I recently saw an article from a few years ago re-emerge in my Facebook feed. I instantly knew I was not going to like the article, which I apparently (luckily) missed when it was first published. The article was written on a website called Rolling Without Limits, and the site seemed to be full of pseudo inspiration porn-y posts (for those who do not know, inspiration porn is reflected in ‘feel good’ stories about people with disabilities, which make you feel good simply because the person just happens to be disabled or because another person pitied a disabled person enough to treat them like a human being).
The article, which is entitled, “Happy Holidays! Give a Hug To Someone in a Wheel Chair Today” not only uses archaic ideas about people with disabilities (we’re not bound to our wheelchairs so stop using “wheelchair-bound” to describe us!) it also mentions the need to hug caregivers of disabled people, because they should be pitied for having to put up with us difficult cripples.
The problem with this site is that it allows anyone to create content, so articles that are actually harmful to people with disabilities are mixed in with any type of article that could benefit the disability community. This particular article reinforces harmful stereotypes about disabled people, and about the relationship we share with our non-disabled counterparts. There is no disclaimer about asking before touching, or in this case, hugging a person who uses a wheelchair. There is just an overwhelming feeling that our lives, as wheelchair users, are pathetic and therefore a hug will brighten our day. With this in mind, here are some very important things to consider before you go out and hug the first random person in a wheelchair that you see.
Would you hug a non–disabled person?
I am guessing the answer is probably no. Unless you’re on the street doing a social experiment for YouTube where you try to randomly hug strangers, common sense tells you that most strangers would not appreciate being hugged or even touched, especially without permission. So why would a disabled person who uses a wheelchair feel any differently? It is awkward and uncalled for, so just don’t do it. By default, if you would not do something to someone without a disability, you probably shouldn’t do something to someone with one.
The article suggests that wheelchair users need to be hugged because we are desperate for love and attention. This idea is insulting. Many of us can get the hugs we need from people we know. You also have no idea how busy we are, so you could be interrupting our day, just so you can feel good about yourself by hugging us. It takes a second to ask if we’d like to be hugged, so why not at least ask?
Asking first is the only respectable thing to do if you insist on wanting to hug us. Just make sure to not take it personally if we turn you down.
Some of us prefer to not be touched (with good reason)
There may be a perfectly logical reason for why you should not touch a person, with or without a disability, if you have not asked them whether it is okay to touch them. I believe anyone saying they do not wished to be hugged is reason enough, but beyond that, depending on their disability, your touch may be painful.
Some disabled people, including wheelchair users, may be sensitive to being touched for a variety of reasons. Two common ones are tactile sensitivity (sensory overload) and chronic pain. I love a great hug from a good friend, but my friends also know that I have experienced chronic pain all over my body, particularly in my shoulders, for over a decade. If someone grabs my shoulders too tightly it hurts me. My friends know not to grab me too tightly. A stranger does not have this knowledge, so when they touch me, they may not even realize they are harming me. Likewise, someone with a sensitivity to touch may experience an overload of their senses if touched, and that can be both scary and painful.
For whatever reason, if someone tells you not to touch them, you should respect their wishes. They may not be saying it just to be a dick. There may be a genuine reason beyond just not wanting your touch. Plus, you’re a stranger. It is okay to not feel comfortable with being touched by someone you do not know. It’s actually a great protective response. We live in dangerous times. You never know who a person might be or what their motives are. Protecting oneself is paramount, so no one should be bullied into letting someone they do not know touch them, if they are not comfortable with that.
It shouldn’t matter if the person is disabled or not. Respect people’s boundaries and their personal space.
Most disabled people already lack agency over their own bodies
People already touch me on a regular basis without my permission. People pat me on the head as though I am an animal or small child. They pat me on the shoulder, rub my arm, or find some other way to touch me. One guy, at the bus stop, insisted on punching me in the arm every time he walked past me, ignoring the, “please don’t” and “owws!” I made sure were loud enough for him to hear. I don’t know why our culture has made it so that non-disabled people think it’s okay to touch a person, simply because they have a disability. My use of a wheelchair does not give other people free agency over my body. Yet, being touched by strangers happens to myself and my other friends in wheelchairs, on a nearly consistent basis.
I believe the misconception that it is okay to touch disabled people without their permission stems from the idea that we need to be infantilized. People with disabilities are often treated like children, and our society does not protect the body integrity of children either. This creates a false belief that any individual has a free pass to touch us. We are your buddies, your pals, your friends, even when we don’t know you. So, punching us on the arm like you would any of your other friends seems to be acceptable, to many.
It is not okay. Touching without permission is never okay, no matter who the person is and no matter what their age happens to be. Infantilizing disabled people is insulting. We are not children… well, disabled adults are not. It doesn’t matter how young we look. We are grown adults, and deserve the same respect as any other adult. Even if the person is a disabled child, respect their bodies, and their right to not be touched. It’s just not kosher.
Some of us probably wouldn’t care if you asked first
We understand that it is the holiday season. You want to spread good cheer. Some disabled people might not mind being hugged every once in a while. If you ask, you may find someone who is willing to let you hug away. Just be mindful of their personal space. Regardless of whether someone lets you touch them or not, that does not give you free reign to stand over them, massage their shoulders (yes, people do this!), or touch them in any other way beyond hugging.
It’s common sense folks. It’s not rocket science. Don’t be a dick and wheelchair users won’t need to run you over!
What would you do in this situation? Would you let someone hug you? If you are like most people you probably wouldn’t. All disabled people are asking is for the same respect. As human beings we deserve that.