Talk to children about disability – and spare me more painful encounters

A boy on a train grabbed my arm and started playing with it. Even if he didn’t understand consent, his mother should have

Cerrie Burnell with Chris Jarvis and Sid Sloane in the 2012 CBeebies Christmas panto
Cerrie Burnell with Chris Jarvis and Sid Sloane in the 2012 CBeebies Christmas panto. As former presenter Burnell noted, ‘it’s a parent’s job to teach children about disabilities, rather than making disabled people feel uncomfortable’. Photograph: Guy Levy/BBC

I’ve always believed, no matter how awkward the conversations might be, that it’s crucial for parents to teach their children about things such as disability, race, and gender from an early age; to explain why strangers they might come across don’t look, sound, act or dress like they do. Growing up, I know it would have made my life a whole lot easier and spared me countless stares – and probably a fair bit of bullying, too.

As I’ve got older, though, I’ve learned to appreciate that my arm is a part of who I am. It’s got me into a few awkward situations (although if I’m honest, I’ve also used it as an excuse to get out of a fair few too!) However, one encounter I had recently left me feeling trapped, and more awkward about myself than I had felt in years.

I was on the train on the way home from work when a woman and her son sat down opposite me. After a few minutes, the boy – who can’t have been older than six or seven – walked over and started grabbing my left arm. Rather than intervening or saying anything, his mother simply sat there and smiled at me as her son treated my arm like a toy, inspecting it from various angles, prodding it, and moving it around.

It was probably a mixture of shock and embarrassment that stopped me saying anything to either of them. He continued to touch my arm for about two minutes before seemingly getting bored and going back to his seat.

Having had one hand for my entire life, I’m no stranger to people finding it interesting. I’ve had all sorts of queries, from the weirdly intrusive “Have you ever used it during sex?” to the downright offensive “How can you leave the house with one hand?”, and I generally encourage people to ask me things, no matter how ridiculous they might be.

One of the most common questions people ask about my arm is whether they can touch it. Despite having always found this a bit of an odd one (I’ve never really understood what people think they’re going to get out of touching what is essentially just a forearm), I’ve almost always been willing, if they ask politely. However, where the incident on the train differs from my other experiences is consent.

I understand that the boy was young and may not yet have an understanding of consent and bodily autonomy, but surely his mother should have done. Surely, she must have realised that it’s not all right for her son to walk up to strangers and start touching them. And if her son was adamant that he had to touch my arm, surely she could have asked my permission?

Advertisement

At no point was my comfort with the situation considered. Not a single word was exchanged the entire time as I nervously sat there with my headphones on, trying to avoid eye contact with the child or his mum for fear of making the situation even more awkward for me than it already was. He made the odd “ooh” noise as he was seemingly enthralled, but other than that, there was simply silence for two minutes – and the following 20 minutes of our commute home.

While some might say I should have said something (and sometimes, thinking back, I feel the same), ultimately it’s not my duty to educate anyone’s children on disability or consent.

Yet had the boy’s mum asked me to explain to him why my arm is the way it is, I would have done so happily. I appreciate it must have been an awkward situation for her, too, and that there’s no right way to approach a situation like that – but as I found, there is a wrong one.

As the former CBeebies presenter Cerrie Burnell noted when she was faced with parents complaining that their children were scared of her arm, it is a parent’s job to explain to their children about disabilities and the differences between people rather than making disabled people feel uncomfortable for simply existing.

Unfortunately, the incident on the train was not the first time something like this has happened to me. Once, in a supermarket, my arm was grabbed from behind by a stranger who wanted to show me he had an arm similar to mine. I always find meeting amputees interesting, especially seeing how they deal with everyday tasks differently to me; but the fact that the man did not even speak to me, just waved his arm in my face and walked off, made me feel incredibly uncomfortable. The fact that he did not realise – or worse – did not care how intrusive it is to have a part of your body grabbed by a stranger worries me, even if it was similar to his.

The topic of consent has rightly moved to the forefront of much of the public discourse regarding how we interact with others – it should be extended to encompass disabled people too. While I’d never equate what happened to me with sexual assault, the basic fundamentals of consent and bodily autonomy remain the same, regardless of disability, and it is essential that we, as disabled people, are afforded agency over our own bodies.

Devarshi Lodhia is a freelance journalist with an interest in sports, film, and music

Since you’re here…

… we have a small favour to ask. More people are reading the Guardian than ever but advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. And unlike many news organisations, we haven’t put up a paywall – we want to keep our journalism as open as we can. So you can see why we need to ask for your help. The Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we do it because we believe our perspective matters – because it might well be your perspective, too.

The Guardian is editorially independent, meaning we set our own agenda. Our journalism is free from commercial bias and not influenced by billionaire owners, politicians or shareholders. No one edits our Editor. No one steers our opinion. This is important because it enables us to give a voice to the voiceless, challenge the powerful and hold them to account. It’s what makes us different to so many others in the media, at a time when factual, honest reporting is critical.

If everyone who reads our reporting, who likes it, helps to support it, our future would be much more secure. For as little as CA$1, you can support the Guardian – and it only takes a minute. Thank you.

Recent Stories

Daily Costs Too High for Those on Disability Support

https://kitchener.ctvnews.ca/video?clipId=1355287

Read More

Father Builds Home for Son with Disability

  https://toronto.ctvnews.ca/video?clipId=1222178

Read More

Wheelchair Waterpark.

Every major city needs one of these. Maybe the large amusement parks should look into adding this to their parks. Disney, Canada’s Wonderland, 6 Flags, etc…

Read More