Monday, August 11, 2014

Why Can't Kids Want To Be Like Me?

During the last night of the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant, after being named Ms. Congeniality and the first runner up, I was running around the ballroom with a bunch of kids who were there. Two of the little girls I was playing with were wheelchair users – they both had spina bifida just like me, let’s call them Lyla and Grace. Then there was a younger boy and girl whose mom was also in the pageant – we’ll call them Max and Belle. Lastly there was a nine year old girl whose mom used to be Ms. Wheelchair America back in the 80’s – we’ll call her Ella.

We were all racing up and down the ramps, screaming, throwing confetti, and having an overall good time. The littlest girl, Belle, who walks, wanted to ride on my lap, so I scooped her up and we raced the other kids together in my chair. The other girls in wheelchairs, Lyla and Grace, were comparing their sweet wheelchair moves with mine. We were all having a fantastic time when Ella looked at me and the other girls in chairs and said “Wheelchairs are so cool! I wish I needed a wheelchair. I ask my mom for one all the time.”

I immediately high fived this little girl and told her “Yeah! Wheelchairs are cool! I like the way you think.”

Then I went to teach Lyla a new wheelchair trick and when she hesitated I said “Don’t be afraid to try! What’s the worst that’s going to happen? You’re going to fall out of your wheelchair and break your neck so that you need a wheelchair?” This made Lyla giggle and she tried her new wheelchair trick.

At the same time, Ella proclaimed, “I want to break my neck so I need a wheelchair!”  I high fived her again and said “Being in a wheelchair is awesome! I’m so glad you think so too!”

In that moment I was so proud of myself as a disabled woman and of that little girl who had no pity for people with disabilities, but rather, the utmost admiration. Her mom is a wheelchair user, two of her playmates that night were wheelchair users, she was surrounded by 26 strong, competent women competing for Ms. Wheelchair America all week – why shouldn’t she want to be like us?

However, when I told people how proud I was of this, I was met with rude glances and hostility. I was told by many people that I was wrong for being proud that this girl wants to be like me.

Why is it so wrong to be proud that a little girl wants to be like me?

Why is it so wrong that a little girl wants to be like me?

Why is it so wrong to desire disability?

As I sit here contemplating why it’s such a terrible thought that Ella wants to be a wheelchair user just like me, I can’t help but think of Lyla and Grace, the two little girls with spina bifida.

I was them once. I know what they’re going through as little girls in wheelchairs. They are told every day by their family members that they’re praying that they will be able to walk someday. They are approached by complete strangers in public who will say that they will pray for Lyla and Grace too. They are asked constantly “What’s wrong with you?” They are learning that their bodies are wrong. They are learning that being able to walk is the ultimate goal and because they cannot walk something is wrong with them.

If these little girls said that they wanted to walk just like their moms, no one would bat an eye. No one would be all up in arms that these girls should love themselves the way they are and not try to walk. No. In fact, people would support them. They would pray for them.  If videos of these girls struggling to walk with braces and crutches were posted online with the tagline of “She WILL walk someday” it would be shared over 300,000 times. The comments would all say things like “We are praying for you here in Nebraska!” and “Keep believing and you will walk again!” and “God does great things!”

But if you just posted a video of these girls playing happily and effortlessly in their chairs, it’d be shared 20 times max. No one would write “God does great things” on this video. In fact, this video with happy girls in wheelchairs would probably have comments like “It’s such a pity such cute girls are in chairs” and probably some unsolicited prayers too. Yes, a video of happy girls playing would get a comment like “I will pray that they will walk someday.”

So why is this okay?

We’re happy to support normalcy and drop words like “cure” and “heal” when we see happy little girls with disabilities, but if someone wants a disability that is wrong?

And it’s not just with wheelchairs. Apparently it is wrong to desire anything outside of being a “healthy,” nondisabled person.

A child can wish to be tall when he grows up, but he can’t wish to be a Little Person - that would be blasphemy. A  little girl can wish to be skinny and the world would support her, but God forbid if she wishes to be fat.

If we support a person who wants to be opposite of the norm then we’re wrong, we’re morbid, we’re senseless, and a slew of other things.

So I ask again, why?

Why can’t disability be desirable?

Why can people pray for little girls in wheelchairs to walk again but I can’t high five a little girl who wants to be in a wheelchair?

                Here are the two main reasons I was given:

1. Everyone should love their bodies and be proud of who they are
Agreed! It would be awesome if everyone loved their bodies and were proud of who they are. I am 100% in support of this idea, but it’s kind of bullshit.

If an obese girl says she wants to lose weight, society doesn’t flip a shit and tell her to just love herself the way she is. No, society creates TV shows so that we can sit on our couches, eating popcorn, as we watch her struggle to become some idealized size that our society has deemed beautiful.

If a girl dyes her hair her entire life because she doesn’t like being blonde and much prefers being a brunette, no one is outraged. Instead, we have aisles full of different shades of dye in every store and we have hair salons – take your pick ladies. And while you’re at it, get a perm or Japanese straightening, because that’s okay too. No one will argue you don’t love yourself.

And who says I can’t love myself and be proud of myself and still wish to be different? I am drowning in self-love over here, but every day I wish I didn’t have tiny spina bifida feet. I want standard feet so that I can wear cute heels while sitting in my chair, but instead I have these tiny feet with braces that only fit in Adidas. As much as I love my Adidas, I must admit, I really want to wear a cute pair of Jimmy Choo’s with my cocktail dresses. When I tell people all about my desire to wear cute heels, no one ever gives me a speech about loving myself. Why can’t Ella love herself and her body and still want to use a wheelchair?

And what about transgender people? They are born in bodies that they do not identify with. When they choose to transform their bodies to conform with their gender identities, does that mean they do not love themselves? Does that mean that they are not proud of who they are? Or does it mean that they love themselves so much that they’ll go through the pain, the financial burdens, and the dirty looks in society in order to truly be themselves?

Why is it different for Ella? Why can’t able bodied people feel that their bodies are not the bodies they were meant to have? Why can’t they want disabled bodies?

Of course, lastly, I bring you back to physically disabled people who desire to be able bodied. Nobody (but me and a few others) is up in arms when they want to change their bodies in order to be able to walk to fit into society’s ideal norm.

2. God gave Ella the ability to walk and she should use it

Fine, then God gave Lyla and Grace wheelchairs and they should use them. Society should stop donating millions to create exoskeletons or cures to paralysis because God made these girls unable to walk and they should stay that way.

God also gave Laverne Cox a penis, so she should use it. In fact, all trans people should just use the body parts they came with, no matter how unhappy or suicidal it makes them.

If God made you a certain way then clearly you have no choice in the matter. You don’t get to have a say in who you are.

Obviously I’m not going to push little Ella in front of a bus so she can use a chair. Hell, I’m not even going to encourage her to jump in front of a bus herself. But I will encourage her desire to be a wheelchair user. She doesn’t pity people with disabilities; she admires us. She admires us so much that she wants to be like us and that makes me proud. Why wouldn’t it?

It makes me proud to see some kids in our world recognize that disability is not a detriment. We’re not pitiful creatures. No, we’re awesome. We’re so awesome that little girls want to be like us.

We can cry tears of joy for kids in chairs who walk a wobbly step, we can pray for them to walk, and we can high five them when they fervently proclaim that they will walk someday.

But when an able bodied kid fervently proclaims that she wants to be a chair user I am supposed to tell her no? I am supposed to discourage her? I’m supposed to tell to her that she shouldn’t want to be like me? I’m supposed to make disability sound like a bad thing that she shouldn’t desire? I can’t cry tears of joy that this child wants to join my norm? I can’t be delighted that she sees the good in disability and that she wants to add to the diversity of this great world by becoming disabled? I can’t pray that someday she might know the joy of being a proud disabled woman?


Because society tells us that disability is bad and if you’re disabled then there is something wrong with you. But there isn’t.

There is nothing wrong with you.

There is nothing wrong with me.

There is nothing wrong with having a disability.

There is nothing wrong or negative or bad about being disabled.

I would not be who I am today if I didn’t have my disability.

I don’t say that to be cutesy. I absolutely mean it. My disability has made my life far better than it would have been if I didn’t have a disability. No one in my family went to college besides me. In fact, the trend for my high school class was to go to the local community college, if anything, and then get a mediocre job. Instead, I received a full scholarship to a four year college because of my grades and my status as a minority because of my disability. While in college I studied abroad in Ireland and had an incredible time. People would stop and ask me how I could study abroad in a wheelchair and I would respond that wheelchairs are made to allow people to get out, not to stay inside. This made me wonder what people with disabilities in the U.S. were doing if it was so surprising to people that I could travel alone to Ireland, so I went back to the U.S. and started volunteering at an independent living center to learn more about the Disability Community. Soon after that I was hired as a part time Disability Rights Advocate while still in college. This led me to work for Senator Harkin, the senator who sponsored the Americans with Disabilities Act. After working for Harkin and the independent living center I saw that there were plenty of disability rights laws, but not enough people enforcing them, so I went to law school. Now I am a Disability Rights Attorney who gets to travel, advocate, and defend the rights of the amazing people in the Disability Community.

My disability has made my life amazing.

If I didn’t have my disability I would likely be working in a call center or as a server in a restaurant right now like many of my high school classmates. I don’t say that to disparage my classmates, but I do say that to point out how much further I have been able to go and how much more I have been able to achieve because of my disability.

Yes, there are struggles in my life, but my disability isn’t to blame for those struggles. Furthermore, none of my struggles have ever been so terrible that I would ever consider giving up my disability to avoid the hard times. It is not my disability’s fault that restaurants have stairs. It is not my wheelchair’s fault that some doorways are too small for me to fit through. I am not the problem. The problem is our society that has created oppression through inaccessibility and blatant discrimination.

When I come to a set of stairs in the front of a restaurant, I simply decide not to give that restaurant my money and I go elsewhere. When I find a doorway is too small, I go another route. I don’t sit at home crying over stairs and skinny doorways. Dear lord, I have so many better things to do.

I go out dancing. Yes, dancing, in my wheelchair (and my moves are better than most of the able-bodied people who are two-stepping on the dance floor). I work. I educate about accessibility so that Lyla, Grace, Ella, Belle, and Max will live in a more accessible world when they grow up – because accessibility isn’t just for people with disabilities. I skydive. I jam out to embarrassing music in my car. Heck, I even win a Ms. Congeniality award occasionally.

My life is awesome and fulfilling and my disability has never stood in the way of my happiness. My disability is not some conniving bitch trying to bring me down, it is not a barrier, it is not a burden – it is a part of me. Probably the best part of me. My disability does not hold me back, it pushes me forward.

So why can’t kids want to be disabled like me? 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Oh, Your Shelter Isn't Accessible? - And Other Reasons Women with Disabilities Experiencing Violence Cannot or Do Not Seek Help.

In my last post I wrote about how society’s treatment of women and girls with disabilities can contribute to the domestic violence we experience. Essentially, when you treat us like we’re a burden or like we’re worth less than other women, we start to believe it ourselves. I wrote about this to raise awareness about not only domestic violence against women with disabilities, but also to raise awareness of how society views and treats women with disabilities.

Many women and men with disabilities lauded my post and thanked me for finally talking about this issue. Many women and men without disabilities thanked me for bringing this issue to their attention and truly reflected on their actions and how they could help make a change in how society treats women with disabilities. Unfortunately, some people took this as an opportunity to question and challenge both the domestic violence women with disabilities experience and the societal treatment of women with disabilities. They demanded evidence of the domestic violence rates for women with disabilities and proclaimed that it’s not just women with disabilities that experience such violence.

Well, duh. Obviously others experience this violence, but the point is that women with disabilities experience it at much higher rates. If you want evidence, go to google. The statistics and facts I give you are not from secret sources. They’re from the DOJ, they’re from national and international organizations that spend large parts of their budgets doing research on this issue, and they’re from real women who experience the abuse.

The point is women with disabilities experience much higher rates of violence (Want proof? Check out the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics that show in 2011 women with disabilities were THREE TIMES as likely to be victims of violent crimes than women without disabilities).

There are many reasons that women with disabilities who experience violence don’t seek help. Sometimes there are physical or systematic barriers that prevent a person from seeking help. Sometimes it’s societal issues, like the self-esteem issue I wrote about last time.

I chose to write about the self-esteem problem last time because that is what I know best. I feel that before articulating stories about other women I needed to share my own, after all, my story is mine to tell. The experiences that other women have gone through are not my own, therefore they are not my stories to tell. However, in order to end violence against women with disabilities, society needs to learn about the problem. We can’t stop a problem that we don’t know exists.

For this reason I am providing you a list of why some women with different disabilities cannot or do not seek help. This list is by no means comprehensive. The examples I have included are real examples from real women who experienced real abuse. I have not included their names or any other identifying information.


Many women with disabilities have fewer economic resources, thereby increasing their inability to seek help. Poverty is a factor that prevents many people without disabilities from seeking help. For women with disabilities, it’s a bit different.

Imagine you are a woman living in poverty and you are being abused.  You may not seek help because you fear that you will not be able to afford your own home, food, transportation, and other living expenses without your abusers financial assistance. You may have kids too. How will you be able to support them as well? These are real concerns that people with and without disabilities face.

With disability it goes a step further. Imagine you are a wheelchair user. You live in a rural area with no bus stop in your area. No paratransit either. You certainly don’t have a wheelchair accessible van because those things are ridiculously expensive and you can barely afford to pay your rent. How will you get out of your house to go to a shelter or any other place to seek help? Accessible taxi? Ha. They’re still fighting like hell to get accessible taxis in NYC, they certainly don’t have them in your neighborhood.


All people who experience abuse struggle to leave because of fear. Every person is different and fears different things, but people with disabilities have fears that people without disabilities don’t usually even think of.

Fear of losing assistance or being institutionalized

Say you’re a person with a disability that requires assistance from a personal care attendant, but your attendant is abusing you. Your attendant started off fine, helped you shower and get dressed, but eventually she became controlling. She started becoming more aggressive when helping you shower and dress. Then she started hitting you when you took too long to put your pants on. A few times when she got really angry she would put her cigarettes out on your legs. You want the abuse to stop, but if you report your attendant then you won’t have anyone to help you shower and get dressed every day. How will you get out of bed in the morning? If you go without an attendant for too long, insurance will deem that it is “unsafe” for you to live in the community without support so you will be sent to an institution. An institution where you lay in bed all day, eat whatever gross food they put in front of you, never go outside, and possibly experience more abuse. What do you do?

Fear that you will get in trouble

Now let’s say you’re a person with an intellectual disability. You live in a group home and one of the employees is sexually abusing you. You know what is happening is wrong, but when the employee touches you sometimes it feels good to you. You’re afraid to tell because you know what is happening is wrong, but you think you might get in trouble because it felt good to you. So you don’t tell because you don’t want to get in trouble. 

Fear of Not being Believed

What if you’re a woman with a mental health disability? Maybe you have anxiety or depression or a personality disorder or maybe PTSD. You are being abused by your partner or your parent or someone else close to you. You want to tell someone about the abuse, but you fear no one will believe you because everything thinks you’re “crazy” already.

Fear of Further Abuse

You’re a woman with a disability that lives in the community and your attendant is abusing you. She hits you occasionally when she gets angry, she leaves you sitting in the same position for hours which causes you to get bedsores that become infected, and sometimes she thinks it’s funny to refuse to help you with your toileting needs and you end up sitting in your own feces for hours. If you tell someone, maybe your attendant will find out and make things even worse on you. Right now she only hits you sometimes and neglects you, but if you tell she might start hitting you more or worse. Maybe it’s better if you just suck it up and don’t tell anyone so things don’t get worse.  


Physical Inaccessibility of Shelters

You use a wheelchair and your husband is beating the crap out of you all the time. You’re fed up. You know you shouldn’t have to take this. You find a way to get to your local women’s shelter to seek help when your husband is out of town for the weekend. You get to the front door of the shelter and you only see stairs. You can’t get in. So you call the shelter while you sit outside, staring at the steps that are preventing you from seeking help. They come out and agree to carry you and your chair inside. It’s humiliating, but you take it because it’s your only way to get away from the abuse. Once you’re inside you try to go into an office to talk to an employee, but the doorway is too small and you can’t get in. They come out and you meet in another area and then show you around the shelter. You try to get in the bathroom, but it’s completely inaccessible. The bed is so low that you can’t independently transfer yourself from your chair to the bed. So you can’t sleep there or go to the bathroom there or even get in and out of the door without others carrying you, how could you possibly stay?

Programatic/Systematic Inaccessibility of Shelters

You have multiple sclerosis. It’s hard for you to walk, but you make it to the shelter and decide you want to stay there to get away from your abusive partner. The shelter says you can stay but has a no narcotics rule. You take prescribed narcotics to treat the extreme pain you experience from your MS. They refuse to make a reasonable modification to their rules for you. So you can get away from abusive partner or you can treat your MS, but not both. 

Inaccessible information

You’re blind and your boyfriend is verbally and physically abusive as well as completely controlling. He does not let you have a phone and sometimes he doesn’t even let you go to class. On a day he does allow you to go to school, you talk about domestic violence in one of your classes and different options victims have to seek help but you can’t read any of the handouts. You want to seek help from a shelter, so you skip your next class to go to the school library to google your local shelter before your boyfriend comes to pick you up. Unfortunately the website isn’t accessible so the screen reader can’t read any of the information. You don’t exactly want to ask the librarian to read the information to you either. Why is it so hard for you to seek help?

Communication Barriers

You’re Deaf and you use TTY to call your local shelter. When the person at the shelter answers, they don’t want to deal with TTY communication, so they hang up. You’re upset because you feel rejected when it took you so much courage to finally seek help, but you won’t give up. The next day you go to the shelter for help, but they refuse to get an interpreter so you can communicate with them. You demand an interpreter because you know your rights. You tell them the ADA requires them to provide an interpreter as an accommodation. They finally agree to provide an interpreter during meetings and therapy, but for the other 22 hours of the day you have no access to communication with others. No one else in the shelter knows sign language. You feel so isolated and alone. Maybe it’s better to go back to your partner. After all, he knows sign language. He communicates with you. And he doesn’t always hurt you. Maybe if you go back things will get better? At least you know you won’t be so alone.

Or maybe you have a speech disability. Your speech is difficult for others to understand and often people need to ask you to repeat yourself multiple times in order to get what you’re saying. You don’t mind repeating yourself but most people don’t have the patience to listen to you. Your attendant understands your speech, but your attendant is the one who abuses you. You try to tell others when your attendant is around, but everyone just smiles and nods, pretending to understand you. Will anyone ever listen?

Of course, what if you’re completely nonverbal?

Lack of Understanding

You Don’t Understand That You’re Experiencing Abuse

You have an intellectual disability. Your mom hugs you and kisses and feeds you, but she also yells at you, hits you, and controls everything you do. You know your mom loves you and you don’t like when she hits you and yells at you, but she tells you that she has to yell at you and hit you because you’re a bad girl and she needs to teach you a lesson. You don’t understand that she is being abusive, so you never seek help.

You Don’t Realize Specific Actions Are Abusive

Your husband loves you and he would never hit you. He’s never laid a hand on you. But, sometimes when he’s mad he refuses to let you have your wheelchair. He takes it away from you so you can’t reach it. You end up lying in bed for days sometimes – laying in your own urine because you can’t get to the bathroom. Sometimes you get bed sores from laying so much and twice the bedsores have gotten infected causing you to be hospitalized for days. But that’s not really abuse, right? He loves you. He’s usually very good to you, he just gets frustrated sometimes. It seems like an insult to women who experience real abuse to say that this is abuse. It’s fine.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Stop Telling Me That I’m Pretty for a Girl in a Wheelchair: How Your Words Contribute to Violence Against Women with Disabilities

Women with disabilities experience the highest rate of personal violence of any group in our society. There are many factors that contribute to this and one factor is self-esteem.  

Imagine for a minute that you are the average woman – you are told daily by beauty magazines that your hair is too frizzy and your love handles are disgusting. Despite this, you have a pretty good self-esteem. Then you enter a relationship with someone who slowly becomes physically or emotionally abusive. Statistically speaking, you with your (initial) good self-esteem will have a difficult time leaving that relationship. On average, it will take a woman seven times to leave before staying away from that abusive relationship for good. During that process, your self-esteem will likely be torn down by your abuser. That will make it even harder to leave.

Now, let’s go a step further.

Imagine you’re a woman with a disability. Let’s go with my disability to make things a bit easier. Imagine you were born with a mobility disability (spina bifida if you desperately need specifics). Imagine you walked with a limp as a child and eventually had a wheelchair become part of your everyday life. Not so bad really. Your family is supportive and you never feel like there’s anything “wrong” with you until strangers approach you at the mall and say things like “Can I pray for you?”

Pray for me? For what? “To heal you.”


Then every stranger feels the need to come up to you to tell you that you’re brave. Brave for what? For living, that’s what. They think it’s a compliment, but what you eventually start to figure out is that these people mean that they’d rather die than live like you. That’s why you’re brave. They’d rather die than have a disability. Having a disability is apparently worse than death. Your life is a worse fate than death.

Or perhaps the lady in the grocery store looks to your mother and says “Such a shame. She’s too pretty to be disabled” and eventually, as you grow older, these grocery store ladies start saying it to you.

So by the time you’re 12 and you’re reading Seventeen magazine where you’re learning that you need to start straightening your hair or no boy will ever find you attractive and you need to stay skinny if you ever want to be loved, you’re also hearing from every well-intentioned stranger that you’re broken and you need to be healed. There is something wrong with you and you need to be fixed. But you know you won’t ever be “fixed.” You’re walking like this (and eventually rolling like this) for life. You were okay with your life until the world started telling you that on top of being a completely imperfect tween like every other girl, you’re also broken - thus making you completely undesirable.  

You, my dear crippled girl, will never be pretty. You’ll be cute. You’ll be cute to adults who like to patronize you and squeeze your cheeks and treat you like a child for the rest of your life. Adults that automatically think that because you’re in a wheelchair you’re broken.  You will never be cute to the boy in your 8th grade class who has the perfect hair and great smile. He’ll never think you’re pretty because, quite frankly, you’re a broken girl. All those unsolicited prayers from creepy mall strangers never kicked in. Plus, you never got that straightener so your curly hair is really just a big poof of a mess and you see Mrs. Frizzle every time you look in the mirror.

Your entire life you’ve been told you’re not pretty enough because no girl is unless they’re in Teen Vogue. That’s hard enough for every girl. And on top of that, you’re entire life you’ve received “compliments” from strangers that were really just slaps in the face – constant reminders that you are just a crippled girl. You are not ever going to be on the cover of Teen Vogue. You’ll certainly never be in Playboy. Wheelchairs and scars are not sexy.

You’ll be a virgin forever. People who are not sexually desirable don’t have sex. They don’t get married. They don’t have kids. They probably don’t even get kissed. People with disabilities are basically asexual, right?

Right. Or at least that’s how your doctors will treat you. While your pediatrician might eventually talk to your sister and brother about sex, they won’t talk to you about it. After all, your siblings aren’t disabled, so they can be attractive and have sex. You, my dear girl, cannot. You can either be desirable or you can be disabled, and since you’ve already got that wheelchair I guess we know which path you’ll be taking.

You, my dear girl, have only one path. You will be disabled. You will be a burden. A burden on your family. A burden on society. Just a plain old burden. Your dad told you that you could be anything you want – you could change the world. But the rest of the world told you that you’ll be nothing. You will simply be a drain on society. You can’t contribute.

You’ll be such a drain and burden that you’ll stress people out to the point where they’ll get violent toward you, but that’s okay. You’ll see it in the news – some girl with cerebral palsy was such a “burden” on her family that her father put her in his truck and connected a hose from the exhaust pipe to the cab until she died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Her dad will say he “did it out of love” for her. The media will show the murderous father compassion and say that the girl, who was so much like you, was probably better off dead. The adults who talk about this news story around you will say that they can sympathize with Killer Daddy because having a child with a disability must be very stressful. They’ll say they can understand why the father murdered his disabled daughter.  

This is what you grow up with. This is what you hear every day. This is why you pray that someday maybe someone will find you attractive. This is why you hope so fucking hard that someone will love you someday. And this is why when someone finally does show interest, you stay. You stay even though they beat the hell out of you. Because they said they love you when the rest of the world told you that you weren’t worthy of love. You stay even though they force you to do things sexually that you don’t want to do. Because, hell, at least they think of you in a sexual way. You stay when they threaten to kill you. Because you know you’re a burden and that being with a disabled woman is probably very stressful.

You stay. You stay and you don’t say a word to anyone else. Who would believe you anyway? If you left, no one else will ever love you. You’re lucky your broken, imperfect self even found one person to love you. So what if he beats you, refuses to let you have your wheelchair, forces himself on you, and tells you you’re worthless? At least he loves you, right?

You stay.

You stay for years.

I know you stay.

I know you stay because I stayed.

I stayed for two years. I stayed while he hit me. I stayed while he spit in my face. I stayed while my friends told me I was so lucky to have him in my life. I stayed while other kids at school said he was stupid for dating me because I was just the girl in the wheelchair. I stayed while he screamed at me and pulled my hair. I stayed while my family told me he was such a nice guy. I stayed.  

I think I broke up with him at least twenty times in two years. But I kept going back. Many times when I left, he’d apologize and tell me he loved me, so I went back. Later, when I left I locked him out of my apartment to keep him away, so he slammed the glass door until it shattered, so I went back because I thought it was safer than trying to keep him away.

When I tried to tell my friends about him, nobody believed me.

When I left him for good, my friends told me I was stupid for letting him go.

I stopped telling people eventually. I realized no one would believe me.

But I’m telling you now.

I’m telling you now because when I was twenty I started working at a disability rights organization and I started learning about violence against women with disabilities. I started hearing stories from real women with disabilities about the violence they experienced. I started learning about the rape and abuse that happens to women with disabilities trapped in institutions that never stops. I started learning about the rape and abuse that happens to women with disabilities in the community that goes on for years and is never reported.  This is when I became passionate about ending violence against women with disabilities.

I’m telling you now because it wasn’t until I was 24 that it hit me that I was one of these women. I am a woman with a disability. I experienced personal violence. I experienced it just like the statistics say. I am a statistic. I am one of the women that I want so desperately to protect.

I am telling you now because the violence needs to stop.

I am telling you now because the words you say to girls and women with disabilities today will affect how we view ourselves and will affect our futures.

I am telling you now because I want you to stop telling girls and women with disabilities that we’re broken, that we need prayers, that we’re burdens, that it’s okay if someone hurts us because “they’re probably just stressed” from having to “deal” with us, or that we’re pretty “for a girl in a wheelchair.”

I am telling you now because I want you to start telling girls and women with disabilities that we’re beautiful, that we’re wanted, that we’re worthy of love, that you recognize us as sexual beings, that we’re capable, and that no one should ever hurt us no matter what.

I am telling you now. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

#yesallwomen Includes Women with Disabilities.

Domestic violence, sexual assault, and rape culture have been getting a lot of attention lately, especially with the #yesallwomen hashtag that has gained some serious momentum. I’m glad that this is on society’s radar right now, because as an advocate for ending domestic violence and rape culture, this is something that is on my mind every day.

Also, as a woman this is something that is on my mind every day. Every day I take steps to protect myself from sexual assault that most men never even think of. Every day I deal with statements and actions that perpetuate rape culture.

So yes, as a woman and an advocate I am glad. 

But as a woman with a disability and an advocate for ending domestic violence against women with disabilities, I am disappointed.  

I’m disappointed because these conversations about ending the violence, stopping the assaults, empowering women, and all that jazz never include women with disabilities.

This is a huge problem.


Well, for many reasons, but here’s just a few:

  • Women with disabilities are at least twice as likely to be victims of domestic violence and sexual assault than women without disabilities. 
  • Women with disabilities experience abuse that lasts longer and is more intense than women without disabilities.
  • Women with disabilities are less likely to report domestic violence or sexual assault. Approximately 70% - 85% of abuse against people with disabilities goes unreported.
  •  Studies estimate that 80% of women with disabilities have been sexually assaulted.
  • One study showed that 47% of sexually abused women with disabilities reported assaults on more than ten occasions.
  • Another study found that only 5% of reported crimes against people with disabilities were prosecuted, compared to 70% for serious crimes committed against people with no disabilities.
  • Women with disabilities are often perceived to be weak, unwanted or asexual, making us  more vulnerable to sexual violence.
  • Some attackers have stated that they considered it a “favor” to rape and/or sexually assault women and girls with disabilities because they thought no one else would have sex with us, that we could not have sex otherwise, or they didn’t even view us as human beings.
  • Abuse has a more severe negative effect on the self-esteem of women with physical disabilities than those without disabilities. 
  • Many women with disabilities have fewer economic resources, thereby increasing the risk of abuse. 
  • Women with disabilities face limited options for escaping abusive situations and accessing battered women's programs.
  • Women with disabilities are women too. Our voices, our thoughts, our bodies, and our lives matter.

I could keep continuing to list facts for you, but I’d be here all night. No, I’d be here for years. The point is that women with disabilities are women. We are human. We are sexual beings. And we are experiencing domestic violence and sexual assault and we’re experiencing it at much higher rates than any other population. 

But nobody is talking about us. Nobody is talking with us.

Problems don’t get fixed if nobody knows the problem exists. By not taking a stand against the violence that women with disabilities face, we are essentially ignoring it.

No, we’re doing more than ignoring it. We are endorsing it. 

When women without disabilities don’t step up to talk about and try to stop the abuse that women with disabilities face, they are endorsing that abuse. Just like when men don’t step up to talk about and try to stop rape culture, they are endorsing rape culture.

Just like rape and domestic violence isn’t a women’s problem, rape and domestic violence against women with disabilities isn’t just a problem for women with disabilities. These are both societal problems. Society needs to fix them. Men and women -  with and without disabilities – need to work together on these issues.

So let’s start talking about domestic violence and sexual assault against women with disabilities because #yesallwomen includes women with disabilities.  

Saturday, May 17, 2014

My Awkward Introduction

Hey There! I am pretty awkward when it comes to introductions. Actually, I'm pretty awkward in general. So let's just right jump right in, shall we?

I'm Stephanie Woodward - your awkward, yet sassy Ms. Wheelchair Florida 2014.

I was crowned as Ms. Wheelchair Florida 2014 in the beginning of April after spending a weekend competing with some fantastic ladies from across Florida. Each an every one of those ladies were more poised & classy than I am,  but I guess the judges this year wanted to take an alternative route, so they chose the girl with an inappropriate sense of humor and the mouth of a trucker.

I am honored they chose me and hope to do Florida proud.

So to start off this blog, I want to tell you a little about me, a little about Ms. Wheelchair Florida, Inc., and a little about what this blog is going to be all about! So here it goes...

A Little About Me

I am a Disability Rights activist at heart. I will do just about anything to help enforce, expand, and educate about the rights of people with disabilities - this includes protesting, being arrested (only twice so far!), posing naked for a disability rights campaign, giving presentations, attempting to convert every guy I date into a disability rights advocate, and explaining to kids in grocery stores why I use a wheelchair and why there's nothing wrong with using a wheelchair. Oh yeah, and I'm also a Disability Rights lawyer. 

Beyond my commitment to Disability Rights, I am also interested in cheeseburgers, bright colors, every animal that crosses my path (particularly if I'm allowed to touch them!), all other civil rights, panda youtube videos, and brownies. 

A Little About Ms. Wheelchair Florida, Inc. 

Ms. Wheelchair Florida, Inc. serves as a platform for women in all 67 counties in Florida while advocating for the 54 million Americans who are living with disabilities. MW FL Inc. strives strive to bring awareness to all people with disabilities and the importance of them being included in the communities in which they live and that they are able to have a choice when it comes to employment, education, and housing.

A Little About This Blog

In this blog I plan to write about general disability issues to educate people about disabled people, the disability community, disability rights, and more. I will also blog specifically about ending domestic violence against women with disabilities because that is my platform issue as Ms. Wheelchair Florida 2014. If you've never heard of anything that I write about in this blog that's great because I'm happy to help you learn! If you already know everything that I write about in this blog then great because you're already informed about these important topics! Either way, I hope you'll read and share it with others! 

I will try to make sure that this blog is accessible to all, but if you find any inaccessibility or have suggestions, please don't be afraid to let me know! 

And if you have suggestions for topics you'd like me to address, I'd be happy to hear them! 

That's all for now!