There is a beautiful movement on Facebook and Twitter right now and it seems to have gained momentum in the last few days. Women are being encouraged to post the phrase “Me Too” as a status on their wall if they have ever been sexually abused or harassed in any way. The point is to draw attention to the magnitude of the problem. I don’t love what it means that more and more of my friends are participating, but I do love that it seems that as a few people find their voice and speak out, others seem to find their courage.
Decades ago, when I was pursuing a Master’s degree in Rehabilitation Counseling, one of the classes I took was The Phycological Aspects of Disability. The underlying theme was that people with disabilities are often seen as second-class citizens in our society, in a wide variety of ways, and that can have long-term effects. We explored topics such as self-esteem, socialization, and isolation. We also talked about abuse, and the numbers were staggering.
At the time, the statistics were that one in seven boys would be abused in their lifetime, and one in four girls would be also. But if you added disability into the mix, the number rose to one in two. 50% of people with disabilities would be abused during the course of their lives. The reasons for that are somewhat obvious. If someone needs help in and out of the shower or in and out of bed, they are much more vulnerable than someone else who can do those things on their own. I read some articles about how some people who are deaf or nonverbal were often abused because the abuser didn’t think they “could tell” and some more articles that stated when a person with a disability tried to report being abused and they were not believed because they “must not know what they are talking about.” All of that just makes me want to hurl every morsel of food I have ever consumed.
But some things inappropriate are also more subtle. The fact that people with disabilities are often subjected to situations where they feel uncomfortable and exposed is beyond offensive. Our class talked about how those situations, for most people in society, are not given a second thought. The situations that follow might not be abuse in the general sense of the word, but what happened to me was uncomfortable, and it put unwanted attention on my body. And I felt violated every time. That is inappropriate. Unacceptable. Most definitely not okay.
- When I worked at the Center for Independent Living in Lawrence, I had a consumer who came to a few appointments with me literally half-dressed because her caregiver had shown up later than expected to get her in the shower. I offered to put a blanket over her so that she would at least be covered. How many people without disabilities would be sent to an appointment in public without all of their clothes on?
- Many years ago, I had an appointment at KU Med. I went for an ultrasound that doctors had ordered to see if they could find a reason for my kidneys misbehaving. Obviously, in order for the test to be accurate, I had to take off most of what I was wearing. When the test was over, the technician told me she “didn’t have time” to help me get dressed before she publicly pushed me down the hall and parked my wheelchair in the place where I was supposed to wait to see the doctor. Would she have expected another woman of my age to tolerate moving around hallways in a doctor’s office before they had the chance to pull their pants up?
- And during a recent trip to the emergency room, I told a nurse that I would need help changing into a gown. A few minutes later a nurse’s aide came in. Without a word of greeting, without asking my name or giving me hers, she made moves to start undressing me. For weeks I wondered if she would have done the same thing in the same way if I didn’t happen to have cerebral palsy, but instead simply needed help changing because I had broken an arm or a leg.
In addition, I have had a number of caregivers over the years who physically or emotionally overpowered me because they knew I couldn’t get away and who knew I was too weak to fight back. Some people seem to think that I am pretty easy to victimize…
What I ask is this:
Whenever anyone says that they were abused or treated in a way that made them feel uncomfortable, please listen. Believe them. And offer whatever support that you can.
Does it enrage you that the general population does not seem to have the same respect for boundaries when it comes to people with disabilities as they do for others in society?
Yeah. Me too.