As mentioned in a previous post of mine, the kind of ableism one experiences in America depends on a multitude of factors, including but not limited to race, class, socioeconomic status, gender identity, sexual orientation, immigration status, education level, age, type of disability, how it was acquired, etc. And thus, your marginalized identities combine to form an exclusive brand of prejudice made specially for you! (Insert snarky and well-timed joke about America commodifying oppression, yada ya)
This is not news to anyone in the disabled community that is well versed in social justice, or at least it shouldn’t be. I often think about how my identities as both severely visibly disabled and a woman impact the kind of prejudice I receive just rolling down the streets of NYC. I didn’t think much into how my gender and identity as a disabled person collided until I went to college, in part because I began to think more curiously about the world & my place in it as is developmentally appropriate for emerging adults, but also because I gained a level of independence that required me to care for myself in a way that I didn’t have to when living with my parents.
I started traveling more on my own. My disability + my womanhood never collided so acutely in my mind until I sat alone in a subway car at night in my wheelchair. I began to keep track of who was staring, specifically how many men. Was it pity? Were they just curious? Is it because they found me attractive or because I was just odd enough to stare at to pass the time?
I quickly learned how to spot when someone would attempt to take a photo. On one instance in particular, I asked a man to delete a photo he had just taken of me on the Q train, to which he responded: It wasn’t of you, it was of your dog. I insisted he show it to me, and there I was in the middle of his screen sporting a short, tight summer dress, with my dog’s head out of focus, somewhere in the bottom corner of the photo. I often wonder why he even showed me the picture instead of just denying it— did he panic noticing the people sitting next to us listening and ready to intervene? Or did he not care and want to flex his power, letting me know he was going to take a piece of me with him?
I became keenly aware of my body, not in the way I had as a teenager when I spent time comparing it to able-bodied friends, but instead in an attempt at self-preservation. I would hold my breath entering subway elevators alone with men. Those elevators are creepy enough with their creaking, grime, and distinct odor that lingers long after you exit, but even more so with a man standing over you, smiling down. Grinning. Trying to talk to you, calling you sweetie. Alone in a cramped space, wondering if he would be blocking the buttons for the entire ride. Wondering how you would even attempt to get out if he tried to touch you. Wondering how long it would take for someone to notice, for the door to open.
I learned soon enough to wait for the men to go in the elevator alone first if there weren’t many others around at night, and to only get in the elevator with one if there was more than one person. I felt a need to hide my body not out of shame, but fear. I would fantasize about what it would be like to be an able-bodied woman on the subway, someone that doesn’t turn heads every time she enters the car, or doesn’t have to yell for people to get out of the way when the only wheelchair space is packed with people standing. I tried to imagine what life would be like not constantly bringing attention to myself. But that’s the thing about being a disabled woman in our society, we are simultaneously in the spotlight and gawked at everywhere we go while also being made to feel that our experience is irrelevant enough to be breezed over. They’re not staring because they’re interested in our lives or what we have to say.
The rates of violence against disabled women are staggering. We are three times more likely to be physically abused or assaulted than our non-disabled peers (1). As many as 40% of women with disabilities experience sexual assault or physical violence in our lifetimes (2), compared to 25% of women overall (3). Even more horrifying, over 90% of people with developmental disabilities will experience sexual assault (2).
Then you factor in race or gender identity, and the numbers increase exponentially. It is known in our community that disabled women of color and disabled trans women (or disabled, trans, women of color) experience much higher rates of sexual or physical abuse than white and cisgender women– but I had trouble finding actual numbers to represent this, which speaks to an even larger issue. As scared as I am about my own safety, I’m one of the lucky ones: white, only physically disabled, cisgender. As a community, we all must individually acknowledge the privileges we hold while working toward equality for all.
Then there’s the reality check I hate to admit: assaults against the disabled are not typically coming from random men on the subway. Of course it still happens & our collective fear is valid, but they’re usually not strangers. Typically, it’s the ones we have closest.
It’s the able-bodied partner we rely on for our care, it’s the step-father caring for their partner’s disabled daughter, it’s the home health aide that visits every weekend, the workers we invite into our homes, the nursing home staff that go under the radar for years. It’s the people we need in our lives the most that find us to be “vulnerable” enough for them to get away with hurting us.
Grassroots efforts have been forming for years to address these major issues in our community and help survivors of abuse, but we should not be the ones having to put in the effort. The longer we live in a world where the disabled are seen as weak and vulnerable, the longer we as a society have loose standards for those who work with us… the longer our community will be targeted.
National Domestic Violence hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY). Individuals who are Deaf and hard of hearing can reach them at: 1-800-787-3224 (TTY)
National Sexual Assault (RAINN) hotline: 800.656.HOPE (4673)
(1) Iyengar, R. (2015, March 06). Women With Disabilities Three Times as Likely to Be Raped, Report Says. Retrieved from http://time.com/3734961/women-with-disabilities-three-times-as-likely-to-be-raped-human-rights- watch/
(2) Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://sapac.umich.edu/article/56
(3) Truman, J. L., and R. E. Morgan. “Nonfatal domestic violence, 2003–2012. US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.” (2014).