A wheelchair-user who triggered a Twitter storm when she highlighted the problems facing disabled people who are the victims of unwanted help has found a solution by adding spokes to her transport.
Bronwyn Berg triggered nearly 65,000 likes and 20,000 retweets after the BBC reported in January how a stranger took control of her wheelchair without asking permission.
Bronwyn lives in Canada but the story about her fitting spikes to deter the grabbers has crossed the Atlantic and is again raising awareness of the issue through the BBC and social media.
The spikes, which don’t puncture the skin, were homemade by Bronwyn’s partner Hal and fitted to the handles of her chair after he noticed she became anxious whenever she heard approaching footsteps.
Bronwyn explained that she sees her wheelchair as an extension of herself and if someone grabs it, it’s the same as someone grabbing hold of her.
She said: “The heart of it is I want to feel safe in the world. One thing I want to get across is it’s OK to ask if we need help. I’m not opposed to being helped. There are times when I’ve needed help getting up a hill, for example, but don’t be defensive if we say ‘no’. I’m not a touchy person, I’m an introvert.”
The BBC reported that research from the charity Scope found two thirds of the British public feel uncomfortable when talking to disabled people. In particular, those aged 18-34 were twice as likely as older people to feel awkward.
Dr Amy Kavanagh, a visually-impaired campaigner, told the BBC: “I think a lot of people in the UK panic about disability. It makes them feel awkward and we know a lot of people don’t want to interact with disabled people very much so they panic and their natural instinct is to use their hands and not their words.”
The BBC says hundreds of reports of unwanted touching have been shared by disabled women and men on social media using the hashtag #JustAskDontGrab.
Dr Kavanagh said she has always had low vision but noticed a significant change in attitude towards her two years ago when she started to use a white cane.
She said: “I had this magical new thing which gave me my independence but I was suddenly experiencing the world as a visibly disabled person – and it made me realise how differently people would treat you if they perceive you to be incapable of doing things by yourself.”
Dr Kavanagh said that around twice a month she experiences men who “grope me, make inappropriate sexual comments or try and physically stop me leaving a location”.
She said: “Being touched by strangers happens every single day and even those well-intentioned touches – I’m not a slim lady so when someone grabs my arm they’re often grazing a bosom – it’s just a very intrusive and personal act without my consent. Disabled people can be independent and that is something society shouldn’t be frightened of.”