You stand on the platform to catch the train in the morning. It arrives. You prepare to board. Suddenly someone grabs you to “help” you step over the gap. There’s no instructional video on “how to help a disabled person get on a train”. So they pull, push, lift or twist you.
It’s supposed to be a mark of decency, proof that you live in a caring society. Except throughout the whole exchange, you didn’t ask for help, and you certainly did not give your consent.
You swallow the annoyance clogging your throat. “Did I just let someone grab me?” But it has already happened. The person is lost in the crowd. And in any case, no real harm was done.
You might not have agreed to be helped. But surely the least you can do is say thank you to the stranger, right?
For those with visible disabilities, such as people who are blind or use a wheelchair, catching a train is a public affair involving verbal and physical contacts. The assumption is of course you want help, an assumption which cuts across countries and cultures.
#MeToo Gave Words To My Feelings
As a blind person who grew up in Indonesia, and now lives in Australia, I find it hard to articulate why unsolicited help is a serious issue. The problem, however, is real, pervasive and can cause serious harm.
After the #MeToo era, I began to have words to describe what is wrong: words such as unsolicited and consent. In recent years, we have further tried to explain sexual consent with a cup of tea:
Words such as enthusiastic consent have entered our everyday language. Yet these words do not describe mundane interactions when traveling by public transport.
“If you’re by yourself, does someone take your arm to help you get on the train?” my Indonesian step-mother asked me. “Yes, but most often I refuse. Especially if they just grab me.” “But that’s rude,” she pointed out.
Rudeness from a woman isn’t acceptable. When coming from a woman with disability, it is doubly unacceptable.
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Take help, show gratitude
Getting help was considered part of my entitlement as a disabled person in Indonesia. But if I was harmed when being “helped”, it was supposed to be my fault. To begin with, a better person would’ve been more careful. They would’ve worn non-revealing clothes as well. Moreover, they would’ve had the skills to travel independently. In all this, whether my consent was sought or not becomes inconsequential.
The same scenario persists in Australia, though here, at least, I am able to hold some ground because when I came here, I was no longer a minor. I was living and moving around independently.
Living in Australia, taking public transport is how I access most places.
Most journeys involve fending off unwanted help. People take my arm, my shoulder, my waist, my white cane, and occasionally my dog guide leash. More often than not they’re an expression of kindness, other times of chivalry. So when I twist, turn, yell or refuse, it provokes confusion and anger in them. After all, I am expected to be grateful.
My reasons for saying no should be private – and irrelevant. Besides, there is no time for long explanations in the brief span between the opening and closing of the train door. Yet I take on the burden of justifying my refusals, and assuaging bruised egos.
From Unwanted Touch To Violent Assault
This unasked for “help” has an even murkier side at times. I experienced it one afternoon around the corner from my home. A man introduced himself as Matthew, and asked for directions to the train station, which I gave. He praised me for my independence: a blind person, out by herself, and so confident.
Then he asked how old I was and where I lived. Obviously I was getting uncomfortable. I lied through my teeth, and walked away. That was when he ran, and grabbed me from behind. I screamed for help, and kept running. That was all.
Except it wasn’t.
In the following days, I thought a lot about what had happened.
Was it just bad luck? Or was it something I wore? Did I exude such tempting vulnerability that he had to take advantage? Was my escape due to luck or something I did? What was chilling was when the police asked, during my statement, “Will you be able to identify this man?”
Over the next few months, I began to change. Those physical contacts imposed on me were no longer just well-intentioned irritants. In addition, I knew the statistic: women with disability are twice as likely to experience violence. But cases like mine, a random act perpetrated by a stranger, are relatively rare. Or perhaps its gravity is less recognisable.
After that, upon being touched by strangers, I would relive the moment and end up running or yelling. This uncalled for touch was more common when I used a white cane as my mobility aid compared to when I was with my dog guide. Maybe people thought if I could take care of a dog, I had the potential to look after myself too!
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What The Body Remembers
In subsequent years, my reaction to unsolicited help formed the crux of my dilemma. I felt torn between the need to keep myself safe, and the pressure to meet society’s expectations that I would welcome help.
Often I have performed the unpleasant spectacle of a disabled woman refusing help, played over and over in full view of the public. I don’t like the person I become when I do this. But there is a question I can never stop asking: what if I am attacked and I am not quick enough to escape?
To accept help, I have to accept my vulnerability. I have to trust the other person to do the right thing. After the incident of the assault, I don’t want to risk it until I really need aid.
With unsolicited help, there is no conversation about one person’s intention or the other person’s need. There is just instinct. Theirs to help by physical contact, mine to be safe. In the words of Uma, a young woman I met at a train station:
“When you take control over her body, you take away her agency”.
There are also many whose help is genuinely welcomed. It is not their background but their attitude that matters. They do not offer help until asked, and respond warmly when I do. Before touching me, they ask for my consent. If they offer assistance and I refuse, they don’t insist on it. They do not make assumptions about my disability. Also, they trust my capabilities. These interactions are enabling, and can lead to genuine, even pleasant, connections during the routine of commuting.
My mind and body have not forgotten the trauma inducing aspect of “helpfulness”, though nowadays my response is far less extreme.
“Can I kiss you?” asked a “helpful” stranger after I accepted his offer to find the turnstile at a less familiar station. Knowing the barrier was closed, I refused. As I did so, something screamed inside my head. “He helped you. Can’t you even be nice to him?”
I hadn’t even known him for five minutes.
Ria Andriani is a Sydney-based writer and musician. Views are personal.
This article was first published in Unbias the News.