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Open Access: I need my space

The column has returned.

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In the last couple of weeks, two stories covered by The Guelph Post have jumped right off my screen and commanded my attention.

The first one was of the man who sexually touched a woman right there in the police station while she reported another incident, and the other was two 55 year old women in an apartment building on Waterloo Avenue, getting into a physical altercation. My first two thoughts were as follows.

1) In this day and age, why do strangers still think it’s safe to touch each other? Even those who are acquainted really ought to keep their hands to themselves.

2) Clearly men aren’t the only guilty parties.

Neither story mentioned disability, but they got me thinking just the same.
Often people with challenges and disabilities attract a lot of well-intended but very unwanted attention.

People see us moving and navigating differently, and immediately assume we must need their help. Some of us, including myself, can appear quite precarious on our feet, but like the acrobat twirling two fire batons, while riding a unicycle backwards on a tight rope high above a nervous audience, we have been well trained; not at a special school, but by simply attempting to live independently!

Disturb that acrobat, and they will fall from their precarious perch, injuring themselves, and those fire batons are likely to set the entire circus ablaze.
For a number of people with visible and invisible challenges and disabilities, moving about takes even more concentration than the average stunt performer.

In order to avoid distraction, some of us will flat out ignore people, and just keep going. When this happens, we are not being rude, we are doing what we need to do to keep our concentration. While the lady in the elevator is trying to make smalltalk with me, I’m turning up my walking music, so I can continue planning my strategy.

Let’s see…. the elevator stopped on the 5th floor, and I need to get to 1. It’s 3:57 now and the song playing now is 3 minutes long, the next one will be 2:25. If I don’t get there by the time the second song is half over, I’ll have missed the bus
Rather than trying to rush, or stopping to look at my watch every 15 seconds, I use the music on my playlist as a way to keep time. Talking to someone in the elevator would throw off my timing. Why not just leave early and get there early?

Simple! My last apartment was in a rather rough part of town, and I had to learn how to get to the stop at the precise moment the bus would arrive, so as not to be thrust into a dangerous situation. Some of the activities in the buildings across the street from where I live now are rather sketchy, and I don’t want to be caught in a similar situation. Also, when approached, I can’t see most people well enough to recognize them, and if there is a problem, I sure as heck can’t run. Finally, with all the busy city noise I can’t hear what they’re saying, anyway.


I use myself as an example, but I am not the only one. There is a Meme on Facebook going around that reads as follows.
Q: What do you notice first when approached?
A: The audacity!


In the era of #MeToo many people of all genders are starting to take personal space very seriously. For those with challenges and disabilities, self protection is of utmost importance. The other day I got on a bus and an older man extended his arm to the other end of the courtesy seats, and started aggressively hitting the seat, and yelling “SIT HERE! SIT HERE!” In hindsight he might have been hearing impaired, or had a mental issue, but at that moment, standing on the moving bus and hugging the pole for dear life, all I could think was “If I sit there, I’ll be within arms lengh of that aggressive hand!” Another time I had my face pressed up to a bus schedule at a bus stop, because that’s how close I had to get in order to read it. A lady came up behind me, cupped my elbow, and asked if I needed help, My instinctive reaction was a firm “hands off!”

The action of grabbing me at all, let alone from behind, outweighed the meaning behind any words offered. I did not yell or cuss, I simply said “hands off!” I got called a B****, which only reafirmed I’d acted correctly. If this person, male or female, calls one a b*** for wanting strange hands removed from their body, she’s probably not a safe person to be around. Often times when only asked and not touched, I’ve responded with “no thank you,” only to be asked “are you sure?” If I say “no” I’m rude, if I say “no thank you” I’m questioned again. If I ignore, I am physically touched. Why has “no” become rude, and why do people think they are entitled to lay hands on another? Someone one said I shouldn’t have to ask for help. Oh yes I should. It is up to me to know when I need help. I am the only one who knows my challenges and limitations. 

Not so long ago I arrived at the bus stop two minutes early, and the bus was about five minutes late. There was a woman sitting to my left in the shelter, minding her own business. Minding my own business, I turned my head slightly to the left and tried to focus my eyes to see if the bus was coming. I was not looking at the lady, I was staring down the road. Evidently there was something about the funny way my eyes look when I do that, that freaked her out. She yelled at me for staring at her, claiming I just wanted to start trouble with her, and then she started smacking me with a rolled up newspaper. I kid you not, dear city of Guelph!

I was not injured but I did run into a police officer in line at Starbucks later that day, and I was told that constitutes assault. My concerned husband also took action, and by the next morning I had a sturdy new pair of very dark sunglasses, a shiny new pair of steel toed boots, and he taught me some self defense techniques that made me very glad to be married to a former U.S. Navy SEAL. So far I’ve been able to take care of unwelcome situations with words, but if necessary, I can knock a weapon out of someone’s hand with my cane, among other things.

I also feel that people see a woman, and think “oh, women are sweet and gentle,” and are startled when I don’t live up to their expectations. That’s probably why i get called a B**** on a regular basis. Hey, at this point it’s a compliment. Beats the heck out of being vulnerable!

A little while back, I spent a week in Newark, New Jersey. No one believed me when I said I went there to relax. It was glorious! Everyone was afraid to get within arms reach of anyone else, and for the first time in my life, I was able to walk undisturbed down the street. No one noticed my “disability.”

They were too busy trying to survive, themselves. No one cared that I was a woman either, and I was the equal of everyone else on the road. They cared about their their own personal space, and in the same way, cared about mine, even if that “care” was only to protect themselves. For one whole week, I felt safe from wandering hands. I was adequately prepared in case someone touched me, but nobody did.

Some years ago I was speaking with a Conservative Christian friend of mine. In my extended family we range from Old Order Mennonites, to Atheists. I’m the Presbyterian in the middle. The subject of marriage came up, and Ephesians 5:22-33 was discussed. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he states that a woman should submit to her husband, as he is the head of the wife, and that in return he should love her as Christ loved the church, and gave himself up for her.

I’ve seen these verses used for everything from husband protect your wife, and wife accept that protection, to husband make your wife obey because you will be held accountable for your wife’s sins on jusgement day, ergo you have the right to “correct” her, because you love her. On this day my friend said that in her marriage she submits to her husband, and in return he does nice things like holding doors for her, pulling out her chair, and generally being romantic. She then asked me if I was willing to forgo chivalry. Oh, that’s a great question to ask this particular feminist. My answer “you mean I have an excuse to open my own doors, and operate my own chairs?” Not the answer she was expecting.

Later that night my egalitarian husband and I discussed this matter. He’s been everywhere in his religious journey. Born Lutheran, he’s been a Presbyterian, Baptist, Wiccan and more. He was a Mormon, when I met him. He never was one for traditional romance, feeling that it’s better to actually listen to your partner, rather than trying to fit them into a gender role.

The reason why I bring up religion here, is that I wonder if the fact that I dress like a mainstream member of society, is another reason why people feel comfortable touching me. If I dressed like one of my Old Order Mennonite step-realtives, would they see my modest dress and bonnet, and respect my privacy knowing that I’m a member of a strict community? If a Mennonite woman were staring down the road, would the lady in the bus stop have hit her with a rolled up newspaper? Mennonites are pacifists by nature. Would she have felt threatened if one looked at her?

Whether we’re disabled, a member of a religion that dresses differently, or whatever, personal space is important. Also, “NO” is not a dirty word. It is not rude to omit “thank you” and just say “no,” when fending off an unwanted approach. I’m not going to thank you for touching me. A straight up “NO” is meant to do the job without profanity, or unnecessary hurting the feelings of a person who probably meant well, but who invaded your space just the same. “NO” means just that. It means NO! It means I don’t have time to stop right now. It means I’m doing fine. It means please don’t break my conentration. It means I don’t need to ask your permission to mind my own business. It means I don’t want to stop right now, and I don’t have to want to stop right now. It also means “why the heck are you grabbing the arm that’s connected to my support cane?”

I am not ignoring the fact that there are people out there who need help, and may be too insecure to ask. By all means ask first, and if you are ignored, just move on. The person ignoring you could be deep in thought, concentrating, or wearing headphones. Not everyone you stop on the street is going to be anxious to socialize, even if you feel it’s for their own good. Some of us could be putting ourselves in danger, if we fake it, to spare your feelings.

That door you’re holding actually is you inadvertantly blocking our means of support so we won’t trip over the threshold. When I see a door open whether I’m 3 feet away or 30 feet away, my reaction is to back off. Others may have already anticipated the door, and prepared for it. That’s why it’s important to ask, and not assume.

By asking, you’ll get an answer or  reaction that will let you know whether or not the person needs your help. If you do not like the answer you receive, if you are ignored, or if the answer is no, you’re free to move about your day without guilt or shame.

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