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Non-Consensual Touching Seems to Depend On Who's Being Touched

I place the highest value on the impulse to help. One of my favourite things about my neighbourhood is that people ask me if I need help all the time. It never ever irritates me; it makes me happy. 19 times out of 20 I don’t, and I decline with a friendly word of thanks. In many other parts of the city however, I’m regularly physically accosted by well-meaning busybodies who haven’t learned to use their words. It’s not just me of course; most other blind people I know have the same problem. There’s a depressing distance between the good intentions of strangers who grab me on the street or in the subway, assuming I need help when I don’t, and the anger I often feel at being touched without consent.

People want to help. People want to make my unimaginable life a little easier. People want to save me from, well, I’m not sure what they want to save me from when they grab my elbow and propel me in the same direction I’m already headed. People want to make themselves feel good by doing a kindness, regardless of whether it’s necessary. Maybe some of these people would ask if I needed help first if they spoke English, but quite often, I’m seized and propelled by a wordless presence, a kind of misguided specter who makes no sound, and who either gets shaken off, or lets go when they feel their mission is accomplished. As they clearly feel me incapable of finding the turnstile I’m heading right towards without their help, it’s unclear when their mission could ever be truly accomplished. It forces me to wonder how they think I got this far. How did I make it from my front door to this point without them?

Don’t get me wrong, if I’m one step away from sailing off the subway platform onto the tracks, I hope someone will grab me, but in several decades of independent travel, there’s only been one time when such instant intervention was necessary, and it was to pull me back from a careless driver, not stop me doing what I was doing.

In chatting with blind friends about this, it’s clear that it happens more to some than to others. Here’s the interesting part. My female blind friends get it way more than my male blind friends. This is no surprise to me at all. The issue here is one of agency and entitlement, or I should say: a perceived lack of agency, and a perceived sense of entitlement. In many ways, women have traditionally been categorized with children in terms of law and custom. Thank the stars this is far far less true than it used to be, but there’s still a lingering whiff left. For the disabled, this perception is alive and thriving. My sisters and I are seen as vulnerable, fragile, incapable, and childlike, by many people. When these people touch us without warning or permission, they feel completely within the bounds of decency, entitled to violate our personal space in a way they’d never consider doing to anyone else accept a child.

Imagine you’re getting on a bus. You’ve put your foot on the first step and are about to step up. Suddenly there are hands on either side of your waste, pushing you up and forward. How acceptable is it to touch a stranger in this way without their knowledge or consent? This particular experience has happened to me more than once; especially baffling, as I’m clearly able to walk and move on my own, and presumably climb a few stairs onto a bus. What stops me from whirling around and smacking the idiot hard? The knowledge that, though hideously misguided, their gross impropriety comes from a desire to do good. It’s a ridiculous expression of the desire, and in other circumstances could be construed as assault or harassment, but because I have a disability, no one will think twice about it. I’m one of society’s most vulnerable; of course anyone reaching out to me is acting from a place of warm and fuzzy altruism. So instead of respect for the skills that got me to that bus, I’m offered condescension, and infantilized in a way no other group would begin to tolerate. If I speak out in the moment, I come across as a bitter and ungrateful blind person. How can I convey all of what I’ve written here in the two seconds afforded by transient transit communication? I can’t. Therefore, I can either give reign to my sense of violation by making a scene, or say nothing.

I’m a massage therapist. I touch people for a living. I do it with care, respect, intention, consent, and the desire to heal. I’m an affectionate person with my partner and my friends. I value human contact highly, and in the right mood, I don’t hate it when some gentle old grandfather takes my wrist to guide me toward an open subway door. Increasingly though, I experience these unwanted intrusions as invasive, insulting, demeaning, and disrespectful. Further, I have no choice about who touches me. A gentle old grandfather is one thing, but what about an odorous person? Or a person I just instinctively don’t trust? Or someone who’s so feeble that instead of helping me they slow me down?

Regardless of who my benefactor is, I’m expected to be grateful for the help, even if I didn’t need it. I now occasionally say, “Thanks but please stop touching me,” and if a repetition of this phrase doesn’t work, I sometimes have to physically pluck a hand off my arm. Now and then I invite people to “Use your words.”

There’s a troubling double standard at work here. Because I’m disabled, the same rules of courtesy, personal space, consent and respect don’t apply to me. Sometimes I do need help, and I’m always really appreciative of those who give it. Frankly, this is another reason I struggle not to lose my temper; the brutal truth is that one day I might be in real danger, or lost, and the more people I alienate, the fewer people I, and others with disabilities will have to rely on. Sometimes though, I really want to creep up behind these people and grab them when they don’t know it’s coming, and see how they like it. I guaranty you they wouldn’t. I might even get slugged, or charged with assault.

We’re not children, and we’re not helpless. Many, maybe most people already understand this, but I find it hard to react appropriately when physically confronted with people who don’t. I’m not what you’d call especially young anymore, and yet I still struggle to find that fine line between self-assertion, and hostility. I don’t want to feel or express anger, but neither do I want to be touched unexpectedly by strangers. A reasonable expectation? I think so.


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