Now I'm disabled, society does not seem to care about my sexual safety

In summer 2018, navigating life as a newly disabled woman, a cab driver helped secure my wheelchair; my seatbelt strapped over and behind me, everything was reinforced for my physical safety.

Only, I didn’t feel safe at all. As the taxi set off, my mind flashed back to an incident in another taxi the previous winter – when I wasn’t yet disabled – that had terrified me. 

The driver started going the wrong way, I panicked as I glanced at the journey tracker. He had locked the doors and, as he swerved from the motorway to a back street, I screamed at him to let me out.

I feared I’d become another statistic among thousands of women assaulted, raped or killed by men every year in the UK.

Thankfully my insistence – and a frantic phone call to a friend – made the driver unlock the doors as he tried to shrug it off as a joke. I leapt out of the moving cab as it steadily pulled up to traffic lights by a tube station. 

A transport worker saw my distress and I explained through tears what had happened as he helped me get home safely. I called the police but there was nothing they could do – no crime had been committed. 

Nowadays I miss the freedom of being able to wind down the window – or undo my seatbelt and run if need be.

Falling ill with sepsis and meningitis in June 2018 changed my life. I went from thinking I had a summer cold to collapsing and being told I would have died, had the paramedics arrived 10 minutes later.

Several weeks after fighting meningitis, I was left unable to walk due to a rare neurological condition called Functional Neurological Disorder, meaning that messages weren’t getting from my brain to my body as they should.

My care needs now leave me at the mercy of cab drivers; I have to use wheelchair accessible taxis to get me to appointments around London. 

My lack of choice about how I get around is frustrating but thankfully my boyfriend has been incredibly supportive. When I fell ill he moved me into his flat and our six-month relationship accelerated as he became my carer and helped with everything from bathroom visits to blow drying my hair.

It took two years for me to start specialist neurological treatment on the NHS that has allowed me to walk again but I still need the help of a mobility aid.  

While I found my power as a disability rights campaigner a couple of months after being discharged from hospital, being newly disabled also made me shockingly more aware of how society ignores our sexual safety – there’s a timid approach to conversations about disability overall. 

When you’re not disabled, there’s an unconscious ableism that comes with not realising the societal bias towards disabled people to the full extent. I admit that, when I wasn’t disabled, I didn’t realise quite how bad things could be for disabled people. 

According to a report from the Office of National Statistics in February, disabled people in England are twice as likely to experience sexual assault as non-disabled people and the stats stack up similarly when it comes to domestic abuse.

Around 15% of the global population live with disabilities, and 10% of all women are disabled, yet our needs appear invisible to the rest of society.

I felt ignored by doctors when I sought advice about how our sex life was to be navigated given I’d lost feeling in my left leg. I even heard stories online from other disabled women about medical professionals mistaking their partners for their carers and some even questioned the need for disabled women to have contraception.

Ultimately, this reflects the ableist view that disabled people are too fragile to do anything – let alone have sex. 

According to many disabled women I’ve spoken to, when society struggles to recognise our active sex lives, it means we are reluctant to report sexual assault for fear of not being believed. If we aren’t seen as sexual beings by society, will stories of sexual assault be taken seriously? 

I’m currently working on a much needed national campaign that highlights how inappropriate it is for strangers to touch our bodies or mobility aids without consent. Often people feel like they’re trying to help by moving our wheelchairs or guiding us with their hands but unwanted touching can be the start of something more sinister.

Most disabled people can and will ask for help if we need it; our mobility aids should be considered an extension of our bodies. You wouldn’t randomly touch an able-bodied person, so don’t do it to disabled people or their belongings.

Disabled people make up over 20% of the UK population – that’s 13.9million. We need to be able to have our experiences of sexual harassment taken seriously. 

To help raise awareness of this, I sent out a tweet showing clearly how disabled women can’t act in the same way as able-bodied women and what can be done to change things. If we have mobility issues, we can’t just run away.

Better CCTV and lighting in parks has been proposed by the Government but when you use a mobility aid, it’s not as simple as taking an alternative route. Wheelchairs like mine need dropped curbs and I’ve previously risked my physical safety by wheeling on inaccessible public roads because a man has made me feel threatened – even while being in a well-lit area.

Once, on a night out, several men followed me, making lewd comments about my body and wheelchair. Trapped on a pavement without a dropped curve I couldn’t move but luckily the men eventually got bored and I wheeled away.

The point is, avoiding potentially dangerous situations is out of our control. If the one wheelchair space on the bus is taken, we have to wait for the next one. If someone is acting in an inappropriate and threatening way to us, we can’t just move to a different train carriage or alert the driver easily.

And it’s not just women in wheelchairs. Dr Amy Kavanagh, a freelance accessibility consultant, believes she’s targeted by men because she’s blind. She told me men have harassed and sexually assaulted her because she cannot easily identify them. Amy’s experience sadly doesn’t surprise me.

But there are solutions to these issues if only society will start to listen and support us. The work so many advocates are doing around the world – such as online campaigning such as Dr Kavanagh’s #JustAskDontGrab campaign – the inclusion of disabled women by sexual safety groups like Reclaim Our Streets and media coverage telling the authentic voices of disabled women and our experiences with sexual and domestic violence means we are being heard.

In order to be an ally, pass the microphone to disabled women. We can and will advocate for ourselves but we need our experiences heard first hand.

When the Government talks about sexual safety and discusses issues like the Domestic Abuse Bill, it’s vital domestic violence by carers is included; something that MP Jess Phillips is fighting for.

Disabled women’s needs and the way society views us has to adapt. We need to be specifically mentioned in talks, debates and legislation as one size of sexual assault prevention sadly doesn’t fit all.

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