Sexual Harassment as a Wheelchair User

I want to write about an experience that I had recently.

As many women will tell you, navigating the murky waters of male attention in work is just something women do.

Life shouldn’t be like that, of course not, but many women will have experienced what some people might call “unwanted flirting” and others might call “sexual harassment in the workplace”.

I learned these skills early on in my life. In various low-paid and unrewarding jobs it was my displeasure to hold, (male) managers seemed to believe that by virtue of their seniority, it was okay to flirt/harass their significantly younger female employees. I am not lying when I say I have been literally chased around the workplace. As a young person struggling for money, they were able to cynically exploit my need for the next pay-cheque, and would quite deliberately test out my boundaries.

It was only as my consciousness raised, and as I developed much stronger sense of my own self worth that I was able to counter these clumsy advances without giving ground, by firmly reinforcing my boundaries at all times. And that often meant leaving the job. Subsequently, the self-confidence and my development of assertiveness has acted as an effective creep repellent. It has been a long time since I remember that feeling of confusion and doubt that used to accompany such an event.

This story will perhaps be familiar to you, particularly if you are a woman. If you are a man, you may at this point be protesting that I must have misinterpreted these situations; that people at work should expect a certain amount of “banter”; and more generally, what about TEH MENZ? This post is not long enough to cover all complexities of workplace relationships. I am talking about my experiences. Please check your privilege at the door.

It happened again, and this time, it was different.

I’m now a wheelchair user. The wheelchair has become well integrated into my physical participation in public spaces. It “feels” like part of me- as I wheel myself around, my personal space includes and envelops the wheelchair.

At an event recently, I was called over to a consulting situation by a professional woman I have great respect for. She had been advising a man, and thought I might have some specialist knowledge that could be useful to him. She indicated that I should add my expertise. I want to make absolutely clear to you that this was not a social gathering, I was not introduced to this man in a social context, it was a professional context. Clear enough?

He was middle aged. Stereo-typically, he had a medallion and open necked shirt, and he was attempting to hide his receding hairline. I should have known. In my younger days, a man in middle age who was attempting to look younger and sexually available was always a red flag. It has been a long time since a man of this type has been able to get through my body language, and firm boundaries. It is the first time that I have experienced this kind of thing as a wheelchair user.

This man got too close to me. It started as I became aware of his foot in contact with my wheelchair wheel. An easy mistake to make, I thought. Probably, he’s not even aware of it. It’s not important enough to make a fuss about. Peppered throughout the conversation were several winks- not even particularly aimed at me, almost unconscious- evidence of poor reading of the social situation but nothing worth making a fuss about. He leaned too close when making his points, and although I leaned away to keep the distance between us, I wasn’t able to move the wheelchair because of how his foot was resting “accidentally” against the wheel. Then, he started to “accidentally” brush my arm, to make his point more forcefully. It’s not important enough to make a fuss. It’s rude, but the poor guy is unemployed, and he really needs my help to get his head around this stuff. I’ll let it go. Then, he put his hand firmly on the arm of my wheelchair, and really leaned his weight into it, in order to make his point.

It was a shock. I felt the wave of discomfort wash over me. It took a millisecond to work out what the feelnig was. It felt like he had his hand on my knee. But it wasn’t my knee, it was my wheelchair.

Is it okay to tell someone to get off your wheelchair, just like it’s okay to tell them to get off your knee? I’ve never asked myself that question. I’ve never considered it. In all honesty, I have never even considered how much I have integrated the experience of being a wheelchair user into my personal identity until right now, this moment. In this moment, I am disarmed. I am like that young adult being chased around the workplace by a boss, unsure whether I am “allowed” to protest about this.

I absented myself to get a coffee, which I wheeled myself back with. I was careful to position the wheelchair a critical extra few centimetres away from him.

“Oh, didn’t you get me one, love?” he asked.

We soon completed our business, and by repositioning the wheelchair so that he couldn’t stop me from wheeling away by the use of his foot, I felt back in control of the situation.

When I moved to a table with more people on it, I invited him to join us. He did, briefly, but clearly didn’t desire to be in a larger group. He made his excuses and got up to go, pausing only to make some jokes about visiting the local “ladies of the night” on his way.

Yes, he actually chose to make jokes about visiting prostitutes after conducting business with us, two well respected business women in our local community.

What are your experiences of sexual harassment as a wheelchair user?

Please note: this is a moderated space and I will keep it safe.

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