Street Harassment Is an Access Issue

It’s late at night on a deserted residential street in Brooklyn. My wife and I are walking to the subway station after a concert, having bid the friends who came with us goodbye at the corner. We’re not thinking much of it—not thinking about the fact that one of the people we left behind is a tall, non-disabled man, and that we’re now two women on our own. We walk all over the city, both as a pair and as individuals, at a variety of hours. We’re not thinking about it until a man starts walking toward us down the sidewalk, and we realize there’s no one else in sight. We’re not thinking about where and how to run until he passes us, turns around, and starts to scream.

“Walk straight, bitch! Are you limping, bitch? I will make you walk straight. Walk straight!”

I used to walk with a cane.

I’ve used one since I was at least twelve, on and off, and every day for three years before I got both of my hips replaced at age 30. When I brought my everyday pick—a metallic blue collapsible model—to an orthopedist’s appointment shortly before my surgery, my doctor lifted it in her hands, admiring the heft. “This is great for walking around the city,” she told me, with the sagacity of a seasoned New Yorker. “You could really give someone a good thwack with this thing.”

I laughed. I’ve been trained to laugh off threats to my life and my body. To laugh off the ways in which I am vulnerable. I’ve been socialized to defuse situations, to make everyone comfortable with my pain. It’s a thing society teaches women, and disabled women in particular. It’s a lesson we instill in marginalized people of all identities—laugh it off. It’s not serious. You know the way you’re in danger just for being who you are? The way leaving the house invites everything from unhelpful advice on quack cures to looks of pity to outright threats? It’s funny. Don’t you get the joke? It’s funny as hell.

My orthopedist looked up as I chuckled weakly, still wielding my cane between her fists. She held my gaze as the fluorescent lights glinted off the metal shaft. “I’m not kidding.”

The man who comes toward us is muttering as he approaches. This isn’t unusual in New York. Sometimes the muttering is aggressive: homophobic sneers; whispered come-ons; rape threats, though I’ve mostly experienced these as public broadcasts spoken full volume on the train.

When I had my cane, my fingers would tighten around the handle as incidents started to escalate. I’ve used it to protect myself when people are jostling me and shoving one another in crowds. The cane drew a boundary between my disabled body and the bodies of the enabled. A physical reminder that they should be careful even though they so rarely are.

I was reluctant to give up my cane after my surgery.  The way the device had come to symbolize my identity and the way it felt like protection was central to that hesitation. I only stopped using it when my physical therapist told me I had to, that it was locking my shoulder in place and causing further strain on the degenerating joint there.

I’ve noticed, since I’ve given it up, how much more anger and disbelief I encounter when I ask for accommodation, when I miss a step and trip, revealing myself as other than the able-bodied woman I’m sometimes taken to be by strangers  As though my devices are necessary to excuse and contextualize my body. As though the subtleties of a disabled existence, the complications of a disabled body in a world built for the enabled, are the key elements that provoke impatience and indignation. As if having to think about and respond to the nuances of my life at all is license for non-disabled people to turn their frustration, confusion, and distaste back onto me.

My hands are empty as the man draws near. They’re trembling. I have nothing to clutch except my wife’s arm, though I stop myself from reaching out, knowing that could cause more trouble.

My wife isn’t disabled but she’s only half-a-foot taller than me, far smaller than the six-foot-plus, heavily muscled man moving in our direction at a rapid pace. I feel her tense, and we both fall silent, halting whatever un-self-conscious conversation we’d been having as we walked. The man gets closer and I pick up more of what he’s saying. Something about walking. Something about bitches. Something about a limp.

I keep my eyes down and focus on getting one leg in front of the other: smooth, steady, like I’ve been doing it for years. I haven’t. I’ve in fact been in physical therapy for years, and I think about my movement all the time. Ever since my bilateral hip replacement I’ve been gait training, trying to correct the way I rock from side to side, the compensatory walk I developed to avoid putting pressure on my malformed hips and ankles and knees.

I focus on the push-off and the follow-through, on all the minuscule motions I’ve painstakingly improved that people without mobility disabilities seldom think about, the detailed instructions my physical therapist has given me countless times, watching me walk across the room. Swing through your hip. Don’t hitch. Let your midfoot release. Let your ankle release. Push off from your big toe. Keep your shoulders back, but not too far back. Keep your chest forward—no, not that far. Neck up, chin down. Swing your arms loosely, from the shoulder, and engage your core. All of these instructions are meant to minimize harm to my joints, to delay future surgeries, and prevent additional complication.

I’m shaking, trying not to come down in the wrong way on my tricky ankle and knee, knowing this will all be worse if I injure myself in my haste. I can never walk without thinking about it, never move without being aware of my body and its structural weaknesses. I’ve tried for three decades now to move with graceful ease, to make it look unrehearsed, but I can never get it right. I was taught as a child that my pain was something to hide, that passing as a non-disabled person was the key to something precious—to safety, to success—but my entire life I’ve never managed to perfect the act. There’s always a tell.

The man passes us. We miss our moment to sigh in relief. Because no sooner is he a few paces past, maybe three, maybe five steps away (I try to calculate the distance as I glance back) than he starts shouting. His words are directed at me, at my body, at the legs it took me months to walk on again after my surgery. He’s advancing, fists clenched, yelling at the top of his lungs.

I freeze. He doesn’t stop. He’s still coming toward us, and he’s still telling me to change something I can’t change, to be something I can’t be, and he’s raising his hands, and I have nothing in mine, no means to stop him, no way to block the blows.

When I was in eighth grade, I went out with a boy for a week after a school dance and then broke up with him. His friends held an emergency session in the computer lab to cheer him up that day. They were a funny group of kids, incisively smart boys with a penchant for the comic books I liked; I’d laughed along with them plenty. One of them said: “Doesn’t the limping bother you? Don’t you kinda want to cut her legs off and attach wheels to her instead?”

It was a joke. Get it? I wasn’t that much of a catch anyway, because I limped, so he shouldn’t feel bad I turned him down. I existed in a body that was imperfect, not made in the normative mold we require of women, so further damage to it was warranted. I’d invited it just by being. By stating preferences. By asserting autonomy.

Misogyny and ableism are a potent mix, just as ableism and other forms of hatred—racism, transphobia, homophobia, fatphobia—become even more explosive in combination. Casual depictions of violence against disabled people, in speech, in humor, in media, are everywhere. One of our most popular movie franchises features a running gag about Rocket Raccoon’s penchant for making disabled people vulnerable to harm and violence by stealing their prosthetic devices1. Many films continue to reinforce the idea that it’s better to be dead than disabled2, and to use the deaths of disabled characters to deepen enabled protagonists’ arcs. This devaluing of disabled lives and bodies mirrors what’s happening behind closed doors, in homes and institutions, and in public spaces like Brooklyn streets. We talk about the need to correct narratives that turn disabled people into ciphers of hollow inspiration, but we don’t talk as often about the flip side of that dehumanization. We don’t talk about the hate. We don’t talk about the efforts to erase us, which are omnipresent and ongoing, or the anger at our existence and insistence on access, or about how the kind of public and intimate harassment many of us face is a virulent symptom of that hatred.

The statistics on violence against disabled people are staggering. Disabled people are more than three times as likely to experience serious violent crimes3 than nondisabled people, and to experience them during daylight hours4. They are sexually assaulted at nearly three times the rate of nondisabled people; 83% of women with disabilities will be sexually assaulted in their lives5. Disabled people face barriers in seeking help, like inaccessible hotlines for reporting abuse and respondents often lack disability-specific training. They constitute a third to half of the people killed by law enforcement officers6, including in cases where they have contacted the police for assistance. The annual Disability Day of Mourning7 recognizes the many disabled children killed by caregivers each year, an average of nearly one child every week.

All of these facts speak to the terrifying contemporary reality of disability, but any disabled person I know can tell you stories.

Stories of how our bodies were treated like clutter or trash or like they weren’t our own. Stories of how our minds were treated like they couldn’t be trusted, like we couldn’t possibly know what was best for us, like our requests for access and autonomy were unreasonable, frivolous demands. The disabled women I know, in particular, can tell you all the ways in which men used their disability as an opening for sexual harassment, a reason to follow them, to touch them without consent. “What’s wrong with you, sweetheart?” “Let me give you a massage, make you feel better.” “You shouldn’t be out walking all alone.”

I’ve had it happen to me and watched it happen to friends of mine, and know that even so I’m ensconced in a bubble, a cushion of privilege that has largely kept me from worse, since I’m a white cisgender woman with an ingrained awareness of how to talk to authority figures. But even that training came at a cost: it’s a deference that’s a response to trauma, an automatic response that comes from the fear that I must conceal my disability and my queerness to survive.

And the truth I know, as many others do, is that no amount of deference or reasonable appeal protects you. When the power dynamics aren’t in your favor, when the system has decided you aren’t compliant with its strictures, the tables can always turn. I’ve had it happen in airports, in public venues, in pharmacies and in doctor’s offices, where my polite façade cracks, where the pain and frustration get to be too much, and the eyes of whoever I’m speaking to begin to glaze over as I become shrill. Hysterical. I’m a problem to be dismissed. I’m a genetic glitch, a thing to be prayed away—as people so often told me during my childhood in the South—an offensive object, one that doesn’t fit in the world as they’ve built it, one they’d like to see removed from sight and mind as soon as possible.

If you want to stay safe and comfortable, the airline attendant, the dismissive doctor, the con organizer, the hotel clerk, all seem to say: stay home. Stay hidden. If you dare to live beyond the limits we’ve set for you, you do it at your own risk.

I open my mouth to tell my wife: run. No sound comes out.

I can’t make it to the gas station halfway down the block, on the other side of the street, but maybe she can. She’ll never go, never leave me, but I need her to. It’s our only chance. And it’s my body he hates, my legs that are the target. I can distract him. (Even this is internalized ableism, the way I’m prepared to offer myself up, though I don’t recognize that until later.)

I try to brace myself. I’m in pain all the time. I can live through this, too, I tell myself. I will live through this too.

“Bitch! Bitch!” The man takes another step, towering over me, and then whirls back, away from us. I look around, wildly; maybe he’s seen someone else. Maybe someone in an apartment nearby flipped on a light, opened a door. But the street is dark. Empty.

My wife and I start walking the opposite way, as fast as we can, and don’t stop until we find the shelter of a bus station, where a few other people are waiting. We don’t know why he paused in his attack, why he delayed long enough for us to get away. We just got lucky.

Lucky. Is this what we would call lucky? Lucky that a night out ended only with the terror of physical harm, not its actuality. Lucky to be able to walk home, to move through the world, to be outside and still come back intact.

A few weeks later, I’m walking down the stairs at a subway station when a man shoves past me. “Could you go any slower?” he gripes, knocking me against the wall with his shoulder.

“I’m disabled!” I shout after him, but he’s long gone. He doesn’t care. His contempt, though less overtly violent than that of the man who nearly beat me, is of the same strain. This contempt is the manifestation of a society that abhors the need to offer access to all. This contempt is learned. This contempt breeds hate, and that hate breeds harm.

I think a lot about that hate, in the weeks that follow, as I look over my shoulder walking down the street, as I try to measure a force that is impossible to quantify: who might hate me enough to strike me down, and why. Much of the hatred, mockery, and indifference to accessibility considerations I’ve encountered as a disabled person seems to come from a need for non-disabled people to see me as fundamentally different than themselves: to reassure themselves that the obstacles I face are not issues they ever need be concerned with, that something is inherently “wrong” with me and other disabled people that means we will never fit into this world and there’s nothing that can be done to change it.  It’s an especially absurd notion in a place like New York City, where all of our spaces are human-made, shaped by intention and ambition, and thus ableist by design.

Part of the reason my wife and I had such a long walk to that subway station was that we live in a part of Brooklyn where the subway stops are few and far between. We moved into our building in large part because it was the only place we could afford with an elevator, and even then, we couldn’t find a location anywhere near an accessible subway station. New York has a long history of neglecting accessibility needs. When the proposal for accessible buses was first put forward in the 1980s, then-mayor Ed Koch said it would be cheaper to pick up every wheelchair user and ferry them around the city in limousines. Current state Governor Andrew Cuomo would rather send cops into the subway to harass disabled people and people of color for the $2.75 fare than invest in the radically expanded access we need when the few stops with escalators and elevators often see them overcrowded and breaking down.

Every time a choice is made to frame accessibility as superfluous and unattainable, to disregard it entirely, it creates another barrier to the disabled community’s full participation in public life, another reinforcement of the idea that disabled bodies are an undesirable inconveniences. We must recognize that ableist infrastructure and thought is not benign, not a passive form of denying access, but an active form of harm that isolates and invites backlash against disabled bodies. That the desire to banish and “fix” is a form of violence. Telling me you want my body to be different is only a step away from telling me you’re going to make it that way.

What happened to me that night in Brooklyn is not so much about that particular man or his fixation on me. I have no way of knowing what his history was, or if he was disabled himself. I don’t know what triggered his response to my body, to the way I move. What I do know is that both of us exist in a system that condones violence against disabled people. Just as it condones violence against trans, gender-nonconforming, and nonbinary people, women, and people of color. What I do know is that system fostered and let fester the desire to erase me and my limp from sight, from periphery, from existence itself. In a capitalist society that defines worth by productivity, that makes healthcare costs burdensome to the point of bankruptcy and death, he was only voicing with greater force the messaging I receive every day: Walk straight. Go faster. Get out of my way. Be different, be better, if you want to be at all.

The point of street harassment is to remind you that you do not have guaranteed access to your own block, your own trains, your own streets. Street harassment reinforces lines the system has already drawn. It can’t be solved with policing, which is a symptom of the system, and which often leads to further violence for disabled people who call for assistance. It wouldn’t have been solved with a big stick, as much as I might have wanted one to protect myself in that moment.

I don’t want that man removed from the street or from society. I want a street that is for both of us. I want a community that roots out violence and oppression, that does not answer harm with harm. That recognizes visibility is important, and also acknowledges what visibility costs. That it is on all of us to create that space, that safety, and above all that access. That to affirm each other’s worth, we must build that worth into our intimate and public spaces, into our language, our representation, and our vision of the future.

Lack of access is painful. In my experience, what compounds that pain is voicing its agony only to have its reality dismissed or disbelieved. Disabled activist Mia Mingus has described the phenomenon that is the antidote to this: access intimacy8, a term that extends beyond disability and relates to a certain recognition and comfort in relationships where access needs are seen, discussed, and otherwise acknowledged and affirmed. Among other aspects, it can involve advocating for someone’s need for access and also sitting with the isolation, trauma, fear, and anxiety access issues cause. It does not require instant solutions, but primarily consists of attention, understanding, and presence. As Mingus writes: “Sometimes [access intimacy] is someone just sitting and holding your hand while you both stare back at an inaccessible world.”

The work of access is work for us all, and it extends beyond disability. The work is to notice who is missing from certain streets, from certain spaces, and insist on their inclusion. To advocate and engage with logistics, so that the burden of pushing for access does not fall on those already barred from those spaces. To connect the forces of erasure and inaccessibility with those of violence and harm, and understand them as part of one continuum of enmity.

In our own community, disabled fans and creators continue to face access barriers at book events, conventions, and across publishing. The Disabled People Destroy issues of Uncanny have been incredibly powerful projects to participate in, but they’re only the beginning. Ableism is not confined to one sphere or one area of life, so the dismantling of its destructive mechanisms and underlying assumptions cannot be either.

Ableism can and does kill. There is no neutrality in this struggle. If you treat our bodies and our minds as if they are anathema to your blueprints for this world and the future one, you take the side of those who would erase us. You claim the side of those who would harass us, single us out, follow us home, and punish us for our gall in continuing to exist, let alone to thrive. You claim the side of those who would annihilate us.

If you want to stop the violence, recognize that for the disabled community it is everywhere. Recognize that it functions within and outside of our homes.  Identify and denounce and quash the hate that harms us, with every step forward you take, before it catches up with us on a lonely street at night.

[1] “The Expendable Disabled Heroes of Marvel’s Infinity War”. September 4, 2018. https://uncannymagazine.com/article/the-expendable-disabled-heroes-of-marvels-infinity-war/

[2] “Hollywood Promotes the Idea it is Better to be Dead than Disabled”. February 11, 2016. https://www.dominickevans.com/2016/02/hollywood-promotes-the-idea-it-is-better-to-be-dead-than-disabled/

[3] “Crimes Against Persons with Disabilities, 2009-2015 – Statistical Tables”. July 2017. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/capd0915st.pdf#page=4

[4] “Crimes Against Persons with Disabilities, 2009-2015 – Statistical Tables”. July 2017. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/capd0915st.pdf#page=4

[5] From disabilityjustice.org. September 4, 2018. https://disabilityjustice.org/sexual-abuse/

[6] “Media Coverage of Law Enforcement Use of Force and Disability.” March 7, 2016. rudermanfoundation.org/white_papers/media-coverage-of-law-enforcement-use-of-force-and-disability/

[7] Link to https://disability-memorial.org/

[8] “Access Intimacy: The Missing Link”. May 5, 2011. https://leavingevidence.wordpress.com/2011/05/05/access-intimacy-the-missing-link/

 

Katharine Duckett

Katharine Duckett is the guest fiction editor for the Disabled People Destroy Fantasy issue of Uncanny. She is also the author of Miranda in Milan, a Shakespearean fantasy novella debut that NPR calls “intriguing, adept, inventive, and sexy.” Her short fiction has appeared in Uncanny, Apex, PseudoPod, and Interzone, as well as various anthologies, including Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction. She is an advisory board member for The Octavia Project, a free program in Brooklyn that uses science fiction to encourage young women and nonbinary youth to dream big and empower them with skills to build alternative futures.

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