My wheelchair does not give you permission to touch me

Last weekend I marched in Boston’s Pride Parade and it was wonderful! I had a fantastic time. But it wasn’t all perfect.

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There were a few things that bothered me about being in a wheelchair, and a big one was people touching me without permission.

It works the way many other parades do: we marched, and people on both sides of the street watched us. Some waved, some cheered, some yelled, some smiled excited smiles. And some high fived the folks passing them.

I didn’t want to high-five people. There were several reasons. One is germs. It would be hours before I could wash my hands. Also, gluten. I wanted to eat the sliced apple I brought with me. With my hands. I couldn’t contaminate them with the gluten that was probably on strangers’ hands. Also, I didn’t want to eat an apple after high fiving dozens of strangers because ew. Germs again. And then there was the pain. It hurts to high five 1 or 2 people, never mind dozens.

I love to wave at folks as we walk in the parade, but I quickly learned that people used that opportunity to give me a high five, so I had to stop waving. That was sad. I picked it up again in areas where the crowds were behind barriers, but most of the streets had the crowds practically on top of us. As we went by, I tried to keep my hand in my lap. (My other hand was already holding the large 45-foot flag that our group was carrying.) Sometimes I would say, “I’ll pass” or something similar. Often that was good enough. But not always.

Too many times, the person would then touch me. They would touch my shoulder or my arm. One touched the bag in my lap. It was weird and awkward and gross.

It could have been worse. Luckily, I wasn’t in so much pain that even a tiny touch was excruciating. But I could have been. Thankfully I’m not generally adverse to touch, but I could have been.

I love Pride. I yelled “Happy Pride!” to so many people in the crowd that my voice was a bit hoarse by the end. I adore Pride. I love seeing tens of thousands of people celebrating who they are and who they love, supporting their loved ones and our community, and showing the world that who we are is not “wrong,” despite what so many people (and governments) say.

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I love Pride, but that doesn’t mean I want to be touched by strangers without permission at Pride. Or any other time.

I know I am not alone in this. So many people have similar experiences. There is something about having a visible physical difference that makes people think they have a right to your body. It’s like when strangers touch a pregnant woman’s belly without asking. WTF?! Just because you can see that someone is pregnant or in a wheelchair, doesn’t mean you “get to be part of the experience.” It doesn’t work that way.

Part of it is also that people want the “poor woman in the wheelchair” (that’s the attitude, if not the conscious acknowledgment) to be included. Here’s the thing: including me means giving me control over my own body. It means accepting my wishes for my body. Touching me without permission is not including me. It is disrespectful and gross. You don’t do that to others, so don’t do it to me.

At the end of the day, one of the women who had pushed my wheelchair for part of the parade told me that she felt bad for me. She saw what was happening but didn’t know what she could do. No one high fived her, because she didn’t have a free hand – they were both on the wheelchair. Yet, strangers didn’t touch her. Think about that for a second.

Many people looked awkward in the moment. Their hand was up, and they had to do something so instead of putting it down or high fiving another person, they touched me. Did they later realize that was an odd thing to do? I hope so. At the very least, maybe they will read this (or one of the other things I have written about this incident) and think twice next time they are tempted to touch a person in a wheelchair without permission.

Because again, if you wouldn’t touch the person pushing my chair as she passed by, then you shouldn’t touch me, either.

Maybe next time we’ll talk about all of the photographers along the route who took my photo only because I was in a wheelchair. Not cool, folks.

By the way, I want to give a huge shout out to all of the awesome folks who made it possible for me to attend Pride! The local Council on Aging loaned me a wheel for free (many do, so check your town’s Council on Again if you need to borrow a wheelchair, cane, walker, commode, etc.) Several folks volunteered to push my wheelchair during the parade. At the last minute, someone volunteered to push my wheelchair around part of the festival that follows the parade (and thankfully I was able to walk and push it the rest of the time.) Someone volunteered to take the wheelchair out of my car and get it downtown with me. A stranger in the subway station helped me get the wheelchair onto the train. And stranger on the train offered to help me get the chair off the train and then put it in my car for me. I can’t lift the wheelchair into or out of my car and I can no longer walk as much as I would need to in order to march at Pride, so without these folks, I couldn’t have attended Pride. I was exhausted afterwards and spent 2 days at home recovering, but it was totally worth it. Some folks were weird, but many others were kickass, and it’s important to remember them!

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