Thursday 19 March 2020

Amy Kavanagh – a safer environment for disabled people around the world

Amy Kavanagh 18/03Picture credit: Kaye Ford photography

“Grabbing, pushing, pulling. It got to the point where I didn’t want to leave the house. It was a case of stopping and saying, ‘this is not ok.’” And once she said it, Amy Kavanagh (History 2010) would discover her sentiments were shared by thousands of disabled people around the world.

Amy is a visually impaired activist and campaigner. After posting on social media about daily encounters with overenthusiastic helpers – who were often doing more harm than good – a worldwide campaign, #JustAskDontGrab, was born. It is a campaign which encourages people to offer assistance in a respectful, consensual and helpful way. 16,000 Twitter followers, numerous appearances across news outlets, and many blog posts later, Amy was nominated for the Campaigner of the Year Award at the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) See Differently Awards 2019, and #JustAskDontGrab won Campaign of the Year at the Transport for All Awards 2020. Her journey from Leeds has seen her create a positive movement across the globe.

Life in Leeds

Born with ocular albinism, Amy is registered partially sighted, and uses a white cane to aid mobility. But when she first came to Leeds, things were a little different. “I didn’t even identify as disabled, to be honest. I didn’t have a cane or anything like that. It was only in my second and third year that I really started to engage with the disabled community.”

Once she did, her Leeds experience changed considerably. “Ultimately, my third-year memories are some of the best of my life. I started to get involved with all sorts of things – from the Students’ Union, to working as the Equality and Diversity Intern. I became a chair on the student committee, I discovered the disability committee, the Centre for Disability Studies, and all the different focus groups I could attend.”

Perhaps this shift was best demonstrated during Invisible Disability Awareness Week, when a giant banner of Amy was proudly displayed in the Union. As Amy explains, Leeds was the perfect environment in which to find her voice. “I think the nice thing about Leeds is that it empowers disabled people. I met lots of other young disabled people, and there was support there.”

It was a sense of community Amy would rediscover in the online campaign that followed.

A time of change

Although keen to stay in Leeds, Amy moved to London on graduating in order to pursue a PhD opportunity. It was there that she decided to use a white cane for the first time.

“My health suffered during my PhD and I became increasingly isolated. I found support online, where I’d started to talk about my isolation and my loss of independence. That’s when someone suggested the white cane, and I thought I’d give it a go.”

In 2018, as she began to use the white cane to help her move around independently, Amy became aware of a serious problem: “The day I got my white cane, everything changed. I was pulled onto trains and grabbed without warning by people who were supposedly ‘helping me’. It was frightening – it still is.”

Amy returned to the online community to talk about her experiences, discovering she was not alone. “There were hundreds of disabled people going through this every single day. Being grabbed on painful joints, being pushed in wheelchairs when they didn’t want to move. It’s a shock – from the minute you walk out of the house – and there’s no handbook on how to cope. Imagine closing your eyes, walking out of the front door, and being grabbed by strangers without warning. It's terrifying.”

"The day I got my white cane, everything changed. I was pulled onto trains and grabbed without warning by people who were supposedly ‘helping me’. It was frightening – it still is.”

Amy Kavanagh (History 2010)
Activist and campaigner


As the conversation continued online, Amy started to use the hashtag #JustAskDontGrab. Over the coming months hundreds of people took notice, sharing experiences of their own, and it soon became apparent that this was happening everywhere, every day. Momentum grew, and soon news outlets including Sky News, Huffpost UK and the Metro ran stories on the campaign. Before Amy knew it, experiences were being shared all across the globe.

Throughout her campaign work, Amy is careful to highlight both positive and negative experiences in order to encourage the good. She explains exactly what that might look like: “First of all, take a second to think about whether assistance is actually needed, or whether you’re doing this for yourself. The number of times I’ve been told I’m someone’s ‘good deed for the day’ is ridiculous.

“If assistance is needed, introduce yourself – ‘Hi, I’m Ed, do you need a hand?’ Listen to the response, and if it’s positive, ask what you can do. Don’t just dive straight in. The wrong kind of help is disorientating, and it causes real anxiety, particularly when using public transport. If you genuinely want to help, why wouldn’t you want to do it in a respectful way?”

And Amy notes that Leeds is a city which is ideally placed to adopt this positive approach. “Leeds is a friendly city. It’s the kind of place where people chat on the bus, where people might want to help. It’s about making sure that action is positive.”

Amy white cane
Picture credit: Kaye Ford photography

A continuing campaign

Amy’s campaign was so impactful that she was nominated for an RNIB award in 2019, and she went on to win the Campaign of the Year at the Transport for All Awards 2020. But that doesn’t mean she’ll be resting on her laurels – given the prevalence of the issue, her work is far from over. “It still goes on every single day. It’s something we must all help with – not only should you be aware of your own behaviour, but if you see a negative interaction with harassment or grabbing, intervene. Check in with the disabled person – anything to create a safer environment.”

And for anyone looking to start a campaign of their own, Amy is happy to offer advice. “For disabled people, a social media campaign is incredibly powerful, because physical meetings are often challenging. Don’t be afraid to blog and share stories; people can relate to and connect with stories. Put people at the heart of it, and you’ll be heard.”

Nowhere is this better evidenced than Amy’s own story, a story which has resonated from Leeds, to London and all the way across the world. You can follow Amy’s campaign on Twitter, and take a look at her blog to keep up to date with her progress.