Last week I had a somewhat unsettling experience. I am still trying to come to terms with it, and usually writing about it helps me to figure things out.
I had lunch with my friend Oline, and as we both had been to New York during the last few weeks (New York Crip Advisor coming soon!), we had an animated discussion about our experiences in the city.
Suddenly, a guy at the table next to us barged in, without any invitation from either of us – I hadn’t even noticed him sitting there. He was an ordinary, if slightly dishevelled looking, guy in his 60s, with an Eastern European accent. “You from New York?” he said, and it was clearly directed at me. “No, I’m from Switzerland,” I said, slightly perplexed. The way he interrupted our conversation felt intrusive, especially as I hadn’t seen Oline for a few weeks and we had so much to discuss. “Ah, you like it better here than in Switzerland?’ he said, in the same slightly brusque manner. At this point I was wondering whether he was trying to hit on me, so I responded that I liked both, and that my husband is British.
He looked at me, assessing me, from top to bottom. “You have husband?” – “Yes.” I became perplexed and to find the situation slightly ridiculous. “You are married even though you are in a wheelchair?!” – “Yes” “Really?!” – “Yes.” I started to giggle nervously, because of the sheer ludicrousness of the moment. “It’s great that you are married even though you are in a wheelchair. I am disabled and I have no wife,” he said, pointing at his leg, which was covered by the table. So far, I hadn’t noticed that he was disabled, and my annoyance that I felt with him, for judging me, for his curiosity, for only seeing my disability, now became conflicted, because despite all of this, I felt I should feel solidarity with him as a disabled person, and empathy for his loneliness. Nevertheless, I didn’t like how he reduced me to my impairment, and how he assumed all disabled people had the same experiences as he does. Many disabled people I know are in relationships, while others are happily single out of choice, exploring their options, so I responded to him that in my experience, being disabled and being single always correlates. He bluntly responded “Oh, I think it does! Do you have children, too?” – I should have ended the conversation right there and then, but he caught me off-guard, and again, him being disabled too somehow made me feel that he deserved to be responded and to be acknowledged, even though something inside me warned me about his intrusion. I nervously giggled even more and said “not yet”, to which he responded “Ah, can you have children? Is it possible, you being in a wheelchair??” “I don’t know…” I said. He started babbling something which I couldn’t understand fully, but I think he assumed from what I told him that I never had sex before (LOL) and felt the need to comment on that. I felt confused, shocked, surprised. Why did I let a complete stranger corner me like that, why did I even answer him?! Luckily, at this moment Oline interrupted: “We are having a private conversation here, please respect that,” she told him.
That was the last time I looked at him. From that moment I focused on Oline and tried hard to shut him out, to change conversation, and shortly after he left the café, without me even noticing. I was overwhelmed and angry with myself. Why did I let that happen? Usually I don’t have a problem telling strangers to sod off when I feel they are being intrusive. However, their intrusion usually comes from a place where they are curious about disability because the know very little about it. This man, however, felt like a spectre that had come to haunt me with my deepest fears, to confront me with my own moments of loneliness, with the internalized oppression that so many disabled people struggle to shake off. The rest of the afternoon I felt spooked, and very confused.
Yet, he was also a man, a stranger, who felt he could pass judgement about me as a woman and about my womb, to interrogate me without my permission, completely uninvited. I feel that it was not okay for him to violate me like that under any circumstances. Yet I also wonder whether we, as a society, are responsible for letting things like that happen, letting people like this man to become so lonely and isolated until they find no other outlet, no other space to discuss their loneliness, than by taking advantage of unsuspecting strangers. But part of me also knows that there are safe spaces and services, even if they are rare and imperfect, where he could have taken his unhappiness, instead of imposing it on unsuspecting strangers. All I know is that I felt violated and deeply unsettled for the rest of the day, and if something like that ever happens again, I will protect myself better.