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To the People Who Think It’s OK to Touch Me or My Wheelchair Without Asking

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I was faced with one of the most awkward situations I’ve experienced yet, and that’s saying a lot because I always seem to get in the middle of awkward situations. A stranger legitimately went out of his way to touch me on the shoulder as I was trying to drive down the street in my chair. It was raining, and I was trying to go rather quickly to keep my chair from getting wet. I was being careful though, and I was nowhere near close to hitting this guy or even being in his way, and he decides to reach out, touch me on the shoulder and say, “Slow down there, honey.”

Let’s not even talk about how patronizing that is. I’m saying it here, and I’m saying it now: Do not touch me without my permission. Ever. The same thing goes for my chair.

It happens a lot, though — random people thinking they have the right to touch me or my chair without asking or even ever speaking to me. Random strangers will pat me on the head as they walk by. Sometimes it’s a shoulder grab. People seem to have this really annoying habit of touching me. More often than not, the random awkward touching by strangers is also accompanied by a patronizing comment like, “You’re so inspiring,” or “You’re so brave” or my personal favorite, “You’re such a pretty girl.” I do not exist as a symbol of bravery or inspiration, and I certainly don’t exist to be touched without my permission.

How would you like it if people just came up to you and started grabbing at you without ever asking? It’s not flattering. It’s not kind. Honestly, it’s uncomfortable and sometimes even frightening.

A lot of times people know better than to actually touch me, but the same basic courtesy doesn’t extend to my chair. Random strangers in stores and on the Metrorail will use my chair as an armrest or a footrest. People will hang their packages and purses on the back of my chair without asking, as if I’m their own personal coatrack. It’s really annoying, and it also makes me feel subhuman.

You wouldn’t walk up to someone on the street, or even a friend, and put your feet in their lap or hand them your bags without asking first. But people do that to me all the time. They don’t get it. They don’t think it’s a big deal. They forget that my chair is an extension of me. It goes everywhere with me. It’s a part of me. Touching it without my permission is like touching me without my permission. Totally uncool.

The most extreme example I can think of of this situation that I’ve ever been in was in my ninth grade English class. Some boy stuck his fingers in the holes on the back of my wheelchair handles. I was completely unaware of this, although I thought I’d felt someone touching me. I moved forward to get out of my desk at the end of class, and he fell straight out of his seat. His fingers had gotten stuck in the holes. Everybody laughed. I felt so uncomfortable. Not only was I now unwillingly part of this awkward situation that made me the center of attention, but also somebody had been touching me without my permission.

If you see me on the street and you don’t know me, don’t touch me or my chair. If we’re random acquaintances, and you don’t have my permission, don’t touch me or my chair. If we’re friends, and you haven’t asked first, don’t hang your bags on the back of my chair while we’re shopping. I wouldn’t hand you all my bags and expect you to hold them without at least asking you if it was OK first. Please extend me the same courtesy you expect.

In the end, that’s what this all comes down to: courtesy and respect. It blows my mind every day how people do and say things to me that they would never do or say to me if I wasn’t in a wheelchair. If I wasn’t in a wheelchair, random strangers would definitely think twice before patting me on the head or grabbing my shoulder. If I wasn’t in a wheelchair, nobody would ever consider using me as their own personal armrest or coat hanger. If I wasn’t in a wheelchair, these things wouldn’t be a common occurrence. In fact, they would probably never happen to me. Why should the wheelchair change everything?

The next time you’re about to engage in this type of behavior, I encourage you to think, “Would I do this if this person was not a wheelchair user?” If the answer is no, don’t do it. Simple as that.

People want all these rules for how they should interact with wheelchair users, and I’m going to boil it down to one for you right now. If you wouldn’t do it or say it to somebody who’s not a wheelchair user, don’t do it or say it to me.

I’m not your pet you can just touch without asking. I’m not a coat hanger you can hang things on without permission. I am a person, and I deserve to be treated as such.

Follow this journey on Claiming Crip.

Originally published: November 3, 2015
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