Have You Brought Your Disability? Here’s Your Double Standard.

I want you to picture this hypothetical scenario. Upon arriving at the destination, a woman is about to get out of the car. One of the lesser known persons waiting outside lends his hand offering to help which she politely refuses. A moment later as she’s almost done, he suddenly grabs her inappropriately under the shoulder and pulls her out, ignoring that she had declined and making her uncomfortable. What would you call this act? Disrespect? Harassment? Some may say groping, depending upon the nature of contact and gender dimensions involved. Most people, however, would surely agree it is unacceptable behaviour to touch another person like that without their consent. They would probably express their disagreement by openly questioning his action.

Now imagine the situation happening for real. Only this time, she was getting out of the car and transferring onto her wheelchair. The same incident took place but nobody in the scene showed any objection. Why would they when they don’t see it as problematic? When all of it was seen as natural or even ‘good’ conduct? No one confronted the man’s behaviour. Neither did I. All I could do later on was wishing the anger and frustration had hit me before the pain and humiliation. Yes, I’m that disabled woman.

And why pain? Because this isn’t the first time I’ve experienced lack of consideration for personal boundaries from others, nor mine an isolated or rare incident for a disabled person. Meeting someone with a visible disability it seems is a free golden ticket for many to break away from those darned social norms they otherwise have to follow as civil beings. Unwarranted pats, strangers inquiring about my impairment before even asking my name, women I meet for the first time wanting to examine my hands or legs.. all that had become so routine that until the age of 19 I didn’t recognize the oppression of it and used to feel guilty when at times I refused participation. Like somehow I owed it to them. Had the above mentioned incident happened to a non-disabled woman, the conversation would have immediately (and rightfully) been on indecency, violation of consent, unsafe environments, and every other argument that points in the direction of disrespecting autonomy and infringement of bodily integrity. But add disability to the equation and the very same reasoning gets replaced with muddled excuses or efforts to frame it as an overreaction to a not-so-serious issue. I can almost hear it.

“But he was just trying to help you.”
“I think it was made clear I didn’t need it. Besides if you really want to help someone, isn’t following their reaction the right way to do it?”

“I’m sure his intentions weren’t bad.”
“Maybe not. But intentions aren’t always necessary for something to be inappropriate. I could attempt to insult a man by calling him a pussy and it would still be sexist even if engaging in sexism wasn’t the plan on my mind.”

“Ok so you’re disabled and now you’re saying you shouldn’t be assisted? Isn’t that being arrogant?”
“I didn’t say I wouldn’t ever want any help. I’m just saying I didn’t require it in this particular case. What he did was the opposite, it was hurt. Please understand the difference.”

“Fine, I get that it must have been bad for you. Now just let it go. Why are we even talking about this?”
I don’t know, maybe because for a brief moment I had the delusion I was equally human…


Let’s have a look at this in the larger social context. Study after study show that women with disabilities are twice as likely to experience domestic violence and other forms of gender-based and sexual violence than non-disabled women, are likely to experience abuse over a longer period of time and to suffer more severe injuries as a result of the violence. Similar but more often than non-disabled women, their abuser is someone close to them. It could be their guardian, spouce, relative or caregiver. [Quoting one of the links] “Frequently they do not report the violence. Institutions of the justice system are often physically inaccessible and do not provide reasonable accommodation, they often lack access to legal protection and representation, law enforcement officials and the legal community are ill-equipped to address the violence, their testimony is often not viewed as credible by the justice system and they are not privy to the same information available to non-disabled women.”

Yet response to this obvious reality remains quite minimal. The mainstream media and larger public while becoming increasingly conscious and giving more visibility to awareness generation regarding gender issues, are yet to turn proper attention towards those affecting disabled women. What are the reasons they face such discrimination? According to the same study, “women and girls with disabilities are at high risk of gender-based and other forms of violence based on social stereotypes and biases that attempt to dehumanize or infantilize them, exclude or isolate them, target them for sexual and other forms of violence, and put them at greater risk of institutionalized violence.”

And how do we know that? From countless experiences like the one above.



Related Links:

1. https://freethoughtblogs.com/brutereason/2013/06/25/touching-people-without-their-consent-still-a-problem-even-if-its-not-sexual/

2. http://kractivist.wordpress.com/2013/03/16/india-not-a-safe-issue-disabled-women-and-sexual-violence-vaw-disability/

3. http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/the-disabilities-bill-is-a-mixed-bag/article3927212.ece




  1. left0ver1under says

    When I was younger, I was taught that if I wanted to help a blind person cross the street, I should offer my arm (e.g. gently bump my elbow against the person’s elbow and ask if help was wanted), not forcefully grab the person. Blind people already know how to cross the street by themselves, but courtesy is appreciated.

    In the same way, people who use wheelchairs already know how to get into them. Would it be appropriate to offer holding in place the wheelchair by its back handgrips so it doesn’t roll? Doing it without being asked would be condescending, but would I imagine offering to hold it in place has the same level of politeness and courtesy as the example of the blind above.

  2. Anita J says

    @left0ver1under: No I don’t think that would come across as condescending. Its a genuine gesture. The difference is that you’re not violating any personal boundaries while doing it unlike the one in the post. I don’t want to speak for all wheelchair users but personally I don’t see any harm in that. Especially if its a manual wheelchair.

  3. Thamar says

    Thank you SO much for this article!
    A lot of times I don’t even get asked, if they can help; they just ‘help’.
    If I protest, I should be greatfull.
    And I should be polite to ‘adults’ (I am 41 years. Also I am 4″1).

  4. embertine says

    This is excellent. I don’t get why people don’t understand that disabled people are perfectly capable of asking for help, or if you politely ask if help is wanted, of responding with a yes or no.

    Somewhat connected, I recently watched one of those hoarders programmes (I know, shame on me) and had to switch it off in a rage when the woman doing the cleanup told the hoarder to give her a hug. Bear in mind that this woman is a hoarder, has severe social anxiety and is pretty much a shut-in. She said no. Just no, nothing else. The cleaner then grabbed her and hugged her forcibly. The hoarder kept saying no quietly throughout the hug. I couldn’t believe that not only was the bodily autonomy of this person not being respected, but that this was apparently considered so normal that the producers of the programme decided to edit it in as part of the show!

    I’m not generally a letters-to-the-editor sort of person, but do you think I should complain?

  5. Anita J says

    You can definitely write your opinion to them. Feedbacks can motivate them to improve the show. So yeah pls do so.

  6. MaryL says

    Yes, ASK us if we’d like assistance. If the answer is yes, let us tell you what is needed. If it’s no, please be polite and accept that answer. And may all of us remember that “Please.” Thank you.” and “You’re welcome.” are, as most of us were taught, magic words.

  7. Kate S says

    Thanks for writing this! At 17 I have a physical disability. I hate it when people do things I can do for me but I’ve always been told to stop being silly and be grateful. After reading this it makes me feel better for feeling as I do.

  8. rilian says

    I don’t like it when people jump in and do things for me that I could have done on my own or maybe I wanted a chance to TRY it on my own. and then I have to stand by and not say anything lest I offend the helper. no-one will be on my side in this disagreement. so that’s why I don’t help people unless they ask for it or if they obviously need help I offer advice and then walk away. I don’t want them to feel pressured. I hate those situations where there’s a social pressure to “help” someone but maybe they don’t want your help and maybe you don’t want to get involved anyway so why should you have to?

  9. left0ver1under says

    Anita J (#4) – Perhaps “would” was the wrong word, and I should have said “might be condescending”. And don’t some manual wheelchairs have brakes on the wheels to prevent rolling?

    I’ve never encountered a person getting out of a sedan into a wheelchair, so it’s never come up in my life. The only people I’ve seen people exiting and entering vehicles with wheelchairs it was on buses and vans via a ramp, so the point was moot.

    Regarding others’ comments and situations, almost no one objects to having a door held open for them, be the person a man, woman, or child, able or disabled. The only time someone didn’t want me to hold open the door was a guy on crutches. He wasn’t using the door, he was going past it and I ended up wasting my time holding it; I hadn’t seen him shake his head “no”. No harm done.

  10. F [is for failure to emerge] says

    Excellent piece.

    “I’m sure his intentions weren’t bad.”

    His intentions were to ignore another human’s own agency and autonomy. This is bad.

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