The Immorality of Non-consentual Touch Seems to Depend on Who’s Being Touched

In general, I don’t feel my blog is a suitable platform for a rant, particularly one that has almost no chance of affecting the people who inspired it. In two years of maintaining an active and varied blog, I have yet to let loose, until now. I absolutely hate the dissonance between the good intentions of strangers who grab me on the street or in the subway, assuming I need help when I don’t, and the rage I often feel at being touched without consent.

People want to help. People want to make my unimaginable life a little easier. People want to save me from, well, I’m not sure what they want to save me from when they grab my elbow and propel me in the same direction I’m already headed. People want to take care of me because I look so helpless. People want to make themselves feel good by doing a kindness, regardless of whether it’s necessary. Maybe some of these people would ask if I needed help first if they spoke English, but quite often, I’m seized and propelled by a wordless presence, a kind of misguided specter who makes no sound, and who either gets shaken off, or lets go when they feel their mission is accomplished. As they clearly feel me incapable of finding the turnstile I’m heading right towards without their help, it’s unclear when their mission could ever be truly accomplished. It forces me to wonder how they think I got this far. Did I sleep in the subway? How did I make it from my front door to this point without them?

Don’t get me wrong, if I’m one step away from sailing off the subway platform onto the tracks, I hope someone will grab me, but in several decades of independent travel, there’s only been one time when such instant intervention was necessary, and it was to pull me back from a careless driver, not stop me doing what I was doing.

Please understand: I place the highest value on the impulse to help. One of my favourite things about my neighbourhood is that people ask me if I need help all the time. It never ever irritates me; it makes me happy. 19 Times out of 20 I don’t, and I decline with a friendly word of thanks. In many other parts of the city however, I’m regularly assaulted by well-meaning busybodies who haven’t learned to use their words. It’s not just me of course; most other blind people I know have the same problem. Some more than others though, and here’s the interesting part. My female blind friends get it way more than my male blind friends. This is no surprise to me at all. The issue here is one of agency and entitlement, or I should say: a perceived lack of agency, and a perceived sense of entitlement. In many ways, women have traditionally been categorized with children in terms of law and custom. Thank the stars this is far far less true than it used to be, but there’s still a lingering whiff left. For the disabled, this perception is alive and thriving. My sisters and I are seen as vulnerable, fragile, incapable, and childlike, by many people. When these people touch us without warning or permission, they feel completely within the bounds of decency, entitled to violate our personal space in a way they’d never consider doing to anyone else accept a child.

Imagine you’re getting on a bus. You’ve put your foot on the first step and are about to step up. Suddenly there are hands on either side of your waist, supporting you and pushing you up and forward. How acceptable is it to touch a stranger in this way without their knowledge or consent? This particular experience has happened to me more than once; especially baffling, as I’m clearly able to walk and move on my own, and presumably climb a few stairs onto a bus. What stops me from whirling around and smacking the idiot hard? The knowledge that, though hideously misguided, their gross impropriety comes from a desire to do good. It’s a ridiculous expression of the desire, and in other circumstances could be construed as assault or harassment, but because I have a disability, no one will think twice about it. I’m one of society’s most vulnerable; of course anyone reaching out to me is acting from a place of warm and fuzzy altruism. So instead of respect for the skills that got me to that bus, I’m offered condescension, and infantilized in a way no other group would begin to tolerate. If I speak out in the moment, I come across as a bitter and ungrateful blind person. How can I convey all of what I’ve written here in the four seconds afforded by transient transit communication? I can’t. Therefore, I can either give reign to my rage and sense of violation by making a scene, or say nothing, and just stew on my fury. Then after 40 years of this bullshit, I can write the kind of rant I swore I’d never muddy my blog with.

I’m a massage therapist. I touch people for a living. I do it with care, respect, intention, consent, and the desire to heal. I’m an affectionate person with my partner and my friends. I value human contact highly, and in the right mood, I don’t hate it when some gentle old grandfather takes my wrist to guide me toward an open subway door. Increasingly though, I experience these unwanted intrusions as invasive, insulting, demeaning, disrespectful, violating, and infuriating. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I have no choice about who touches me. A gentle old grandfather is one thing, but what about an odorous person? Or a person I just instinctively don’t trust? Or someone who’s so feeble that instead of helping me they slow me down? Regardless of who my benefactor is, I’m expected to be grateful for the help, even if I didn’t need it.

I now occasionally say, “Thanks but please stop touching me,” and if a repetition of this phrase doesn’t work, I sometimes have to physically pluck a hand off my arm. Now and then I invite people to “Use your words.” It’s really easy to say, “One step to the left,” or “There’s a railing on your right,” or, “there’s a bin on the sidewalk, would you like some help around it?” If I’m walking pretty much right toward an exit, it’s even easier to just wait, and assume that if I made it this far, I’ll probably make it through the door under my own power.

There’s an appalling double standard at work here. Because I’m disabled, the same rules of courtesy, personal space, consent and respect don’t apply to me. Sometimes I do need help, and I’m always really appreciative of those who give it. Frankly, this is another reason I struggle not to lose my temper; the brutal truth is that one day I might be in real danger, or lost, and the more people I alienate, the fewer people I, and others with disabilities will have to rely on. Sometimes though, I really want to creep up behind these people and grab them when they don’t know it’s coming, and see how they like it. I guarantee you they wouldn’t. I might even get slugged, or charged with assault.

Us and Them: A Great Model For Running A War, Not the Best Model For Running A Charity

There are only two points I want to make here.

  • volunteerism is a wonderful thing. I’ve experienced it for decades from both sides, and know how helpful and rewarding it can be.

  • When one sets out to help, one must do so respectfully, and with a full awareness of the individuality and dignity of the people one helps.

The importance of my first point has always been obvious to me. As a blind person, I’ve benefitted in countless ways from the time, effort and money donated by kind and generous people. As a long-time volunteer myself, I know that hard work in the right place is its own reward.

I became really aware of the second point recently, when my attention was drawn to some of the rhetoric employed by the Lion’s Club with respect to blindness, and their mission to make our lives better. I’ll come back to this later, but I need to stress from the outset how much I respect and value the impulse to help, that motivates each member of the Lion’s club. I’m including the text of an induction ceremony below. It’s publically available, so I’m not betraying any secret initiation rites.

Helen Keller Induction Ceremony
We are about to begin the induction ceremony which will welcome (a) new member to the _________ Lions Club. This is an important occasion for this new member and I sincerely request the attention and silence of the membership during the ceremony.
(Lights off please)
I will call the name of the new member and their sponsor and the candidate will enter and stand before the membership. You have been brought into this room blindfolded and guided by your sponsor, for the purpose of showing you what Lionism is about the aiding of the blind and afflicted. You now know what it is to be blind and to have to be dependent on someone else. You are experiencing blindness for just a few minutes, many others are blind for life. You have just done something the sightless do every day of their lives. I’ve asked you to spend a few moments in darkness because this symbolizes the life of the blind and hopefully this will be the only time you spend in darkness. Lion __________ is now going to say a few words about darkness. Lions International was founded by Melvin Jones in 1917, some ___ years ago, and today it is the world’s largest service organization. The reason we became the largest has a lot to do with the blindfold you are now wearing.

Originally there was no particular direction for Lions to go, no special cause, but in 1925, eight years after being founded, a blind and deaf woman, Helen Keller, asked permission to speak before our international convention. She asked the Lions to pick up her crusade and adopt sight conservation as a major project of Lions International. She was dealing with a small group of men from the western hemisphere at that time. She did not realize what was going to happen when she asked, ‘Gentlemen, would you be my knights of the blind? We have many problems to overcome and we cannot do them alone, we need help.’ Twenty-five years later, after Helen Keller went on to become one of the most famous women in American history, she came back to the Lions convention with tears in her eyes and said, ‘Thank you, my knights of the blind. Little did I realize 25 years ago when I asked you to take my cause that I would find Lions not only in America, but in China, Africa and all the other free countries of the world, all working for one goal to eradicate the dreaded disease of blindness.”
Before you, we have lit a candle to represent the International Association of Lions Clubs. You obviously cannot see its flame. Many sightless people throughout the world have never seen what this simple flame even looks like. Please remove your blindfold. Welcome back to the world of light. Hopefully in your lifetime, you will never have to spend moments in darkness beyond those you just did.

Please take this candle and light it from the international flame as an indication of your membership in this lions club. This is the light we hope you will shed on all those in need and that look for your help.
(Lights on please)

Darkness speech:

In the beginning there was darkness. We are born in darkness, and we die in darkness. Sadly, there are millions of us on this less-than-perfect planet who spend their days and years in this darkness.
In this moment we have together, lets try to understand their loss, that we might dedicate ourselves to their care, and their cure. Lets take a walk in the long, dark corridor they travel every day.
Try to erase from your mind’s eye the visions they cannot share. Try to erase from your mind’s eye the faces of your children, the view from your window, the words on a printed page. One by one erase from your mind’s eye each flower, each bird, each sunset you have ever seen. Erase every work of art ever created, every panorama from nature’s infinite palette. Erase even the concept of colour, of clouds and stars and morning mists. No blue sky, no golden fields of wheat dancing in the breeze. Remove them, every beautiful sight you have ever beheld. Erase them one by one until there is nothing left but darkness. And when you feel alone, and perhaps frightened, you will have experienced just a small part of the terror than is blindness.

I’ve long been aware of the usefulness of an “us and them” mentality when it comes to dehumanizing, marginalizing, or waging war on others, but I hadn’t thought much about it in the context of charity. As I wipe away a solitary tear of despair, and try not to get lost in my personal journey down my own empty corridor of agony, I’m impelled to raise a couple of objections.

Within the disability community, it’s generally understood that an hour or a day in a wheelchair, while instructive, will not teach anyone what it’s like to spend 24/7 in one for the rest of your life. Likewise, being blindfolded for a few minutes doesn’t mean someone knows “what it’s like to be blind.” I suppose blindness is “dreaded,” and an “affliction,” but if someone spoke to me face-to-face about it in this way, I’d be mortally offended. My life is rich, full, overflowing occasionally, and as likely to hold adventure, creativity and richness as anyone else’s.

Of course being blind in a sighted world presents barriers of varying degrees every day, but my life isn’t an endless corridor of isolation. Disabled people are more subject to marginalization and depression, but I’ve got my own inner landscape of flowers, trees, and the people I love, that doesn’t require sight to sustain me.

I wonder whether it’s an established fact in the fundraiser’s universe, that pity and fear carve a deeper path to people’s hearts and wallets, than understanding or inspiration. This isn’t the first example I’ve encountered where “the terror that is blindness” is exploited to tap charitable impulses. Fortunately, in my part of the world, we no longer have to beg, or sell pencils on the street corner to survive. I think a more useful approach to this problem is to show real blind people living our textured lives, and to describe actual barriers we face day-to-day, barriers that are reducible with the right kind of public will.

Part of the problem here is political correctness. The words of Helen Keller to the Lion’s club don’t represent a 21st century conception of visual impairment, at least where I live. They do appeal to a somewhat romantic approach to benevolence. At least in this instance, her words are at the core of their mission. The results speak for themselves. Lion’s is a huge organization doing valuable work. It really surprised me to encounter this kind of rhetoric about the people they help.

The real challenge here is that the Lion’s club is full of kind, generous people who have chosen to give their time, energy and money to help. This is the most beautiful impulse we as humans have. The text above is only one of the induction speeches that can be chosen, and of course its paternalistic reductionism doesn’t necessarily speak for all Lions clubs. Although I’ve never been a member of a service organization, I’m sure that for some, their induction ceremony was a moving and powerful experience, maybe a peak experience of their lives, symbolizing their commitment to help make a better world. I can’t overstate how much I value this. However, this isn’t the 19th century, and I feel troubled to be represented by a speech that looks like it was written by Charles dickens.

Going To Sea: The Explorers Never Had It Like This

It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good. I love that phrase: pithy, pragmatic, and so often true. Last fall, our long-awaited cruise was cancelled two days before our embarkation date. In the headless chicken panic of trying to rebook nine people on a different boat and get us all to a new embarkation port, it was easy to let the financial consequences fade a bit. Truth is we wound up with a very nice compensation from the cruise line. I’m not sure who first said the magic phrase “repositioning cruise,” but I’m grateful to them for starting me on what will probably be the coolest vacation ever.

In November, we’re flying to Rome, and boarding a five-star cruise ship to travel across the Atlantic to the New World, Florida to be specific. Along the way we’ll make three stops in Spain and two in Portugal, then spend seven glorious days on the high seas!

It’s impossible for me not to romanticize it all. I’ve always loved boats, and as long as I have been reading, I’ve been reading historical fiction. So, even though we’ll be travelling in the lap of luxury, it still feels like a bold adventure. Airplanes and the internet can make the world seem kind of small, which is cool in its own unique ways, but I’m excited about the opportunity to get a taste of how big it really is. For days at a time we’ll be out of sight of land, not to mention the kilometres of ocean beneath us, harboring no one knows what kind of strange life. Romanticism aside, judging by the descriptions of the ship, we won’t have to worry much about dying from scurvy, being overhauled by pirates, pressed into service by a foreign navy, or poisoned by weevils in the hardtack. Our biggest privation will be figuring out how to distribute our 100 minutes of internet over 15 days. It’s true that we’ll be on a very luxurious moving village, but it’s one of the smaller ships, (800 guests) and no matter how insulated we’ll be by crew, staff and indulgence, isolated and cut off is still isolated and cut off.

I’m a bad traveller, I admit it, and I thank my stars every time I leave Toronto, for a patient and supportive partner. We have two days in Rome before departure, and at first I was completely daunted about how to spend them. Architecture? Art? Frescos? Not too compelling for a blind person, and I hate opera. Then I decided to come at the question from the bottom up rather than the top down: not, what do people do in Rome? But rather, what would intrigue me personally?
So far I’m excited about audio tours offered in the Colosseum, and a tour of the largest public bath in ancient Rome. To my dismay it’s no longer a functioning bath, but in its day it could house 1600 people, had an Olympic size swimming pool, a hot pool, a medium pool, a cold pool, athletic training areas, personalized spa services for the rich people, libraries, gardens, shops, and social areas. I’m also trying to find out how to locate choir practices in churches that are open to the public, cause choral music is just so much more excellent than opera.

Not being a traveller by nature, continental Europe is just somewhere I never pictured myself going. I’m extra eager to hear flamenco in southern Spain! I’m also curious about Rome in the sense of past and future mingling. Tourism is usually about antiquity there, but what’s the living city like? Is it ethnically diverse? Are there North African drummers or Ethiopian restaurants? How do modern romans contextualize their city’s past? Do they think about it much? Is it part of their consciousness? I know about some of Toronto’s history, but it’s just not the same thing; it just isn’t.

My research is on-going. I want to make sure I’ve thought ahead to things I’ll want to know when I’m there. This is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure!

I’ve always loved songs about voyaging, especially by sea. There are so many wonderful examples. Since I expect to be writing many posts about this trip, I’ll hold myself down to one song per post. This is a cover of a Josh Ritter song called Another New World. It recounts an epic sea voyage, and one man’s passion for his ship.