A warning sign. A person pushes a wheelchair user, stick figures in a red circle with a line through. To the left of the image is a large red box with white lettering reading Do Not Push.

Private Places, Public Spaces

As a visually impaired woman using a white cane I experience unwanted touching in public every single day.

I have been dragged across roads, pulled out of train carriages and pushed around shops, without being asked if I wanted assistance first.

These experiences can be distressing and disorientating, occasionally they cause me physical harm. Whenever I share a story of being pulled into moving traffic or pushed on the wrong bus, people respond “but they had good intentions! They only meant to help!”

I created the #JustAskDontGrab campaign to channel good intentions into positive action. Through encouraging other disabled people to share their experiences, I hope to educate the public about how to offer help in a respectful and useful way, instead of making assumptions about ability.

I also use the campaign to explain the impact on the physical and mental wellbeing of disabled people who experience daily unwanted touching, and the fears and anxieties often associated with it.

After all, how do I know that someone has good intentions when they touch me and say nothing?

The reason non-consensual touching is so distressing for me, is because it often turns into harassing and intrusive behaviours, and even sexual assault.

  • There was the man who offered to help me across the road, and then followed me for five minutes, asking dozens of personal questions, trying to find out where I worked, asking if I had a boyfriend, and asking which train I was getting on.
  • Or the man who crept up next to me, startled me, asked if I was lost, and then walked next to me making sexually suggestive noises until I used Siri to start calling the police.
  • There was the man grabbed my arm as I stepped down from the bus, loudly announcing “I’ll help you”, as he held onto me and groped my breast.

In the UK women with a disability or long term illness are nearly twice as likely to experience sexual assault (Source: Office of National Statistics). The disabled perspective has been frequently absent from the #MeToo movement and discussions of street harassment. Despite the efforts of excellent activists like Imani Barbarin creator of the #4OutOf5 hashtag, Emily Flores in Teen Vogue and Nidhi Goyal, disabled women are forgotten when we discuss the public experience of intrusive behaviours, unwanted touching and harassment.

Therefore, in order to better understand and reflect these experiences I have collaborated with Dr Hannah Mason-Bish at the University of Sussex on a new research project.

Taking inspiration from #JustAskDontGrab and Everyday Sexism Private Spaces, Public Places invites disabled women and non-binary people to record their experiences of intrusive behaviours, harassment or unwanted touching.

We are requesting stories via the website or email, contributors can give as much detail as they feel comfortable with and all stories will be anonymised.

Using the anonymised contributions, the project seeks to understand the nature and impact of these interactions. It will explore the ways in which this might affect or limit the freedom of movement that disabled women and non-binary people have and what measures they take to avoid these behaviours.

We hope that this project will provide an essential intersectional perspective on street harassment and finally recognise the specific experiences of disabled women and non-binary people.

To leave your story, either contribute on the website here or email Hannah at h.mason-bish@sussex.ac.uk

You can find out more about the project on the website https://privateplacespublicspaces.blog/

4 thoughts on “Private Places, Public Spaces”

  1. This makes me super sad. My husband is a wheelchair user and while he has never been grabbed he has been verbally abused and even threatened with violence on occasion. For him it’s very hard because he became disabled in his mid 20’s and prior to that was 6ft 6 in peak physical condition. The other things that happen are people talk to him like he has mental capacity problems or he is just a bit thick or they talk to me about him. For example we went to a show the venue lacked accessibility despite us ordering an accessible ticket. The management then came and apologised to him but through me. He was right there!

    The way disability is looked at and disabled people are treated frustrates me. I was naively under the impression that disability services were good in the country. However I was shown the true extent of poor access,mistreatment and blatant abuse that people face and it saddens me.


    1. Thank you for your thoughts Kaitlynn. These experiences are very difficult for many disabled people.

      This is the first project looking into these issues that I’m working on. I hope to broaden out the research work I do to include men so please do keep following the blog.


  2. It’s taken me a while to consider commenting so I hope there was no deadline that I may have missed but this will be lengthy. IN my secondary school days between years 7 and 10, I was segregated from my peers as I had an integration aid sitting beside me in each and every class. I guess this was more to stop me getting too touchy feely or to stop me speaking out if I felt I was being bullied. In years 9 and 10 however, if I spoke up to try and stand up for myself, my integration aid would grab my face to try and get me to be quiet. I’ve been going to the gym for a little over a year with a support worker through the national disability insurance scheme or NDIS here in Australia. There is a man with downs syndrome who goes to the gym with his father who is in his 90’s and his support worker. My support worker has picked up that I’ve started to fear this man touching me and I try and side step him or make an excuse as to why I have to leave This might come across to you as a judgement call here but I’m saying it how it is to me. I learnt early on that touch or affection is in a person’s nature irrespective of disability or ability and it’s particularly in the nature of a person with downs syndrome. My support worker isn’t going to hear the whole truth from me because telling her the truth I can see it’s going to make me angry and who could blame me. I’m going to also add something else here that isn’t exactly disability related though and if you feel it doesn’t fit let me know it doesn’t even if you understand where I’m coming from. The subject of pregnant women falls into what I’m talking about here and for good reason and here’s why. children are often very inquisitive souls and when a woman is pregnant, often times a pregnant woman particularly one s who is close to said child whether family a friend of the family or somebody that has known the child for some time will offer up the invitation to feel a woman’s belly. This sometimes also rings true though not often if a child is anxious particularly if it’s a nurse and the child is fearful of needles. it is of course an individual decision some ladies are fine if you ask the question some not so much but as an adult, things change as I said above about somebody with downs syndrome touch is often in their nature and no matter how much you try to explain to them that touch isn’t always appropriate they will never cognatively comprehend it. I know your post was mostly focusing on more so abled people doing this but I just wanted to look at it from a different angle. I myself worry about personal space and I guess when somebody falsely accuses you of groping them on the breast it’s anything to make me more alert and I should not have to be so super aware even if consent is sort and given but sometimes I duck and weave more to think of the other person before myself


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