As It Happens

Disability advocate says #JustAskDontGrab highlights how often strangers 'help' without consent

Bronwyn Berg is a disability advocate who attached spikes to her wheelchair to prevent people from grabbing her or her chair without consent. Berg tells us it's part of a bigger conversation and campaign happening online called #JustAskDontGrab.

Bronwyn Berg put spikes on her wheelchair to deter people from grabbing it without consent

Bronwyn Berg understands some people might have good intentions when they grab her wheelchair but says it's always best to ask if she wants help first. (Submitted by Bronwyn Berg)

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Just ask, don't grab.

Those are the words behind a hashtag gaining momentum among people with disabilities. They're sharing their stories of people grabbing them — often with the intention to help — without talking to them first.

But Canadian disability advocate Bronwyn Berg has gone a step further. Berg attached spikes to the handles of her wheelchair to prevent people from grabbing it without her consent.

"It's made a huge difference to being out in the world," Berg told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Berg says the spikes wouldn't cause any injury. But they feel uncomfortable to the touch and make people think twice before grabbing her wheelchair.

"I definitely know that I'm independent when I go out with these — that I'm on my own," Berg said. "But to me, there's just such peace of mind. I feel so much safer in the world. I'm not constantly looking behind me and worrying about it."

One of the spiky handles on Bronwyn Berg's wheelchair. (Hal Bennett)

Berg's partner came up with the idea after she had a traumatic incident when someone grabbed her wheelchair without warning.

"I didn't hear them approaching," Berg said. "They began to push me. They did not ask if I needed help. They didn't even ask where I was planning on going."

Berg asked and then pleaded with the stranger to stop but he didn't respond. She started screaming for help.

"Everyone just looked away from me. They looked at their phones," Berg recalled. "Finally when my screams got loud enough, [that] scared him off and he let go of my chair."

The stranger was gone. But Berg couldn't find a safe place to go to because all the stores around her were inaccessible.

"[It] really, for the first time, made me think that inaccessibility is actually dangerous," Berg said. "There was no safe place to get to."

In the end, Berg was OK, but shaken.

"It was a very scary incident," Berg said. "I found that when I was out in public after that incident I became very anxious and almost hyper-alert."

Berg says there's been other instances where people have grabbed her wheelchair without asking. Those instances may not have felt as dangerous, but they still made her feel like she lost control of her body.

"My wheelchair is an extension of my body," Berg said. "It's just a complete loss of control and it's a very vulnerable position to be in."

Berg says the #JustAskDontGrab hashtag speaks to the prevalence of the problem, and not just for those people who may use a wheelchair.

It was started by Amy Kavanagh, who is visually impaired, and describes the campaign as: "[A] response to my experiences of unhelpful grabbing on my daily commute. #JustAskDontGrab encourages people to offer assistance in a respectful, consensual and helpful way."

Berg appreciates that people might have good intentions when they start to assist her but that it's always best to ask if she needs help rather than assume. (Submitted by Bronwyn Berg)

Berg appreciates that some people may have good intentions. But the hashtag serves to inform and educate the public on better ways to offer their help.

"There definitely seems to be this sense that, 'I'm doing a good deed and don't tarnish my halo,'" Berg said. "I'm not against help but you need to ask if I need it."

As an example, Berg points out that someone might assume she needs help getting up a hill. But in reality, sometimes she actually needs to go up hills to build her arm muscles.

"So the question just needs to be: Do you need help?" Berg said. "And give me the freedom to say yes or no."

Written by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin and John McGill. Produced by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin.