I’ll be the first to admit that my personal space is quite small as they go. I’m apt to hug strangers (assuming they’re okay with it, obviously), I love handshakes, and I have no trouble taking someone’s arm in order to be guided—or just to be companionable, because why not? That said, one of the things I have to be hyper-aware of is the personal space of other people. Just because I’m comfortable with casual touch doesn’t mean that everyone is. So, out of simple respect, I refrain from touching, grabbing, or manhandling people without their permission. Seems obvious, right? Not really.
Ever since I can remember, I have been casually touched and/or grabbed by complete strangers, usually without any kind of warning or preamble. Sometimes, it’s justified enough: I’m headed straight for a pole, and someone panics and grabs me to keep me safe. I can understand that, even though I’m often aware of exactly where I’m going, and know that my cane will strike the pole before my face will. I can forgive that kind of protective instinct. It gets a little problematic when people decide to grab or otherwise touch me for very flimsy reasons, the most common of which is because they seem to think that people with disabilities—especially blind people—don’t have a personal bubble in need of respecting.
I’m not the only one who has noticed this, either. Just about every blind person I’ve ever spoken to at any length has mentioned that they’ve been frequently grabbed, touched, or otherwise physically manipulated either against their will, or at least without permission. This might start out sounding a little silly: what’s the big deal, right? So someone grabs you to keep you out of the way of some obstacle? What could possibly be wrong with that, in this otherwise apathetic society?
Here’s what’s wrong with it: many of us have a large personal space, and we don’t appreciate being grabbed, nudged, or prodded without warning, especially if the reason is anything less than “I thought you were going to get yourself killed”. Here are just a few scenarios (because I like lists, sue me), in which I’ve been grabbed or otherwise touched in a way I disliked, with explanations as to why I object. In all cases, speaking to me first would have been the best option. Perhaps, by the end of this little post, people will be a bit more willing to keep their hands to themselves unless the circumstances are especially dire. Here goes …
In my first year of university, quite early in the term, I was headed for one of my classes. Just as I was nearing the door, I felt an arm wrap tightly around my waist, and I was steered bodily towards a hallway I had no intention of going down. I was so shocked I couldn’t say a thing; I just turned my head towards the person who had hold of me, and gaped. Eventually, after a few awkward steps, I was given an explanation of sorts: “The hallway is this way”. “I don’t want to go down the hallway.”
“You were about to run into a door.”
“No no, I was headed towards the door on purpose so I could open it…”
“Look, where are you trying to go?”
“Oh!” he cried, sounding indulgently exasperated, “it’s right here!”
Where do you suppose he led me? Back up the hallway, and right to the door I’d originally been heading for. He then acted as though I should have been grateful for the guiding. Think again, buddy. You do not just grab a strange woman, especially when she can’t see you, and lead her off somewhere. Didn’t your mother teach you anything?
In the same university, I was heading past a staircase, intending to go down a different path. Suddenly, a woman appeared at my shoulder and locked my left arm in a death grip, locking both my elbow and wrist so that I couldn’t disengage without considerable effort. “Where you want to go?” she demanded, in a frighteningly strident voice. “Um…where I was headed…” was all I could mutter. “Stairs?” she asked, ushering me towards the staircase. “No, no! I’m okay, thank you!” … It took a long time to get my arm back, and I booked it away from her as quickly as I could. I understand that she meant well, but having my arm immobilized by someone so determined to take me down the stairs to some unknown fate was a little on the unnerving side.
My final scenario is one which, while the most benign, terrified me the most. It is illustrative of exactly why you should treat blind people like normal people and respect their personal spaces. I was walking along, quite lost in profound thought (probably imagining what I’d have for dinner or something) when I was grabbed out of nowhere. I could immediately tell that it wasn’t the typical “you’re about to walk over a cliff edge” grab, and it wasn’t the “I want to guide you somewhere” grab either. It was more of a “stop walking” grab, and while I didn’t tell him so at the time, I was absolutely terrified for a split second. Luckily for me, it turned out to be a good friend, and I was very pleased to see him. He’d just wanted to get my attention, and I guess he decided that he really really wanted me to join him over by the wall. Instead of calling my name, though, he chose to simply grab me and move me towards where he wanted me to stand. While I understand why he did it, I still think calling my name would have been far more polite. He really scared me for a second there.
If this comes off sort of bitchy, please try to understand me when I say that this is a very common complaint. It is mostly just annoying, but it can be dangerous at times. Many of the blind people I know have recommended that I take self-defense classes, not just to fend off those who mean harm, but also to free myself from well-meaning strangers who decide to get grabby. I once heard that one poor blind girl was grabbed by a stranger who was absolutely convinced that she wanted to go down the escalator. Escalators are a bit dangerous at the best of times; they’re made even more so when you can’t see where you’re going and have a stranger dragging you alongside them. I have heard of blind people being pulled into streets they didn’t want to cross because someone was trying to be helpful. I have heard of blind people being dragged off somewhere because people decided they wanted them to go there. I have had people grab my hands and been made to feel things, because it was assumed that being blind means you want to touch everything in sight. I have even been hugged and kissed by people who knew me, but who didn’t think to introduce themselves first or even warm me that they were nearby. It’s not okay.
You would never ever dream of touching the average person in this way, so why on Earth would you think it’s okay to randomly grab a blind person? Disability makes us no less human, and we have boundaries, just like you do. Please, for the safety of us all if nothing else, respect them.