This past week I had the pleasure of engaging in a conversation about sexual violence with some awesome young women. It really was a pleasure since I think that this is a topic that doesn’t get discussed nearly enough, and there is far too much silence on the topic. In fact, the majority of the conversation focused around the barriers that prevent young women from openly discussing sexual violence. As awesome as the conversation was, I wanted to take it to the next step and talk a little bit about how this relates to the dis/Ability community.
Although there are many reasons why women with disabilities are far more likely to have experienced sexual violence, I wanted to address some of the specific issues that they face around speaking about their experiences and finding support.
One of the big barriers within the dis/Ability community is the way that sex in general is approached. Even today there is still the attitude that most people with disabilities do not have sexual feelings or be can’t perform sexual acts. This attitude is used for an excuse for why persons with disabilities often don’t receive any kind of sex education or information on healthy relationships. If we don’t make the same kind of really basic sex education (however lacking and misguided it may be) available to persons with disabilities, it is no wonder that the space is rarely if ever made to openly talk about sexual violence.
Another barrier is that persons with disabilities are, in some cases, very dependent on their families and caregivers to perform everyday tasks, or just live their lives. This can make it really hard to talk about violence that happened to you. It could mean that you are left without services, or that you would have to speak up about what is happening to you in front of the person who is doing it. The fact that there is so much at stake can make it understandably next to impossible for someone to discuss their experiences.
Even when women with disabilities find the courage to speak up about what they have experienced and look for support, it can be incredibly difficult and frustrating. Accessibility is always a huge concern any time a person with a disability attempts to access any service. When we are talking about services for women who have experienced violence the stakes are much higher though. I think that often just asking for help can be such a huge barrier to overcome that women may not have any fight left in them to advocate for their own accessibility needs, and if an organization or service isn’t already accessible, it becomes another reason to give up and not get the support they were looking for.
For example, many organizations that I am aware of have policies regarding spoken language interpretation. Often the client is responsible for arranging for their own interpreters if they require them. However, many organizations do not have separate policies that cover sign language interpretation for Deaf clients, and lump them in with their spoken language interpreter policy. In actuality, organizations are the ones that have to arrange for the interpreters, but the stress of having to find a way to contact an organization through a TTY or email and trying to get a response, and then advocate for interpreters on top of that could be enough to convince a Deaf women to just remain silent about her experiences. Even if the agency does go ahead and books the interpreter, in a small community where there are few interpreters, the woman may feel uncomfortable discussing her story or situation with an interpreter who interprets at her workplace or at her doctors appointments.
In other situations women may arrive at a location and find out that only part of the building is accessible, or that although they can get inside the building, they cannot use the washroom or access the office that they went to. Again the frustration of having to self-advocate for right to access at a time when women feel particularly victimized and vulnerable can be enough to turn women off the idea of looking for support completely.
Finally, even if a woman with a disability manages to find ways to speak about her experiences with violence and ask for support, and the organization is able to respond to her specific accessibility requirements, there is still a final barrier for the woman to overcome. The support services have to be sensitive to the fact that women with disabilities who have experienced violence have a unique position and experience in society, and working with them the same way they work with everyone else may not work. The two identities of having a disability and having experienced violence connect and interact with one another in many different ways. For example, women with disabilities may have a much harder time gaining a sense of control over their bodies, when their disability as well as their experiences have taught them that they don’t have much of a say in how their body feels or behaves. Without paying attention to the role that both identities - as well as other identities that the women may claim - play in a particular women’s life, it is possible to do more harm than good. It is crucial that the support is given in a way that reflects a women’s own reality and her situation.
I think that while the conversation is slowly starting to happen, and the reality that many women with disabilities experience sexual violence is beginning to be recognized, we still have a lot of work to do to make sure that women with disabilities are able to speak about their experiences and get the support that they need.