Claiming My Education and My Anger

On top of a red and white tablecloth sits a white plate with a shiny red apple. The apple has a jagged bite taken out of the right side. Image courtesy of www.inabeautifulmess.com

Years ago, I took a course on women writers. I was particularly excited about that. By then, most of my courses focused more on white Christian men; poems, novels, and essays full of justification on why they supported racist ideology, or why they supported keeping a woman subservient (legally or socially) to their fathers and husbands, or how intelligent or stronger they – or their main (white male) character – was compared to the ignorant and weak male character (who was from another country or lower class). The course featured all women writers, ranging from poor to rich, white to POC, Christian to Muslim; our readings ranged from poems, novels, to essays; and public outreach was a large part of the class – for Women’s History Month, we had to create fliers (of our choosing, that had something to do with women), we split into groups and decided what (or whom) to use as a theme in our exhibit at the university library, and we had to do a presentation at the main library downtown. Other than a few accessibility issues, the course was great.

I love courses that make me think – philosophically, spiritually, about myself, about my loved ones, about society. Luckily, being an English and Gender Studies major, I had a lot of courses like that. In this course, we were asked two questions that made me stop and think (and gave me the feels – of the not so good kind):

  • Have you claimed your education?
  • Why are you angry?

 

These two questions hit me so hard. You know those questions – those questions that are so simple, so innocent sounding – those questions where the answers come quick but the emotions rarely match and you have to stop and analyze yourself, or your answers end up being longer than you thought – or doesn’t end up being the answer you thought you would have given if you thought of it first, or the answer, after given, leaves you drained, emotionally? Yeah.

As for the first question, it comes from “Claiming an Education,” by Adrienne Rich. She delivered this speech at the convocation of Douglass College in 1977. She says,

The first thing I want to say to you who are students, is that you cannot afford to think of being here to receive an education: you will do much better to think of being here to claim one. One of the dictionary definitions of the verb “to claim” is: to take as the rightful owner; to assert in the face of possible contradiction. “To receive” is to come into possession of: to act as receptacle or container for; to accept as authoritative or true.

Basically, we must be active in claiming our education, not passive. We must be assertive and take responsibility for ourselves and our needs; advocate, never settle for less and know, in the end, you know what you need better than anyone else.

She then goes on to talk about the professors and how they should take their students – women – more seriously. Instead of focusing on their student’s intellectual abilities, they tend to eroticize their students – treating their students as sexual objects.

The education of women has been a matter of debate for centuries, and old, negative attitudes about women’s role, women’s ability to think and take leadership, are still rife both in and outside the university. Many male professors (and I don’t mean only at Douglass) still feel that teaching in a women’s college is a second-rate career. Many tend to eroticize their women students–to treat them as sexual objects–instead of demanding the best of their minds. (At Yale a legal suit [Alexander v. Yale] has been brought against the university by a group of women students demanding a stated policy against sexual advances toward female students by male professors.) Many teachers, both men and women, trained in the male-centered tradition, are still handing the ideas and texts of that tradition on to students without teaching them to criticize its antiwoman attitudes, it’s omission of women as part of the species.

I was so self-assured back then; I told myself that I do claim my education, then list why that statement was true.

As for the second question, I can’t remember why our professor asked us this; all I have are fragmented rambles taken after the question was asked:

I am angry because my professors see nothing wrong in asking students to write down their opinions, while telling me that do to it not being accessible, she will read it to me, and I can tell her how I feel. Out loud. In the middle of class. Meanwhile, the students write down their private thoughts, reassured in their privacy.

I am angry because I am not being represented in books and poems; where is my body? Do I – and others like me – exist outside of medical textbooks?

Out of our five-person group, he was chosen to speak for us. Group discussion: when did we first realize gender differences? He ignored mine; told the story of the boy and the other boy and the girl and the other girl – but did not tell my story. Why said the second girl. He did not verbally answer. I do not understand why. I am angry because too many times my voice, my story, has been put aside, not good enough to be repeated, told, fkjdls;ajfdl

The professor wanted us to write down – anonymously – why we are angry. She would collect them all and turn them into a poem. When I got the poem a few weeks later, I cried. It was raw and ugly and real and heart, stabbing heart-breaking real pain beautiful. I loved it. I still read it from time to time.

With shaky fingers that are no longer used to writing with a pen, I wrote,

Practicing self-silencing.

I look back at those questions now. I know better now. I have not claimed my education; not entirely, anyway. This is an ableist society and being disabled, claiming education is the difference between living or existing. You either will sink or swim. Too often parents of disabled children are told by friends, doctors, and others – regardless of disability – that the child will be unable to live a reasonable quality of life (because having an impairment has such a traumatic physical or psychological impact on a person). With society set against believing you can achieve success from the start, it is up to the disabled child’s loved ones – then as the disabled child gets older, up to them, to push for accessibility and inclusion.

When I look back at the countless times in college, where I sat silent, not able to fully participate because the materials weren’t made accessible in time – do to the Disability Resource Center running behind, or the professors failing to give the materials to them in time; or when I fell in love with math, and wanted to minor in it, and an advisor kindly told me that it would be too hard, considering my…impairment; or when I failed Gender Studies because the professor refused to create an actual lesson plan, and enjoyed randomly showing – and testing us on – movies that were subtitled or silent…

How many of those times did I stand up for myself? More than half. Did I claim my education? I sent emails to professors a few months before the semester started, informing them of my disability and what I needed done for the class to be made accessible. I invited them to ask me questions if they were unsure of anything; I assured them that I would do everything on my end to make this easy. Most took me up on the offer, some informed me that they knew all of this because they “had a blind student before,” – which then I had to explain that, no, that student can read print, I can’t – but there was a couple who, no matter what I did, I was always an inconvenience. There were professors that had to be reminded constantly to be descriptive when talking about art, or that they had to finish the list of extra readings as soon as possible so that they can be made accessible in time, or that had to be told, no, they can not randomly pick an essay for us to read or movie for us to watch, because it won’t be made accessible in time and I won’t be able to participate in class discussions.

How many times was I silent because I was tired of the constant fight to make sure I had the things I needed to pass the course, or scared because I thought the professor would give me a lower grade out of spite, annoyed by my constant nagging, or ashamed of having a disability. How many times did I feel as if I had to justify to my professors why I was there, in their classroom instead of at home. How many times did I sit in the back, or front, or middle of the classroom, silent because I couldn’t participate. How many times did I feel stupid and weak? How many times did I let things slide because the professor was too busy, or the professor was trying their best, or the professor will get to it later? How many times did I feel as if I didn’t belong there; that I should just give up?

Too many times. So, no, I have not claimed my education. Not entirely.

Am I still angry? Yes. Yes, I fucking am.

However, this time, this time I will let my anger guide me in claiming my education. Claiming my space in classrooms, claiming my voice in class discussions, claiming my right to be here. I will no longer hold my anger back, letting it lay on my tongue, refusing to roar. No longer will I ask politely, then beg; I will ask, then I will demand. I will no longer give a pass to those who barely try; I will no longer be thankful for at least getting ‘something’; I will get everything I deserve, everything that is given to the other students.

I belong here. I have a right to be here. And if you don’t want me here, in your ivory tower, too fucking bad. I will get what I deserve. Make way for my cane. Make space on these desks for my brailled notes and laptop with a screen reader. Become comfortable with me here, in front of you, because you have no other choice.

 

 

Rape Culture and Womanhood – Not a Trick or Treat

white expressionless drama mask, black background

Today I waited for my best friend’s husband to pick me up from the Megabus bus stop. Today I stood on a curb while strangers passed me by on the way to the bus, informing their friends, someone on the phone, or merely speaking out loud to no one particular on my beauty, praising me for being such an inspiration and how special I was. Today I observed a woman around my age ignored by the strangers lining up for the bus.

Today my best friends husband was thirty minutes late picking me up from the Megabus bus stop. Today I felt alone. Today I realized that the pepper spray case holder tied to the frayed string of my cane was empty; I did not replace my pepper spray. Today I told myself it would be my fault for not being prepared in case of an attack. Today a woman asked me when my ride was coming. Today I was alone. Today a woman told me that this wasn’t a safe place to be alone. Today I remembered that disabled people are twice more likely to be sexually assaulted than those without disabilities. Today a woman offered to pay for an Uber ride because she didn’t feel comfortable with leaving me here alone. Today I told myself it would be my fault for not being prepared in case of an attack. Today a woman told me that this was not a safe place to be alone. Today I did not have my pepper spray. Today two women told me that I should not be alone, so they would wait with me. Today I did not have my pepper spray. Today I told myself that it would be my fault for not being prepared in case of an attack. Today over ten women told me that this was not a safe place to be alone. Today I wondered if there was a place safe enough to be alone.

Seven hours later, in my best friend’s bathroom, I would realize that I was quick to put the blame on myself rather than on the supposed attacker; merely because I didn’t have pepper spray. I would quickly assure any sexual assault victim of their innocence and never allow anyone to blame the victim for being attacked – but that is the danger of rape culture: there is more support for the perpetrator than for the victim and that we are responsible for preventing our own rapes. How easy it was for me to realize my lack of protection and blame myself for an attack that could have happened.

An hour later, my best friend and I sit at the kitchen table, talking to one another as if we hadn’t spoken in years rather than hours. Her voice is steady with a lilt of laughter and despite being fluent in English, her accent proudly reminds everyone that she is not from here. She never grabs me; her touch is always confident and quick. She has the soul and spirit of my mother; she is compassionate, an advocate, activist, brave and does not realize her worth.

While eating pita bread topped with a mixture of jibneh and peppers, we talk about sex and what a healthy sex life means. We talk of asexuality, masturbation, dildos, my preferred choice of clit stimulator’s and her love of hugs.

While gathering the ingredience and kitchen utensils, we talked of marriage and the reasons people marry. While cutting the chicken, chopping vegetables, choosing spices and making the sauce, we talked about mothers; the similar way our mothers were raised – despite one being from Switzerland and barely Christian and the other from Egypt and a devout Muslim – and the ways our mothers tried to instill certain ideals of womanhood to their unwilling daughters.

While setting the table, we talked of cultural differences and how in the end, regardless of country, women are still brought up to believe that they are lesser, not as worthy or smart. We talked about brothers and fathers; the innocent and oblivious ways they enforce and promote patriarchy and her determination to teach her son differently.

My friend and I refusing to submit to societies strict rules on a woman’s purpose in life (to serve, support and obey) has made us appreciate our own space and privacy even more. I think too, having brothers and noticing the difference in the ways our mothers treat them compared to us has made a huge impact on our lives: I do not praise my brothers for doing something outside of their gender roles, nor do I expect anything less; she teaches her son the importance of being responsible and reliable for yourself and your mess and how to take care of both.

Despite my rejection, I still find myself playing the part. I do not want children, yet at times I feel as if I will not be considered successful until I have a family. This is foolish, I know – having kids can be fulfilling to many, but it does not make you successful if you have one nor does it make you unsuccessful if you do not have one. I find myself feeling guilty for not cooking anything. This too is foolish – my brothers are perfectly capable of making themselves something to eat; I do not need to cook for grown men.

This society excuses sexual violence and blames the victim. It is a constant fight against language, music, art, movies and literature that perpetuates rape culture. It is also, as I learned today, a constant fight with yourself.

It is also a constant fight against societies image of a perfect woman: sexual and pure, innocent and experienced, smart but not too smart, thin but voluptuous, a mother but always ready for fun, having a career and keeping up with the house and children. In the end, we will burnout; it is impossible to be everything and nothing, to always be the woman behind the man – never taking the lead role, just the supportive one.

Rape culture is just as dangerous and manipulative as womanhood – in the end you will be harmed, and you will have convinced yourself that it was your fault.

Every day I examine my thoughts of being unworthy and feelings of guilt and trace them back to patriarchal ideology and then ignore them. It takes time and true reflection. I shouldn’t blame myself instead of an attacker; I shouldn’t feel less worthy for not having children and guilty for not taking care of grown men.

All Sexual Assault Victims Welcome — Except those with Disabilities

A picture with a blue background with hands of various sizes and races. Some hands are highly detailed and some are just shadows. The words, "ME TOO," are written in white and all caps at the top of the picture.

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…

2 piece white eyelash lace lingerie set. A spaghetti strap top that is fitted at the breast area and flows to above the navel. A white thong with a lace ruffle at the top

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.