Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The day a stranger tried to interrogate me about my womb, sex life and disability while I was having lunch with a friend

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.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Hamburger Queen: Where fat politics and disability politics meet – and have a party!

I wrote a new blog post for Disability Arts Online about fat politics, disability politics and my experience of winning Burger Queen in 2011, a beauty pageant for fat people that is now in its fourth and final run.
Read it here: Hamburger Queen: Where fat politics and disability politics meet – and have a party! 
To learn more about Hamburger Queen and to buy tickets, go to http://hamburgerqueen.co.uk/ !

Friday, April 11, 2014

Feeling vulnerable

Two days ago, I was on my way home, crossing the street, when suddenly I felt someone pushing my wheelchair. If you are not a wheelchair user, it is probably hard to imagine what that feels like. It is startling – suddenly, someone else is governing the way you want to move around. It wasn’t a situation where I was struggling and in need of help. I didn’t ask anyone for help, not even with my eyes. Yet, this middle-aged white man feels that he can impose his charity on me and invade my personal space. You might not be surprised to hear that this happens a lot, and that it is usually middle-aged white men who I find behind me, grinning benevolently, while they fondle my wheelchair handles.
Still, I feel startled every time. Of course, there is and acute sense of danger: What if this person steers me somewhere I don’t want to go, or snatches my bag while pretending to help me? Then, it is also incredibly patronising to assume I cannot cross the street myself. It is also dangerous to violently force me to interact, while actually crossing a busy street. “I don’t like this” – I shout at him, with an angry look. He looks at me, puzzled, insulted. As I try to wheel off, he comes after me. “You didn’t need to be rude, I was just trying to help!” – “I didn’t ask for help, and you need to ask someone before you do that”. He clearly doesn’t understand, and gets angry. “You don’t have to be so bloody rude when someone is trying to help you!” – “Rude?! It is rude to touch a woman without her permission!” Now he looks even more confused, angry and aggressive. But he leaves me alone. For him, that is not what happened. To him, I am not a woman (or was I?) – maybe I am a child, a charity case, an invalid, certainly not someone who has a right to autonomy, to personal space, to move freely in my own rhythm.

Then, a day later, a similar incident happens: I am running late and decide to take a cab from Aldwych to Vauxhall. The cab driver seems friendly enough first and gets the ramp out without grumbling. But then he says: “When you’re in, I’ll turn you around and strap you in”. I am offered a bit of bondage, right there and then. Lovely! I decline and tell him that I won’t need my wheelchair to be strapped in, that I’m fine just holding onto the safety handles inside the car. He seems ok with that, but as soon as he starts driving, he begins to lecture me about how he’ll have to drive carefully because of me, and whether I am aware that there is a “correct position for wheelchair users” in cabs. I respond that I am aware but that it isn't the correct position for me, and try to change the topic. He does a little rant about another costumer, but then suddenly blurts out: “So, what’s your disability?” I feel my skin crawl.
I don’t mind it if strangers ask me what it’s like to move around in a wheelchair in a specific city, how I navigate buildings, public transport etc. But why do so many people feel the need to diagnose me? What does the name of my disability even tell about me? I have been friends with people for years without them asking about my disability. Sure, sometimes it would come up in a conversation; sometimes I bring it up myself if I feel like it somehow contributes to the conversation, to their understanding of me or my disability. It’s not that I feel uncomfortable if people know. But why does a stranger feel the need to know – why does it have to be the first thing he wants to know, before he wants to know about my job, where I live or about my husband or family? My does he feel the need to reduce me to a medical diagnosis that says nothing about the way I live my life?
“What do you mean?” I ask, pretending to be naïve. “Umm…did you have an accident?” Yes, the other day I accidentally grated my finger instead of the cheese. Do you mean something like that, dude? But the witty or assertive comebacks that I usually have ready do not come easy this time. I say “no” and then stare into my phone for the rest of the journey, while he eventually starts talking about something else.
The thing is, I need this man’s help to get out of the car. I am vulnerable, completely at his mercy. If I am acting, in his eyes, ‘rude’, it might compromise my safety or dignity. There is no one else around who I can look to for support, it is just me and him, and he is calling the shots, even though I am the paying costumer. I feel angry at myself for not telling him how incredibly rude, invasive and objectifying his behaviour is, knowing that he will probably act the same way with the next disabled person who shall be so lucky to be his passenger.
In both situations I felt violated, as a human being, as a disabled person, but also as a woman. Does my gender somehow make it easier for those men to patronise me, to disrespect my personal space? Or would they have done the same if I was a disabled man – do experiences like this feel even more humiliating to disabled men? Or just different? I have had countless similar experiences with women, where they imposed their ‘help’ on me or wanted to know ‘what’s wrong’ with me. I get just as angry, yet the power dynamic often feels somehow different. I feel more annoyed, less scared, don’t have such an acute sense that I need to protect myself.
I know that those situations usually happen because, when people see me, they are confronted with their own humanity and vulnerability. They need to know ‘what happened’ to me, so they can frame it in narratives that are familiar to them, but also tell themselves that the same thing will not happen to them. They need to help me to assert themselves of their strength, their health, their invulnerability.  Yet, it is not my impairment that makes me vulnerable, it is their invasiveness, their disrespect, their intrusion.