With the rise in hate crime so evident, street harassment is on the minds of many of us. However, for disabled people, street harassment is a matter of every-day living. It is a very rare day that I am able to leave the house with my wheelchair and not be subjected to some form of cat-call, jeers, personal and invasive questions, or physical assault because of people’s attitudes toward both my disability and my gender. Being the target of such harassment is intimidating. It makes me feel small and ineffectual, like I have done something wrong by being a disabled body in a space meant only for able-bodied people, no matter how many times I tell myself it’s their issue and I’ll just run them over with my wheelchair if they persist. This intimidation also happens when the ‘good Samaritan’, the helpful stranger who goes oh-so-out-of-their-way to help me realizes that, actually, they’re making my life more difficult. It is astounding how quickly a simple “no thank you I can handle it” turns the air cold, and results in that stranger responding with anger and resentment as if I have personally wronged them by refusing their misguided attempt at helping me.
As scary as street harassment can be, it is usually something I can shake off and move on from, with a cup of tea and a rant on the phone to my mum. It’s awful and dangerous and sometimes violent but I can often console myself, telling myself that the harasser is wrong, that they are the ones who should be ashamed, not me. The thing that truly hurts me is when I am visibly being harassed and nobody else says anything about it. Nobody steps in, nobody even blinks.
Research into street harassment at Cornell University has shown that most targets describe the presence of witnesses negatively. However it was not the presence of witnesses itself that was seen as negative, but the lack of action from them. In situations where bystanders intervened, the target of the harassment described the situation less negatively and, importantly, the harassment was more likely to stop. When nobody intervenes, it reinforces everything the harasser is saying or doing. It compounds the other negative emotional responses to that experience. It is a silent message that what is happening is acceptable, and that the target is truly at fault.
This is of course untrue, but it’s very easy to feel this way when you’re in that situation. You think “am I overreacting?” “Are they right?” “Am I worth so little that nobody cares that I’m being harassed?” or even “I deserve this”. In my experience, those thoughts and the resulting feelings can be as harmful as the harassment itself. In contrast, when a witness does something to stop that behavior (or even just checks in afterward to see if the target of the harassment is okay) it can completely change things. It tells the target “you were not in the wrong”, “that person is the problem, not you”, and “it’s okay to be upset about this – your feelings are valid”. That’s why I started running Active Bystander Intervention Workshops three years ago.
Active Bystander Intervention is exactly what it sounds like – it’s when people who witness an incident step in to do something about it. My workshops put focus on personal safety in these situations, while equipping people with the tools and techniques they need to feel confident in supporting others and stopping harassment when they see it. The sessions last for two hours, involve role-plays and scripted scenarios (who doesn’t love audience participation?) and are prefaced with a lesson in what constitutes harassment and consent. The four Active Bystander techniques are applicable many situations, though I think my personal favourite and most-used method is ‘distraction’. If you see someone being harassed who looks like they need an escape (and it’s safe for you to do so), go up to them and ask for directions, or compliment their shoes and ask where they got them – start a conversation, no matter how small. This will signal to the target that someone else has their back, and also subtly tell the perpetrator that someone has noticed what they’re doing! I love running these workshops, and it is fantastic to see people leave them feeling empowered and determined to make their communities safer and happier.
If you would like more information or an Active Bystander Intervention Workshop at your workplace, school, University, or students’ union please do get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter, or on www.changing-tide.co.uk. I also run training on disability inclusivity, LGBT+ inclusion, mental health, consent, and unconscious bias. I have special rates for non-profit organisations and an additional student discount available, too!