Don't Touch My Wheelchair Without My Consent

I’ve touched on this before; actually I’m pretty sure I’ve ranted about this before on a bigger overall post about consent, but considering today’s outing into my local small town I feel a bigger discussion is needed. A much bigger discussion. So for the able-bodied readers, please know that while many of you already know this, this is aimed at the people who don’t. I’m sick of having to have the sort of showdown I had in a charity shop today, and I’m sure other wheelchair users are too.

We are all familiar with the concept of bodily autonomy, or we should be. Most people are aware of the idea when it comes to sexual consent. You don’t get to touch another person’s body without permission. You don’t get to kiss them, to hold hands, to have sex with them without them explicitly allowing you to do so. This is what we should be teaching our sons (and daughters), instead of teaching our daughters to never leave a place alone, avoid wearing clothes that are revealing, and never ever do anything that might suggest in any way that they are sexual beings. But do we talk about consent and bodily autonomy when it comes to wheelchair users? Are you scratching your head about the last time you heard this discussed? I’m pretty sure a large proportion of people reading this are.

Picture this, if you will. I’m a U.K. size 14 (U.S. size 16) individual with blue hair, dark glasses (Irlen tints). I’m 5 feet 6 inches tall. I choose to use a manual self-propelled wheelchair, rather than an electric one, to try and keep some muscle tone in my upper body so when I use my walking sticks rather than my chair I can get around more easily.

I am entering a charity shop and manage to hit slightly the wrong angle. One woman asks me if she can help me into the shop and I politely decline, saying I just need to reverse and re-position my angle. She nods. That should be the end of it. Enter her mother, who comes along and just pushes me in. She wrenches my hands from my larger wheels, causes my right shoulder to go into subluxation, and then when I don’t thank her for her help, mutters to her daughter that I could at least be grateful.

Variations of this scene play out regularly. People often don’t see those of us in wheelchairs as their equals because they see the chair before they see us. They see the disability before the ability and may assume we’ll be grateful for any and all assistance. The thing is, I genuinely am grateful when I’ve asked for that assistance, like when I had earlier asked for someone to get me an item from the chest freezer in another shop, which I couldn’t reach. But to assume I need help and lay hands on my chair is another thing. I’m currently propped up against pillows in my bed as I type this because I can’t move my shoulder very far. I can’t put the lidocaine patch I need on the shoulder without my sister’s help, and the pain killers I have aren’t really going to touch the pain.

If the above incident would have happened yesterday, I would have crawled into my shell, wheeled myself away and hidden from the woman until she left the shop. My PTSD-induced anxiety was high and I was trying not to hide away as I went out to get things done. Today though, already dealing with high pain and a bad night’s sleep, my temper was up. When this woman muttered to her daughter, in front of her 3-year-old grandson that I “could have said thanks,” I bit. I turned around and unleashed something along the lines of the following:

“I had already turned down your daughter’s offer of help and was in the process of re-positioning my chair when you came along and pushed me into the shop without my permission. In doing so you’ve caused me more pain than I was already in. I don’t allow people I don’t know, who haven’t been trained, to push my chair due to the nature of my condition. If it is pushed in the wrong way, the additional issues caused can set me back, cause me further problems, and reduce my capacity to function.

Furthermore, what have you taught your grandson on the issue of consent? A wheelchair user’s chair is an extension of their body, and by pushing it without permission, you violated me. You’ve wrenched my shoulder, and no, I won’t be thanking you. You should be thankful I’m not asking the shop manager to call the police so I can report you for assault. You may think I need people to feel sorry for me and therefore were doing a good thing, but you didn’t ask. You assumed from the point of view of someone who has never used a wheelchair, and overrode my bodily autonomy.”

She looked at me in shock. Perhaps the use of large words confused her, or it could have been the fact I used language that told her she’d assaulted me. I’m not entirely sure. Maybe she didn’t expect a wheelchair user to be so eloquent. I’m an English Lit major and an author, what can I say? But these are the things the able-bodied public need to learn. They need to be taught that wheelchair users need and want their chairs to be treated as a part of them.

Our chairs, even if we use them part-time, are an extension of us. Without them we have less independence, less freedom. If you knock them or handle them wrongly, you risk hurting us, making our conditions worse, and ultimately putting us in dangerous situations. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve had people bash into my chair without thinking, or climb over my footplates without a thought as to what would happen if they tripped and landed in my lap.

People with disabilities are humans too, and only they have the right to decide who touches their bodies. We need to respect that people with disabilities have the right to decide who touches their bodies, and their mobility aids as well. That wheelchairs are not just a means of getting about, but an extension of the person using them.

Follow this journey on N.A.’s blog.

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