5 min

Hey baby, nice wheels

OC Transpo, disability and the culture of harassment on Ottawa’s streets

Lexi Botham has places to be. An Ottawa resident for 12 years, the 31-year-old is working toward a degree in women’s studies at Carleton University, and she’s also a member of the O-Town Bombers (Ottawa’s guerilla knitting group). Like most of us, she has groceries to buy, bills to pay and appointments to keep. But Botham also has an added challenge to deal with: since the age of four she has had severe fibromyalgia, a debilitating disorder characterized by widespread chronic joint and muscle pain that affects everything from her eyesight to her breathing. To get around, she relies variously on an electric wheelchair, a walker and, on the days when she’s feeling most able, a crutch. She also relies heavily on OC Transpo, taking the bus to and from classes and exams on an almost-daily basis.

As a young, queer woman who is also disabled, Botham occupies a unique intersection of identities. Like many women, she has experienced her share of harassment on the street and on the bus. Given that her disability is more visible at some times than others, depending on which assistive device she is using, the types of harassment and negative attention aimed her way also vary. “When I’m in the wheelchair, it gives me some safety, actually, because it gives me a certain level of invisibility,” she says. “I become more of a child than a sexual person, which isn’t cool most of the time, but when it comes to street harassment, it really helps. But then I get harassed for being in the wheelchair, and it’s easy for people to catch up to me — I can’t get away if they decide to follow me.”

On the bus, the harassment Botham experiences often has to do with people who are unwilling to allow her the space she needs to manoeuvre when she’s using her walker or chair. “With the walker it’s probably the worst because I’m a young woman using an old person’s tool. I get a lot more stares and glares. I get a lot of comments about ‘Well, you don’t need that.’” A woman once berated her for nearly 20 minutes because she didn’t want to give up her seat so that Botham could board with her wheelchair. This was one of the rare times when other bus patrons came to her defence, with two women choosing to stand with her and act as a buffer. “When people decide to step in, it makes everything so much better,” she says. “I know people have to be concerned about their own physical security, too, but stepping in and telling someone it’s not cool to harass someone doesn’t mean you’re going to get beat up yourself.”

Lack of bystander intervention is a huge part of the problem when it comes to public harassment of women, says Julie Lalonde, director of Hollaback Ottawa, an organization devoted to ending street harassment. “I think a big part of the conversation is why are people witnessing this stuff and doing nothing?” she says, noting that often women being harassed are afraid to speak up and defend themselves for fear of the situation escalating, knowing that the people around them may not step in to intervene if it does.

“We don’t have that mentality,” she says. “We certainly don’t have it on public transit in the city, and so you have marginalized folks who don’t take transit or when they do, they just expect this stuff to happen, and that’s a shame. I pay a lot of money to be able to use public transit; I should be able to use it as much as any of my male friends.

“I like living downtown because I can do the majority of my living without the bus,” Botham says. “Maybe [the bus isn’t] physically a threat to me, but emotionally it really is. It’s hard facing that day in, day out.” Trying to avoid the bus means making other sacrifices as well, like shopping at the more expensive grocery store because she’s able to get there on foot. Botham also doesn’t take advantage of certain programs, like Safe Stop, because experience has taught her that if she asks for special assistance she’s likelier to encounter harassment. “Honestly, I’m afraid of making [the drivers] upset by asking for something special, and I’m already taking up extra time . . . I get enough harassment without inviting it on myself.”

The Safe Stop program has been promoted by OC Transpo since December and was developed in response to a number of sexual assault cases at transit stations. After 7pm, passengers can request to be let off at a spot other than a bus stop to help ensure their personal safety. But the disconnect between drivers and passengers, both those with disabilities and those who are able-bodied, remains a problem; in one recent incident, a young woman said a driver refused to let her off closer to her destination, underscoring that such a program does little good if drivers refuse to facilitate it.

While Hollaback has been vocal about issues on public transit, Lalonde is frustrated about OC Transpo’s lack of willingness to address them. “At this point, anything that OC Transpo has done to talk about safety or to address safety has been lip service,” she says. As recently as November, the company came under fire in the news when it failed to quickly produce statistics on incidents of sexual violence and harassment on its property after a woman was assaulted at Blair station. In September it was revealed that the company had not completed a thorough safety audit of its stations since 2004, and a 10-point safety plan announced in the summer seems deliberately vague. “They keep falling back on the 10-point safety plan; we don’t know what informed the 10-point safety plan because we [Hollaback] were not part of those consultations . . . There’s no timelines attached to it, per se – it’s just very vague,” Lalonde says, noting that point number seven reads, “Undertaking a public education campaign for riders, residents and employees to support them, encouraging reporting, and other initiatives.”

While OC Transpo doesn’t elaborate on what exactly this campaign will involve, Lalonde says that she would like to see more of a focus on educating transit riders about bystander intervention. “Instead of the ‘If you see something, say something,’ I want a campaign that says, ‘If you see X, this is specifically what you can do.’” Lalonde hopes this could be accomplished through a series of public service announcements. “PSAs on buses are very cheap, and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than continually having to investigate cases of assault,” she says. Meanwhile, in 2011, Hollaback launched its own I’ve Got Your Back campaign as a way to empower and educate bystanders. “Have my back,” Lalonde says. “Support me. If you see that I’m being harassed, do something: direct, delegate or distract.”

For her part, Botham would like to see more training for transit employees. “I think they could better educate their drivers on dealing with people with disabilities,” she says. “And voice it that way, too: people with disabilities. I’m not a disabled person; I’m a person — I just happen to have a disability.”

At its heart, public harassment is about making people feel like they are somehow less-than. “It’s about putting women and marginalized people in their place,” Lalonde says. “It’s about saying, ‘You don’t belong here, and I’m gonna remind you that you don’t belong here and that you’re on borrowed time.’ I think when we talk about street harassment, people assume it’s the wolf-whistling, it’s the ‘compliments’ yelled at you, people being flirtatious. And when we actually start to deconstruct, okay, what kind of stories are we hearing, it’s not about paying women compliments. It’s about putting people in their place.”

Botham agrees: “Anyone who feels they have some sort of entitlement over you is liable to harass you if they can.”