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A wheelchair user’s guide to consent

Last Saturday afternoon, a disturbing incident occurred on a street in Nanaimo involving a female wheelchair user. It’s the type of incident many disabled people say happens often on our streets and public spaces.

Bronwyn Berg had just left a store on Fitzwilliam Street when a man grabbed her wheelchair from behind and began pushing her rather quickly. She turned, looked directly at him and said “no, no, no.”

But the man didn’t stop. Berg screamed, “stop” twice and called out for help. Passersby on the street looked away, or at their phones, she said.

Finally, the man let go and ran away.

Later, she shared the frightening experience on social media, which elicited an outpouring of support. Many people posted angry reactions to the Nanaimo man’s actions.

Berg says she has no idea what the man’s intentions were and believes that focusing on that misses the point.

“The point is never, ever touch a wheelchair without asking,” Berg said. Aside from the risk of injury, she says the more fundamental issue is one of consent and body autonomy.

“Our assistive devices are a part of our body. We aren’t furniture that can be moved around.”

‘I didn’t need help’

The lack of support from passersby also left Berg shaken. “I thought I’m alone here. I’m not safe in this world…I felt invisible.”

She doesn’t know why the man approached her, “I didn’t need help and wasn’t asked,” she said, adding that when she did ask for help, people ignored her.

As a wheelchair user myself, I know what it’s like to have strangers push me without asking — even when I tell them to stop.

Once, an impatient taxi driver pushed me without warning, causing my wheelchair to tip and throwing me onto the pavement outside Vancouver General Hospital. 

When I became disabled, the goalposts for consent and support for my autonomy and rights shifted

“The point is never, ever touch a wheelchair without asking,” says Bronwyn Berg. (Submitted by Bronwyn Berg)

Strangers demand to know, “What happened to you?’ or “‘Why can’t you walk?”

Our needs are ignored by the physical, social and political environment we exist in. It is little wonder people don’t ask before grabbing us. Disabled people aren’t seen as fully human.

What is the cumulative impact is of being touched without consent and met with hostility when you tell people to stop? Are these experiences helpful for a demographic already at risk?

Statistics show disabled women are twice as likely as non-disabled women to be the victim of a violent crime.

Once on Denman Street in Vancouver, I felt the hands of a man on my back. My wheelchair has no handles, yet people still push me. I struggled with my gut that said he was a threat, and the fact I’d had to learn not to react with hostility when grabbed.

Later that day, I saw the man’s face again on Twitter. The tweet was from VPD. He was a serial sex offender, considered at high risk to re-offend, who had failed to return to his halfway house.

#JustAskDontGrab 

Our struggle is not new but social media has provided disabled people with a new way to connect, share and organize.

Amy Kavanagh, a visually impaired activist and campaigner in London, England started the #JustAskDontGrab campaign last August.

Kavanagh said she launched the campaign after she became a white cane user and people started grabbing her on her commute.

After hearing from others with similar experiences, Kavanagh created #JustAskDontGrab to educate people on how to behave when they encounter disable

“I encouraged people to use the hashtag to raise awareness of the issue and how to offer assistance in a positive respectful way.”

Amy Kavanagh, a visually impaired activist and campaigner in London, England started the #JustAskDontGrab campaign last August. (Submitted by Gabrielle Peters)

Kavanagh does not want people to stop asking disabled people if they need help. Once, when the front caster of my wheelchair became wedged while crossing an inactive railway track, I was grateful when a passerby asked if I needed help.

Which raises the question of whether assistance would be needed if our cities were more accessible to disabled people.

Removing existing barriers and preventing the building of new ones is the motivation behind accessibility legislation in Ontario, Nova Scotia and Manitoba. British Columbia has none.

Berg’s perspective on accessibility has changed. The steps in front of three stores on Fitzwilliam street in Nanaimo prevented Berg from entering the first businesses she turned to for safe refuge.

“It used to mean that I wasn’t allowed to fully participate in the world. I often felt unwelcome, but now it feels dangerous,” Berg said. “No one would intervene and I couldn’t get to a safe place.”

Berg has not gone out alone since it happened. “I don’t think I’ll ever return to that area of town.”

This column is part of CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.




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