Strangers won't stop touching me and my wheelchair – despite social distancing

I felt sick.

An unmasked older woman had just reached out to touch my face for no apparent reason. 

I’d been sat at a bus stop with my girlfriend Jemma when it happened, and this woman had been eyeing us up from a bench nearby for a while. 

From the way she was smiling at us, I knew what was coming next, and it wasn’t long before she made her way over and plonked herself next to Jemma. 

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That’s when the questions began. 

She asked if I was Jemma’s daughter, and how old I was. Jemma and I started discreetly messaging each other, trying to find a way out of this situation. 

You see, I’m used to strangers talking about me as if I’m not there and invading my personal space without my consent. 

As an electric-powered wheelchair user, it’s astonishing how many people assume your body and whole being is theirs to examine or question. 

Before the pandemic, I was prepared for people to touch me and my wheelchair – especially at bus stops (apparently, me being at the edge of the pavement causes strangers great concern). 

I was, however, expecting that the global pandemic would have put paid to all the unwanted physical contact. 

Pre-March, I had built up a tolerance to people’s nonsense. I would suffer through the incessant questions and the conversation that followed, but this time I wasn’t having any of it for fear that she could be carrying the virus and pass it on to us. 

I made an excuse about being too cold and wanting to sit in the sun, so we moved away. I hoped this would be the end of it, but the woman followed us over. 

She carried on with her questions, directed at Jemma of course, until I told her I was able to speak for myself. 

That’s when she decided to reach out and place her hands on mine. When I asked her to stop touching me, she moved them upwards, to my face. This was all while she was continuing to patronise and pity me.

In hindsight, perhaps she was just an elderly lady struggling with loneliness, and I would have been happy to have a socially distanced conversation with her had she kept 2 metres apart.

But when she reached out and touched me it changed from a frustrating but harmless conversation to a potential health risk. 

I don’t know why I didn’t just pull myself backwards but, honestly, I was frozen to the spot with shock. 

By the time we finally convinced her to leave us alone, having to just be blunter and colder than we usually would be, she’d touched my powerchair controller too. 

I felt anxious for days afterwards. All I could think was, what if she had the virus? 

I’ve spent most of the year doing my best to protect myself, and the idea that all of that could have been undone by one person left me feeling incredibly exasperated.

While I’d never been officially shielding, the fact that just tonsillitis has been known to hospitalise me in the past meant that for many months I didn’t leave my house except to get fresh air. 

All this incident did was reminded me of how often my body has not been my own. 

Pre-coronavirus, every day I would face commuters leaning on my powerchair on the train, and others touching my shoulder as they gave me their unwanted pity. 

In January of this year, a woman even came up to me and took my hands without saying a word, before offering to pray for me. I shook her off and spewed out my usual lines about being happy with my life until she got the message. 

I’m far from the only disabled person to have experienced this. Dr Amy Kavanagh, who is visually impaired and uses a white cane, has even set up the #JustAskDontGrab campaign because of how frequently she has been touched by strangers.

Her campaign encourages people to ask if a disabled person needs their help, rather than just giving it without as much as a hello. Amy strives to hammer home the importance of consent in these situations, encouraging respect for disabled people. 

As a disabled person, it often feels like my space and body are not respected in the same way non-disabled people’s are. I don’t feel as though society sees me as a whole person. Particularly as a wheelchair user, I often feel more like an object.

Perhaps this is down to a lack of understanding about disability, or often the fact that so many people see disabled people as less than and therefore don’t apply the same courtesies that others receive.  

The ease with which people grab and touch me is alarming, not only because it is incredibly intrusive and without my consent, but also because I live with chronic pain that is so easily worsened by the smallest of external pressures

Although it’s an issue I often brush off as just part of my daily life, these experiences make me feel like more of an object than a person.

Dealing with unwanted physical contact was hard enough before Covid-19, but now I’m more anxious than ever about strangers not respecting my personal space.

Although I’m fortunate that this woman didn’t pass coronavirus onto us, it has made me more wary about sitting at a bus stop or simply stopping in the street. But, it’s also made me want to speak up more and give myself permission to set boundaries without worrying about hurting a person’s feelings.

I’m happy to have a conversation and have help offered, but please think twice about simply reaching out and touching a disabled person or simply giving help without permission.

We are human beings with feelings, too.

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