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.”

What?

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. 


36 comments:

  1. Wow. That is very powerful and closer to home than I like to admit. It is a universal problem, but those of us with disabilities have fewer options.

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  2. POWERFUL. I too am a statistic. Any violence of any sort is NEVER ok whether that be emotional, verbal, or physical violence. Never stay EVER!

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  3. Chills. I have chills. This is spot on and such an important read. I'm a blogger as well - http://wordsiwheelby.com - and I tell you this only because I'll be sharing this later in the month in my disability round-up. The world needs to read this.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words and for sharing this! I have read your blog before and think we have very similar mindsets on disability rights issues, so I am glad to have your support!

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  4. You and I should talk. I think we have the same core message. This is eloquently written and, as a woman born with CP, I too have been taken advantage of and violated. But I was too stupid to listen to all of the people that said I "could never be; would never have". I just did it all anyway. Now I'm a disabled fashion blogger married 24 years to a normal - really hot-looking - guy.
    No one can understand your own experiences like you can, and no one can slay the self-hatred dragon but you. For what it's worth, I think you're absolutely gorgeous, Stephanie. Women with brains generally radiate beauty. Thanks for sharing your experiences and point of view on this subject

    Alicia
    spashionista.com

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  5. This really rocked me to the core. I'm disabled, I've been abused, my parents treat me like a child and a burden. My husband treated on me for a year and I finally got up the guts to leave him. I actually am asexual but people who don't understand asexuality same it's because of my disabilities, because I've been abused, etc. Sorry, I was asexual before that. I'd love to link to this on my blog to talk about being disabled and asexual. You have spoken about the disabled part so well.

    spooniemindfulnessmatters.wordpress.com

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  6. What an awesomely powerful article! You and I are very much alike - I am looking forward to meeting you in August at the national pageant. I'm the state coordinator for Washington State and hold the MWWa 2008 title.

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  7. This hit me right in the feels. I had something very very similar. Everyone reacted the same way. And I also didn't realize how abusive it really was until years later.

    Thank you so so so much for this. So much.

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  8. This was a very powerful piece. I work at a battered women's shelter and we have done some outreach to violence against women with disabilities organizations, but definitely not enough. Though we participated in a fundraiser a year ago with a VAW with Disabilities program, I realize now that our shelter isn't even accessible. I hope to find out more about what I can do by following this blog!

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  9. wow, that was powerful message! I honestly don't know how I feel after reading this..this has rocked me..Thank you for sharing,

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  10. Girl, you deserve a medal for those words!!!!! I´m speechless and in tears! All power to you!

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  11. I don't know if you have a Facebook profile, but here's the link to mine https://www.facebook.com/TXMUSTANG?ref=tn_tnmn I was,born with Spina Bifida and even though I've never been through this myself I would like to be your friend

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  12. As a woman with a disability and wheelchair user, I understand. As a woman who was in an abusive marriage, I understand (Although the reasons weren't my disability). I do have a wonderful boyfriend now who treats me like a princess. I have never experience what you have in regards to being told I can't or isn't she pretty for being disabled, and I'm thankful for that. I've been in major motion picture movies, tv commercials, on billboards, in magazines, I work in public relations at a children's hospital for orthopedic conditions. I do all of this wheelchair and all. I'm very thankful for the opportunities I've have and I certainly have never let myself be stopped because of my disability. I have a blog called I Look Good Today that I'd love for you to read and follow about living with a disability. The address is www.ilookgoodtoday.com and my email is jamie@ilookgoodtoday.com. I hope to hear from you!

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  13. Oh wow! Very Very Powerfully written Stephanie! and Good going you! As the mother of a young boy with SB, its sort of an eye-opener to me too...Keep at it dear, you're going the Right way you bet! :) hugs-
    Mrs Jacqueline Victor

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  14. Stephanie I'm SUPER INSPIRED by your words! Names Chris

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  15. Thank you for this! Not only was it well-written but you give such an amazing insight into common things that happen to us as well. My daughter is 4 years old and born with Spina Bifida and I am proud to have such strong female mentors like yourself for her to look up too. Thank you for being you.
    https://www.facebook.com/angeliesesadventures

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  16. My disabilities aren't visible, but so much of this I can relate to completely. Thank you.

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  17. Well written. A strong message that needs to be heard. I am so sorry for what you have endured. Being defined by a disability is so unfair. You are so much more than 'the girl in the wheelchair' and I wish the world could see that. <3 My disabilities aren't visible, but I have felt the way you feel. I have been hurt because I thought I didn't deserve better - because people made me believe I didn't.

    I am so glad you have overcome that situation. Keep spreading your beautiful message of strength. Good luck with the pageant. I'm from FL so I'm a little partial ;)
    www.pensiveaspie.wordpress.com

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  18. So....... so called normal women who are abused are different than you? You seem to have 2 points. 1 How the world treats you as someone with a disability. 2 You were abused just like every other abused person normal or disabled.
    Point of fact I am in a relationship (10 years so far) with a very nice woman with Spina Bifida who is now in a wheel chair who has several parallels with you except for staying with ANYONE who would be abusive. You are more like everyone else than you know.

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    1. Statically speaking women with disabilities are disproportionately effected by domestic violence. As she states in the beginning of this blog piece, women with disabilities experience the highest rate of personal violence of any group in our society. Her message is not that the abuse she experienced was any worse or different that which "able bodied" victims experience, nor was it that all disabled people are victims. The purpose was to explain one of the reasons why disabled people are not only victimized more frequently, but are more likely to accept the abuse and how we as a culture and as a society may work to change that. How treating someone as though they are less than human may cause them to believe they don't deserve to be treated the way other people are. To be loved the way other people are.

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    2. Jennifer is spot on. The point is not how the world treats me, nor is it about my experiences. The point is that women with disabilities experience personal violence at at least twice the rate that women without disabilities experience it. All abuse is bad. The point is not that women with disabilities are unlike other women because of abuse, the point is that we are victims more often than other and there are several factors that play into why we are victimized more frequently and why we are less likely to report it and more likely to experience abuse for longer periods. I was simply using myself as an example because I know my experiences better than I know the experiences of others.

      We live in a society that tells people with disabilities that we are worth less than people without disabilities because there is something "wrong" with us. That needs to change.

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    3. Cite the source(s) of your statistic please.
      So are people of color/weight/age/height/ugliness/big nose/gender/gender choice/gender confusion/wear bow ties and a fez/etc. Statically speaking Jennifer.

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    4. I'm the girlfriend (10+ years) and this is a beautifully written article. But I know many disabled people who are in loving relationships. While that is a small sample of the disabled community, it's hard for me to believe that the abuse of disabled women is double that of able-bodied women. That would be a HUGE number.

      I agree that we are more vulerable, but we need to stop caring what just anyone thinks of us. It's our own self-worth that's important. I never believed that I wouldn't be attractive to a decent person. I've been in several relationships and they were all good men.

      Probably because I swore, at a young age, that I'd never put myself in a situation for abuse to happen. I'm not discounting the women who have gone through horrible abuse but we (disabled women) have to develop our own self-worth because no one can do it for us.

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    5. I agree that self confidence & a sense of self worth as a whole person *with* disabilities is important. The author does a good job of illustrating how confidence can be eroded slowly.

      All the self confidence & intelligence in the world doesn't fill actual logistical gaps. It doesn't improve your ability to transfer, it won't make transportation more available, affordable or safe. It doesn't help you when the only PCA agency in your area stops returning your phone calls after you fire 'one girl' they had who could fit you in, even if she'd become controlling and manipulative.

      Nobody sets out to 'put [themselves] in a situation for abuse to happen.' Relationships evolve. Sometimes they devolve, sometimes people are different behind closed doors, after time has passed or circumstances shift. By that point you may well have more limited recourse and resources.

      There are disabled people who have very successful relationships. There are able bodied people who have painfully unsuccessful relationships. None of those factors are directly correlated.

      The reality is because disabled people can easily be more vulnerable in some way. Therefore when relationships go bad for disabled people, it can easily get more difficult and painful more quickly, and be logistically & literally harder to leave.

      What other people think of 'us', can have very little to do with vanity.
      It matters what other people think, when you have to ask them for help.

      Please let's not hold up 'develop[ing] our own self-worth' as a solution.

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    6. Hey, very nice site. I came across this on Google, and I am stoked that I did. I will definitely be coming back here more often. Wish I could add to the conversation and bring a bit more to the table, but am just taking in as much info as I can at the moment.
      Thanks for sharing.
      Ultra Lightweight wheelchair

      Keep Posting:)

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  19. YES! Your words reminded of the movie "300", strong, self-determination, making powerful choices.

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  20. WOW! This truly hits home. I KNOW EXACTLY how THIS feels ALL too well. I'm glad finally someone has the guts to tell their story. THANK you for sharing.

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  21. Thank you for writing this. I am incredibly pleased that this has reached as many women with disabilities as it has. I also think it's very important for men with disabilities (like myself - spina bifida here as well) to read this as well. Well done, and keep up the good work.

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  22. Women with disabilities are 2-3 times more likely to be a victim of physical and sexual violence, according to the United Nations. They may be dependent on the abuser to take them to the hospital or police station. They may rely on wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, canes for mobility which can be taken away. Shelters can be inaccessible structurally. They may not allow a service dog, a requirement under the ADA which could be ignored. http://www.handicap-international.us/international_women_s_day

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  23. With my cerebral palsy, I was blamed for my own bruises by my (now ex) husband when the police did respond to my call. "Look how clumsy she is! I could not have done this to her by myself!" They took the report, and left. :(

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  24. You know how you get rid of people wanting to pray for you? Wear a rock t-shirt by a band associated with evil or Satan.

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  25. May I include a link to this in a website I’m creating? It’s for parents/anyone who want to know more about autism and is a doorway to AUTISTIC voices/bloggers and neurodiversity friendly parents/p rofessionals. I know this post isn't specific to autism, but it speaks of something very important and universal. The website is under construction but the facebook page (Autistikids) is up and running - full of links to the same type of posts. Thank you.

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  26. Insightful peace. FYI, I used this as one of the bases for part of a piece that I wrote. You may wish to check out http://matankoch.wordpress.com/2014/07/04/it-starts-in-the-mirror-what-i-learned-about-seeing-my-own-beauty-from-two-state-pageant-winners-and-a-comedian/

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  27. Hey, very nice site. I came across this on Google, and I am stoked that I did. I will definitely be coming back here more often. Wish I could add to the conversation and bring a bit more to the table, but am just taking in as much info as I can at the moment.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Karma Wheelchair

    Keep Posting:)

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