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 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.