PSA: Don’t Touch Accessibility Devices

Accessibility Devices are, for all intents and purposes, a part of our bodies and should be treated as such.

DO NOT touch an accessibility device WITHOUT CONSENT. In case this is not clear, I mean the consent of the disabled person.

Do not touch a wheelchair without the consent of the person in it.

Do not touch a walker or a cane without the consent of the person using it.

Do not move a walker or cane out of the way, even if the person isn’t using it right now.

Do not push a wheelchair without consent, even if you are just trying to help. Even if you just want to make it easier for them to get up a hill.

Do not put a cane where the person who needs it can’t reach it. It is not funny.

Do not take a person’s prosthetic. It is not funny.

Do not push a person’s wheelchair out of your way, or to make them go faster. If you wouldn’t shove someone out of the way, then consider pushing someone in a chair as the equivalent.

Do not take a person’s hearing aid. It is not funny.

Do not try to make a person’s hearing aid produce feedback.

Do not push someone wearing a hearing aid into a pool, or spray them with water.

Do not touch a service dog. Doesn’t matter how cute it is. Doesn’t matter how small it is. If the dog is wearing his vest or currently working, DO NOT TOUCH THE DOG. (Or Any Other Service Animal)

Do not talk or stare at a service dog – dogs are social and if they are paying attention to you they are not paying attention to their job. They’re trained, but they’re still animals who CAN get distracted.

 Do not put a walker or a cane somewhere else, even if it is not currently being used.

DO NOT try to help by lifting their walker or the person themselves unless asked. If you offer, respect their no.

An accessibility device or animal should be considered a part of that person’s body. Do not touch it without consent. Consent can be withdrawn at any time. Past consent does not guarantee or imply future consent. Consenting to one person does not imply consent for everyone. Do not talk to the accessibility tool but to the disabled person. Do not stare at the disability tool, but look at the person.

Touching an accessibility tool without consent is assault. Even if your intention is to help, you don’t get to violate someone’s bodily autonomy. Imagine having someone suddenly take away your ability to decide where you go? I’ve had that happen to me, where someone grabbed the chair I was in and started pushing me in the direction they wanted to go. It was like being hijacked. I couldn’t stop it. My hands were already rug-burned from the sudden friction of the chair suddenly moving faster than before while my hands were on the handles propelling myself forward.

It is incredibly infantilizing to have someone take away your ability to make choices about where you go. It’s one thing when I ask for help or ask someone to push me because I don’t have the energy or the terrain is unfriendly to wheelchairs making it even more difficult. But when someone takes that choice away from you without asking first, it is like being told point blank that they don’t consider you an adult capable of making your own choices. Since this idea is frequently echoed in society, every reminder of it is jarring. What’s worse is that often times IF we complain, we are seen as unreasonable since “they’re just trying to help.” Many mobile people also have no idea of the obstacles that might affect a wheelchair. More than once I was propelled forward because a raised seam in the floor, or raised edge was not noticeable to them but was enough to catch the chair. Then of course you get the people who think it is hilarious to push you as fast as they can, and then pretend they are losing control as you approach a wall or other hard surface.

Similarly, friends of mine has been injured or come close to being injured when people lift up her walker onto a raised surface, without asking if she wants their help in doing so. The sudden shift affects her balance and can make it difficult for her to brace herself in a way that makes it easier for her to step up onto the surface. Many times, the various bags of her walker have fallen off because the person in question had no idea where to best lift the walker, causing it to fold in on itself. Other times they’ve had fingers caught in the handles, which twisted painfully as the walker was jerked away unexpectedly.

There are stories of people who are in the process of lifting themselves out of their chair and into their car, or some other seat, and finding themselves being lifted up by a complete stranger. It is bad enough to have some random strangers hands on your body, but in addition there is a real risk of physical injury or pain. (Consider also the fact that given the high rates of sexual assault of disabled people, this can be a major trigger). To properly lift someone out of a chair or seat or otherwise takes training to do correctly. Otherwise there is a high potential for injuring the person being lifted and also for the person doing the lifting to be injured. In addition, if the person is suffering from a pain condition, the physical pressure can be too much to handle and can be extremely painful. If there is an existing injury, it can be made worse. I’ve heard tell of someone with a spinal injury who was lifted out of a chair by some random. The way the person lifted them caused pressure to be applied to the damaged area and caused a bone fragment or something to shift and cause severe damage to the spinal cord.

An experience I’ve had and heard of from others is when someone absentmindedly moves a cane, wheelchair, or walker out of their way. I like to think that most of the time it is not meant maliciously, they just don’t think about it. The end result, however, can be increased pain or even being outright trapped somewhere because you can’t reach what you need to be able to stand up, or move somewhere else.

Abled society is so determined to see disability as misery, that they see accessibility devices as being prisons rather than tools that give us more freedom. The chair is seen as the source of disability rather than as a way of reducing disability. As a result, when abled people try to “help” by pushing chairs, or lifting walkers, or whatnot, they do so because they think they are eliminating some of the burden of said disability.

What they are failing to realize is that they are not eliminating the burden of disability, but rather adding to it. If I’m struggling with my chair when I use it, it is usually because the chair I am using is borrowed from the store and poorly maintained because providing adequate accessibility is not a priority. I am struggling because the ramp was built too steep, or the sidewalk wasn’t maintained well enough and so there are lots of cracks and dips. I am struggling because the store was not arranged with a wheelchair in mind and so I have to be very careful about how I navigate around.

None of these struggles are going to be improved by someone deciding to push me a given distance. I might not have had to expend as much effort for those few moments, but all the barriers that existed before still do.

Too many people make themselves feel better about improving disabled people’s lives when they do one time actions, thinking that they were a bright spot in the disabled person’s day because their struggle was noticed for a moment. It’s not really about helping disabled people though, but rather about making yourself feel better.

We don’t have time to have people feel ok about the state of things for disabled people because someone they know shared a picture of some nice young man who asked a disabled girl to prom and then never spoke to them again. We don’t have time for abled people to only focus on disability when it can make them feel good, or inspired. We don’t have time for their condescending pity.

If you really want to help people with disabilities, address the causes of those disabilities. Address the fact that most of the builders employed to create buildings and store designs, as well as new apartment buildings and so forth, have no experience with what it is like to use accessibility devices. This is why they will put in a ramp that leads to a door that is too narrow to admit most wheelchairs. Or why you will end up with an elevator located at the bottom of a small set of stairs. Address the fact that most crumbling infrastructure, like falling apart sidewalks, not clearing sidewalks or curbs of snow, and so forth, tend to be big barriers to people who use mobility devices. Address the fact that people on disability are not able to afford to live in buildings that manage to be accessible.

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PSA: Don’t Touch Accessibility Devices

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