Opinion: Understanding disabled bodies is easier than you think


Cristian Orellana

Sophie explores the perimiter of the Palm Court. She prefers people to let her walk on her own. Photo credit: Cristian Orellana

Sophie Trist

According to a year-long NPR investigation, people with disabilites suffer sexual assault at a rate four times higher than people without disabilities. For people with intellectual disabilities, the statistics are even worse; they are abused at seven times the rate of non-disabled people. People who are dependent on others for their daily needs make easy targets for abuse, because predators know that they can be easily manipulated and will have trouble testifying later. But I believe the problem goes deeper than that. It’s not just that abusers believe they can more easily get away with assaulting disabled people or that caregivers have an inordinate amount of power over people with disabilities, or even that disabled people may have difficulty accessing reporting and support services, though these are all factors. This epidemic stems in part from the way society understands disabled bodies as infants, as breakable china dolls. This mentality of seeing disabled people as childish and fragile means that the rules of consent don’t seem to apply to us, and if we do come forward to report abuse, we are taken even less seriously than non-disabled survivors.

I haven’t been sexually assaulted, but I can’t count the number of times someone has grabbed me without my consent. I’ll be walking along, sweeping my cane in front of me, and someone will just grab my shoulder and say, “The building is this way.” Excuse you! Would you even consider doing this if I wasn’t blind? I understand that you just want to help, but what your actions tell me is that I don’t have the same right to independence and bodily autonomy that non-disabled people enjoy.

It’s acceptable to ask, “Would you like some help?” If the disabled person says yes, this doesn’t mean you can just grab them. Ask if you may touch them; they may say yes, or they may just follow the sound of your voice. If they say, “No thanks,” just walk away, like you would do with a non-disabled person. Unless the person is in serious danger or visible distress, assume that they are getting along fine independently. Sometimes when I appear lost, I’m not wandering aimlessly around, but exploring and mapping a new area.

While we’re on the subject of boundaries, let’s talk about some of the questions disabled people have to deal with. Walking up to a blind person and asking him how he lost his sight is not appropriate. Personally, I’m free with information about my blindness, but for others, the cause of their disabilities may be a source of trauma. It is the disabled person’s choice if and when to give information about their disability. People seem to assume that they have a right to all sorts of private information about us, just as they apparently have the right to grab us without our consent.

Another way society infantalizes disabled people and makes us lesser is in the way they address us (or don’t) out in public. Often, when I go out with family and friends, people will speak to my sighted companions instead of me. “And what will she have to drink tonight?” Like I can’t make/execute my own decisions just because my eyes are prosthetic. Some disabled people may have communication barriers and need an interlocutor, but err on the side of treating us like normal people. When people do speak to me, they sometimes use the high-pitched, cooing tone you use when talking to a baby or a pet. “Oh, you get dressed and go to school by yourself!” This tells me that you have very low expectations of me. Many of the barriers we face are not because of our disabilities, but because of society’s stereotypes and misconceptions.

Listen to the voices of the disabled community. We will tell you which language we prefer to use and what boundaries we wish to set. One of the most popular hashtags in the disability rights movement is #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs. We are individuals, just as multi-faceted and unique as our non-disabled sisters and brothers. Take us and our rights seriously. Interact with us on an equal basis, as if we’re a lot more like you than society’s misconceptions would have you believe.