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.