All Sexual Assault Victims Welcome — Except those with Disabilities

Trigger Warning: Discussions of Rape and Abuse

The National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673 – also hosts an online hotline

The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 – 1-800-787-3224 (TTY)

 

A year ago, I was taking a class on women’s health. We discussed important topics such as cancer, heart attacks and sex, and we learned about different organizations that help any woman in need, whether it is for medical, protection or psychological. One of the things that made that class so memorable was V–, a guest speaker from the Women’s Center who came to speak to our class.

V— came to class and wowed everyone; she told us about the Women’s Center, what programs they offer and spoke about race, sexual orientation and gender issues that are frequently encountered when it comes to sexual assault and domestic violence. She was open and inviting, and a few students in the class felt safe and comfortable enough to speak out about their experiences and the challenges they faced and still face today. She ended the lecture with, “To realize that you are not alone can make all the difference. We are hear for you.”

                I left the class with a feeling of uneasiness.

The uneasy feeling persisted for the next few weeks. I couldn’t stop thinking about V— and the things she said; something was bothering me. Was it the fact that we were talking about rape—a topic where many outright ignore or joke about? Could it be because a few of my classmates told us about their experiences? Was it because for most victims of sexual assault, the amount of support from authorities is usually based on their race, religion, sexual orientation and economic status?

In an attempt to figure out the reason for me feeling that way, I became obsessed with the history of rape and violence in the United States. I started to read every book and research paper I could get my hands on. I read about date rape, prison rape, rape and violence in the LGBT+ community and rape trauma. Only that wasn’t enough. Where were the books on the history of rape and violence for people with disabilities? Where were the self-help books on dealing with the trauma of rape for people with disabilities?

That’s when it clicked – I knew why I was feeling so uneasy: when V— came to our class, she spoke about what they do and who they are here for – she specifically mentioned the LGBT community, people of color, those whose first language wasn’t English. She spoke to everyone in that class…except those with disabilities.

                Why did it bother me?

It is hard to put in words. The emptiness, the feeling of not being worthy or thought of – the absence of your identity, of people who go through the same things you do, not having a space, not being included or thought of in important, everyday life situations… It’s heartbreaking.

By not recognizing people with disabilities and the issues they face when it comes to sexual violence, I felt as if the Women’s Center didn’t know how to help. Reporting rape is already a hard thing to do – but if you don’t feel as if they would be able to serve you, it can stop you from ever taking that step.

Where do people with disabilities land when it comes to sexual assault and domestic violence?

                Why is this important? If an abled-bodied person is raped and a person who is disabled is raped, what’s the difference?

  • An abled-bodied person can communicate more effectively than a person with a disability.
  • An abled-bodied person will have their choices respected and listened to more than a person with a disability.
  • An abled-bodied person won’t have to wonder if the hospital is ADA friendly.
  • To many criminal justice personnel, an abled-bodied person will be considered more credible than a person with a disability.

Calling the Women’s Center

I finally called the Women Center and asked a question: when it comes to victim advocacy, what are your procedures for those with disabilities? I spoke with three people, and none of them knew. The last person I spoke with said that they do speak to the On Campus Transition program (a program that provides young adults with intellectual disabilities the opportunity of having a transformational college experience as an integral part of their transition to independence). She said this happily – as if this were a treat – as if this were an answer to my question. Which I took to mean: the only time they go over the procedures they have for those with disabilities is when the audience is disabled.

                What’s wrong with that?

People with disabilities are everywhere. We sit next to you in class, we’re driving the car in front of you, and we’re the cashier, the professor, the waitress, the manager. With some of us, you are able to tell right away that we have a disability – but there are a lot of us with invisible disabilities. Rape can happen to anyone, therefore, when giving a speech, you should be as inclusive as possible.

Getting my questions answered

I finally got in contact with someone who could answer my questions. She went into detail about all the things they do: they call the hospitals ahead of time to make sure they’re ADA compliant, they make sure that they have the necessary resources available to communicate with victims seeking services (an ASL interpreter, a picture board, etc.) and the staff is appropriately trained on how to respond to disclosers from victims with disabilities.

After she answered my question, I asked her why they didn’t have a TTY number. After explaining what a TTY is, she agreed that it was an important thing to have. A TTY (Text Telephone) is a device that allows the Deaf, hearing-impaired or speech-impaired to communicate by typing back and forth to one another. It is important that all Women Centers have one – this allows those who use a TTY to ask for assistance or an advocate.

The unfortunate truth is that people with disabilities are more vulnerable when it comes to abuse. An abuser can take their mobility aids, deny them their medicine, and control their communication (deny use of a TTY or refuse to interpret); many times the abuser is a caretaker.

If you do not have a TTY number, if your website is not accessible with screen readers, if you do not have ramps or a workable elevator, if you don’t mention how accessible and inclusive you are, what message are you sending out?

I am glad I called and voiced my concerns. She understood that there needed to be changes. She knows of the risks and consequences. She was open to change and understood the importance of being all-inclusive. She thanked me for bringing it to her attention and assured me that she would speak to her boss about it. I got the result that I wanted: the Women’s Center will be able to truthfully say that they are here for everyone in need of advocacy – and if I ever need their help, I know that they would be able to assist me.

A Blind Woman Enters Victoria Secret…

I don’t get a chance to visit home often, so when I do, I make it a point to spend as much time with my mom as I can. So yesterday, realizing that my brothers and her boyfriend wouldn’t be home for hours, we decided to go shopping then out to eat.

Victoria Secret was our first stop. Teddies, shirts, thongs, boy shorts and so much more greeted us when we walked in. What’s that – a bin full of bras on sale? Don’t mind if I do. Lace, ribbons, beaded, dotted and bows; full, padded and plunge; racerback, convertible and balconette. All wonderful but not what I was looking for.

“What size is she? What style is she looking for?” Although these questions were about me, they were not to me. With a few words, the employee my mom gestured over to help me, has shown right away that she does not consider me a part of this conversation – although it is my body she is discussing. This is not new. I have never been to Victoria Secret but I have been a witness to this scene many times before.

My mom doesn’t answer. She turns and walks to a bin a few feet behind me. This shows the employee that she is not – nor does she consider herself to be – a participant in this conversation. I wait a few seconds then answered her. I show the employee that I am a part of the conversation, I am knowledgeable about my body and what I prefer. I both appreciate my mom’s action and hate it.

Appreciation for not jumping in and answering for me – or telling the employee to ask me. Annoyance because in order to show authority over my body and mind my mom – the able-body – has to take a step back and exit the conversation.

The employee leaves to go through another bin. My mom comes towards me and shows me a bra she thinks I might like. While deciding whether or not I like it, the employee comes back – with the same bra. “Does she like it?” The employee has shown that she still does not consider me to have a voice. I am only the subject of this conversation – not a participant.

No. I did not like the bra. I put the bra in the closest bin, thanked her for her help, picked up my dogs harness and asked my mom where the babydolls were.

Babydolls run through my fingers: satin, lace, silk, ribbons, bows, rhinestones and ruffles; open-front and sheer see-through; thongs and G-strings; adjustable spaghetti straps, halter tops and off-the-shoulder sleeves. All beautiful but I couldn’t find one in a color that I like. After telling my mom what color and style I’m looking for, she walked down the rack calling descriptions out to me.

Denying each item she described, I reached down and picked up a babydoll that had the style I preferred. Finding out it was in a color I didn’t like, I placed the babydoll back on the rack.

Thinking I should call it a day, a conversation immediately caught my attention. An employee that I previously told not to touch my Seeing Eye dog was talking to a customer behind me. Normally I wouldn’t have paid it any mind, but I heard the words blind and lingerie.

The employee was telling the customer how amazing it was that a “blind girl was looking at lingerie.” She goes on to say she was watching me for a few minutes and how she was surprised that “the blind girl knows what she wants.” The customer wonders if I’m actually going to buy one and what I would need one for. They both laugh. The employee and customer were standing directly behind me. They did not lower their voices. They did not hide their fascination: observe me, a creature outside of its normal habitat, almost passing for normal.

I have heard comments like those made by the employee and customer many times before. I used to think I deserved these comments, there was something I wasn’t doing right – perhaps it was the way I looked or acted. It’s not though. There is nothing wrong with me. Being blind does not make me any less of a woman. There are women out there who enjoy wearing lingerie and no one comments. There are women out there who buy lingerie and no one comments. So why is it fascinating – unusual even – to see me do it?

When talking about sex, body image and sexual orientation, people with disabilities are not brought up. Very often, we are considered to be like children – touching one is bad, they don’t have a sex drive, you’re sick for even thinking that.

I have spoken with feminists, attended panels and lectures, took courses on feminism and sexuality, read articles and books on these subjects and people with disabilities are not brought up. We’re nonexistent. The only times people with disabilities are given a voice is when you read about, attend a lecture or take a course that focuses on disabilities.

It’s not right. There are women out there who can attend a lecture, take a course, read a book – and their image is there, in the open and talked about. They are given a voice. They are told over and over again in books, lectures, movies and songs that they exist. People with disabilities do not have that privilege. We do not have that right. Things need to change. We need to be a part of the conversation not just when it is all about us; we need to be a part of the conversation when they are talking about “everyone.” We need to be part of “everyone.” It shouldn’t always be us or them.

I remember taking a sexuality course a few years ago and people with disabilities were talked about for two minutes. That was the only time during the semester where someone with a disability was mentioned or shown. What was it about? We were discussing paraphilia’s. The image of a white woman in a wheelchair – and the PowerPoint read: acrotomophilia.

Acrotomophilia – an able-bodied person expresses strong sexual interest in amputees. It is known today as devotism – a sexualized interest in the appearance, sensation and experience of disability. Whatever you choose to call it, being attracted to a disability is disgusting; you are objectifying and dehumanizing us.

However, since the class only saw a person with a disability once, during a chapter on paraphilia’s, I would not be surprised if the class learned in those two minutes: if you are attracted to someone with a disability, it is considered wrong. It is bad. You are disgusting. People with disabilities do not have sex unless a pervert gave them attention; people with disabilities are not sexual – they should be pitied for being victims.

I didn’t say anything to those two women. I signaled to my mom that I wanted to leave. I have told a few people about this incident and only a few understood why I didn’t confront them. It is very tiring constantly having to prove that you are just like them. Next time, I will say something. It may be with politeness or with anger; but the end result will be the same: I will have to justify to that person why I took offence. I am tired. So very tired of being a teachable moment.