The everyday assault of disabled women: ‘It’s inappropriate sexual touching at least once a month’

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aMary Kavanagh is just as happy as anyone else that the world is opening up—but there’s one thing she’s not thrilled to experience again. “As much as I’m excited to get out and re-socialize, it comes at a price,” she says. Kavanaugh is blind and sexual assault is as frequent in his everyday life as it is disturbing. “I am harassed in public, on the street, in shops, on public transport, in cabs and even in professional environments. Before the pandemic, I experienced inappropriate sexual touch at least once a month,” she says.

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While women’s safety has received renewed attention since the deaths of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa, the harassment and violence of women with disabilities has received little attention. Yet women with a disability are almost twice as likely (2.8%) to experience sexual harassment (5%) than women with a disability. our data For two years till March 2020. This is not an anomaly; In the last three years, this figure was 5.7 percent. In 2021, a survey of over 1,000 disabled women conducted by the Trades Union Congress found that 68% had experienced sexual harassment at work, The statistics constitute a hidden misfortune on the lives of women with disabilities.


Kavanaugh says that men often target him under the guise of aid. “A typical experience is that someone offers to help me cross the street and whether I accept or not, they grab me by the hand and refuse to go. Often they use this opportunity to smack my breasts.” touch, make inappropriate comments about my sexuality or physical appearance, or ask me personal questions about my body,” she says. She is certain that men target her because she is blind. I can’t recognize them easily, I can’t see them coming or know whether they’re following me or watching me.”

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‘We don’t know if your intentions are good or if you are the next person to hurt or attack us’… Amy Kavanaugh. Photo: Kaye Ford Photography

In response, Kavanagh launched a Twitter campaign under the hashtag #JustAskDontGrab, There were hundreds of responses – including deaf people sharing how people “get their attention” with inappropriate touching and wheelchair users being moved without their consent. Wheelchair user Ruth Muran shares her experience of a man being pushed without warning during a trip to a shopping center. When another woman intervened, he claimed that he was just trying to help.

While the campaign’s message seems clear, Kavanaugh says, “people with disabilities often face hostility if they do not accept aid”. This can be verbal abuse, physical violence or even sexual assault. “That’s why it’s so important to listen to people with disabilities when you offer help, because we don’t know if your intentions are good or if you’re the next person to hurt or attack us.”

Wheelchair user Katie has also faced harassment and assault in public. She has a six-month-old daughter, so hasn’t been clubbing for a while, but she lurked on every dancefloor when she did: “Every time I went out, you’d grab someone’s breasts. It was quite normal.” She says the groping was “people walking past, taking an opportunity … Because I’ve sat down, I think it’s more anonymous.”

Every year many women with disabilities are assaulted. It seems impossible to forget your own rape

If she went on a date to the bar, sitting in the booth also came with risks. “People put their hands under my clothes, things I have not consented to. And, apparently, I’m a little more vulnerable than other women. I just can’t get up early.” If, in a busy place, she transfers from her wheelchair to another chair, that creates an extra level of vulnerability, because she couldn’t move away. protest, it sounds dangerous; you never know how they’ll react. So you feel like you can’t say no.”

Both women say the problem is fueled by the fabled narrative that women with disabilities are not attractive – and therefore will not lead to an end to sexual harassment or violence. Kavanaugh says this means that, when she talks about harassment, “the first reaction I always get is disbelief. People just can’t believe that a blind woman is groped. Women with disabilities.” are asexual and infantilized, so people don’t think we experience anything sexual, including unwanted negative sexual experiences.”

Katie says she will report any harassment now, but “at that point I would say: ‘Okay, that’s what happens.’ There was also a reason why people would say: ‘Well, why are they doing this to you? Because who’s going to see you as a carnal creature? Anyway, you probably misinterpreted their behavior,’ or : ‘You should be grateful.’ I’ve said both of those things to me before – through friends.”

Plus, perceived vulnerability runs through the stories of all the disabled women I talk to. Sarah (not her real name) is autistic and works as a journalist. Asked about her experience of sexual assault, she says: “Where do I start? Creepy proposals, overly sexual remarks, being invited into hotel rooms… it’s very disappointing,” she says.

Sarah says that problems can start when people reveal that she is autistic to others without her consent. “People take it as: ‘Oh look — they’re weak,'” she says. Predators may not see autistic and other disabled people as quite people, which makes it easier to justify harassment (if only to themselves). There is often an underlying belief that these women do not have the intellectual capacity to recognize or prevent harassment. Women sometimes feel that their disabilities are actively used against them, such as their sensitivity to noise being used to justify a meeting in a hotel room rather than in the lobby.

“I also find it very difficult to read intentions from faces,” says Sarah. Many people know that this is a common feature of autism and that women with disabilities deliberately manipulate their facial expressions to confuse them about their intentions, she says. When an autistic woman learns that she has been misled, she may be made to feel that it is her fault. “I take security very seriously for this reason,” Sarah says. This has made him suspicious and sometimes intimidating.

For Paralympian Anne Wafula Strike, it’s hard to tell whether harassers who make lewd comments about her body target her because she’s a wheelchair user, a woman of color, or both. Her experience, she says, “depends on how I wear my hair — if I want to look very African in the way I do my hair; stuff like that. And I guess, of color. Being women, guys definitely push the boundaries more.” Women with disabilities of color are seen as “easy targets,” she says. While Wafula Strike is confident that she can “tell the difference between a man who is genuinely interested in me, with good intentions, and others who take advantage”, she worries that women are less outgoing or younger. Can’t.

Dr. Hannah Morgan
‘Women with disabilities face neglect’ … Dr. Hannah Morgan. Photograph: Image supplied

Despite the data and evidence from women like the Wafula Strike, Kavanaugh and Sara, I can’t say enough of any major women’s organization to comment on the specific problems faced by women with disabilities. Instead, I speak to Dr. Hannah Morgan, a senior lecturer at Lancaster University’s Center for Disability Research. Women with disabilities face “neglect” from mainstream women’s services and anti-harassment efforts, she says.

The “impact and legacy of overprotective services” prevents women with disabilities from exploring their sexuality on their own terms, and isolates them from peer networks that build the confidence and knowledge to challenge inappropriate behavior. “There is strong evidence that women with disabilities have been” less likely to believe or seen as credible witnesses in the prosecution, and the mistaken belief that women with disabilities are ‘safe’ from forms of sexual assault… because they may deviate from socially constructed norms about beauty and sexual attractiveness. Huh”.

Often, she points out, women with disabilities have to choose between freedom from oppression and freedom in general. What do you do if you get groped by the taxi driver who represents your only access to the high road, or the barman who puts up a pub’s portable ramp for you to visit your friends? Morgan agrees with all the other women I talk to: Women with disabilities are “subject to assumptions about their ‘inherent vulnerability’ and a great belief that the perpetrator will get away with it”.

It can be unbearable – and it has real social implications, too. “The psycho-emotional impact, or emotional toll, may predispose women with certain disabilities to reduce their potential risk by limiting their social activities or participation in work or education,” Morgan says. In a world where accessibility and enabling attitudes keep people with disabilities out of society, sexual harassment is just another terrifying reason to stay at home.

With attitudes towards disability so deeply ingrained in society that change may seem minimal. But as we’ve seen this year, sharing stories can start new conversations and spark change. If we really have to combat the culture of oppression, it is time to put the experiences of women with disabilities front and center.

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