When I travel around the world, I usually travel by myself. I guess you could say that’s quite a risk to take, considering I can’t walk – or escape, depending on how you look at it. I rely heavily on my former training as an Air Force Special Agent, as well as my instincts and “common sense,” to avoid trouble. I’m usually back at my hotel before the sun sets, I’m always around other people, and I try not to get caught in large crowds. But there’s another aspect of solo travel that is being brought up more in the current political climate. Not only am I vulnerable as a wheelchair user, but as a woman. I want to explain why I do fear for my safety if I unintentionally find myself in a space with only men I don’t know.
Starting with the most basic of issues, as a woman traveling alone who can’t walk, I’m a target for anyone – male or female – who may want to try to grab my purse or shoulder pack or electronics or anything else I may be holding. The fear of being assaulted comes from an obvious imbalance of power. Clearly there’s no way I’m going to outrun an assailants, or even fight back with any degree of effectiveness. In many countries, just a person in a wheelchair is viewed as a curiosity, which for some crazy reason allows people to believe that’s an invitation for them to come up and just start touching.
About a year ago, I was exploring the historic part of central Ljubljana in Slovenia. I was by myself checking my cell phone when I was approached by a young man in a power wheelchair. Both his person and his wheelchair looked like they had seen better days, but he spoke good English and seemed friendly enough. Plus, I’m always happy to speak to a fellow power wheelchair user in a foreign country. He introduced himself and we started chatting, but the conversation quickly took a turn for the worse. He started saying things about how he wanted to have his way with me and lock me up in his basement. Then he reached down and flipped the switch on my scooter that takes it out of drive and puts it into neutral. He said it was so I “couldn’t get away.” At that point, I excused myself and went elsewhere. Then I got angry with myself for still trying to the last minute to not be rude.
Being around inebriated men also makes me really nervous. In Munich in March 2017, I had a rare dinner out with new friends and had to make my way to my hotel around 10 PM, about three quarters of a kilometer away. My strategy in those situations is to stay near other people who were walking in the same direction in case I need help if something happens. However, I soon found myself surrounded by five drunk men who kept looking at me and laughing. They weren’t German, not that I speak it, but it was still hard because I didn’t know what they were saying. They kept getting closer to me, then surrounded me, then started touching the seat of my scooter and trying to lean on it, no matter where I went on the sidewalk. I finally just pulled over to the side of the storefronts and stayed there, hoping they would keep walking. Fortunately they did, but they still looked back over their shoulders at me.
In Prague in early September 2018, I was rolling through a big crowd of people on a Friday at 6 PM. There were a lot of drunk Brits wandering around holding beers, and one of them just started walking behind me and put his hands on my shoulders. Being touched while I’m on my scooter can really throw off my balance, and it didn’t help that it was a drunk male stranger touching me without permission. I pushed his hand off of me and told him to not touch me, and he actually had the nerve to look angry and offended.
Would any of these encounters led to some sort of assault? Probably not. But I have no way of knowing for sure. Possibilities become even more fuzzy when alcohol is involved, as people can become unpredictable – especially when you don’t know them, they may not even live there, and it’s a foreign country where sometimes it’s hard ask for help. I remember being in Budapest in June 2018 and having to roll down a mostly empty street for half a mile after taking nighttime pictures of the Parliament Building. The only people I saw were men drinking at tables or men walking with beer bottles in brown paper bags. I tried to stay as far away from them as I could, and then much to my relief a family of four rounded the corner and started heading in my direction. Soon after that, I saw two women walking alone in the opposite direction. My thought process was that if a couple and their two young children feel safe, and if two other women by themselves feel safe, then I should be okay.
I should be clear that I have never been raped, sexually assaulted, or physically assaulted in any way. I have, however, been sexually harassed more times than I care to count or remember. There are also too many sad stories of probably millions of women who have been sexually assaulted around the world – women who are faster than me, bigger than me, and stronger than me. I hate being afraid when I travel, and even in my own community, of men I don’t know. I am incredibly grateful to the dozens, if not hundreds, of male strangers around the world to have lifted my scooter or even carried me over God knows how many obstacles so that I can enjoy all the sights that a destination has to offer. It’s entirely possible that my fear is completely unfounded, and that as long as I keep taking my self-imposed security measures, I will be okay. However, I also understand that sexual assault is not about sex – it’s about power. And as a solo female wheelchair traveler, I am on the bottom rung of the power scale. My fear will never stop me from traveling, but it will also always keep me on high alert.