often been missing from public debate and policy.

But we know that disabled women experience higher rates of aggressive sexual harassment, domestic violence and assault. I had this in mind when I heard about the "Just Ask, Don’t Grab" campaign, started by the visually impaired activist Dr Amy Kavanagh. She was frustrated by the daily, intrusive touching that she experienced when out in public and began documenting these incidents on Twitter. We are now working together on a research project which hears the voices of disabled women and tells their stories of non-consensual touching.

Our project has found that sometimes disabled women are touched because strangers assume they need help. This may be well intentioned, but touching someone without permission can have serious consequences. One respondent who has a nerve function disorder said that "even the lightest touch can feel like I’ve been punched, hit with a sledgehammer, tazered or shot". Another described how she was forcibly pushed across a road in her wheelchair by a stranger and feared that she was being kidnapped.

Sadly, a common theme is how quickly situations can escalate towards hostility. Cerise described a man who was really angry for not "appreciating his help" and called her an "ungrateful bitch". Amy had a man who threatened to push her into the road.

The project has also shown that the "helping hand" of the well-intentioned stranger is only one way in which disabled women are touched without their consent. We have uncovered many instances of groping, sexual assault, inappropriate sexual questions and harassment. We have heard stories of disabled women being pushed or moved out of the way as some sort of annoying object. We have heard about mobility aids being kicked and damaged.

Such behaviour speaks to the way that disabled people continue to be treated as an inconvenience, something to be pitied or abused. Understandably, this unwanted touching can have a real emotional impact: some contributors to our project have described that it makes them live a "smaller life" and avoid going out in public altogether. Others only go out with a partner or carer. Denisha says: "I’m frustrated at how often my words go unheard – I feel robbed of my agency and independence. My body is public property."

As allies, what can we do to combat this unwanted touching? First, if you want to help a disabled person then you must ask permission and offer it in an appropriate way. Understand their boundaries and respect their response (Amy shared some great tips on her personal blog). Second, be an active bystander. Many of the women in our project have talked about their frustration at people around them who are witnessing unwanted touching but not doing nothing about it. Consider intervening, or at least offering support afterwards. This makes the victim feel that someone understands that what happened was not okay.

All disabled women have the right to move about in public without the fear of being touched. As Aisha says: "I'm tired (pun also intended, as I have ME) of not being allowed the space to move through the world at my own pace, in whatever way is easiest for me. As long as I am not hurting anybody else, I would like a society that refrains from hurting me."

Dr Hannah Mason-Bish is a criminologist at the University of Sussex. She is director of the university's Centre for Gender Studies. If you are a disabled woman and have experienced non-consensual touching then please contribute your story here

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