I think every woman can remember her first experience with sexual harassment. I was at a pool on holiday when a boy at least fifteen came and sat uncomfortably close to me while I was waiting for my parents in the shallows.
I could feel his eyes on me and him looking me up and down in my tankini. I was twelve. I was younger when I had my first experience of ableist harassment. I cannot remember how old I was exactly, but I was younger than ten. Someone called me a “spaz” and I had to ask my mum what the word meant. Her face fell; that was when I knew something quite awful had happened.
What many people do not know is how often the two overlap. My first experience of that came when I was thirteen - a boy shouted “legs” when I was walking through the Boys’ Division to get my school bus. I walk with a limp, and I wore orthotics with my school skirt that sat above the knee. Thanks to my long legs, it was unclear what the boy was aiming at, and I felt mortified. These kinds of encounters have only increased as I have got older, particularly from older men under the guise of “helping me.”
According to the Office for National Statistics, disabled women were more than twice as likely to have experienced domestic abuse (17.3%) than non-disabled women (7.0%) in the year ending March 2019. Also, in the three years ending March 2018, 3.7% of disabled adults aged 16 to 59 years reported experiencing any sexual assault in the last year in England and Wales, compared with 1.9% of non-disabled adults.
I have never seen these statistics or reports covered by publications outside the disability community. I believe the majority of non-disabled people have no idea about this epidemic of sexual violence that exists within our community, and how would they if these reports are not covered?
There are many reasons why the numbers for these incidents are so high.
Predators can see disabled women as easy targets for assault: I am well aware that it would be easy to overpower me in a situation like that. Additionally, disabled women are made vulnerable by the people they rely on to care for them. Incidents like these often occur in settings like residential homes and hospitals, which makes them difficult to report.
Additionally, there is a financial vulnerability from losing benefits when we get married, often making disabled women financially dependent on their partners and vulnerable to abuse.
Every disabled woman I know has a story of harassment where their disability and womanhood intersect. I know blind women who have been groped while being guided, I know women in wheelchairs who have felt trapped by men pushing them without their consent, and I know women with learning disabilities who have been taken advantage of in vulnerable situations.
Womanhood exacerbates people’s paternalistic attitudes towards disabled people, especially when we are young. In a way, we are made doubly vulnerable by our intersectional identity.
Harassment like this almost always occurs when I am alone. I do not go out alone at night, though, so all of it happens when I am in broad daylight and surrounded by other people. No one has ever intervened on my behalf.
Before the pandemic, the most common type of harassment I had to endure was unwanted touching. People often just used to pet me without my consent. People pat me and stroke me, and I had people move me when I was using my mobility aids.
Taxi drivers are also a problem. I have had men touch me over my hips and thighs when they have had to strap me in as part of para-transit, and I have also had them refuse to let go of my wheelchair and insist on pushing me to the door after I told them no. This behaviour is often alongside the driver being passive-aggressive, patronising, or both, about my use of the wheelchair.
One of the more terrifying experiences I have ever had was trying to get back from the train station to my college in Oxford. As I was crossing Hythe Bridge in my wheelchair, I was encountering a little trouble dealing with the steep incline to get across to George St. I then felt a force pushing on my handles which I had forgotten to fold back down following my trip.
The man insisted on helping and refused to listen to me when I told him no.
The bridge was full of tourists, but none of them could hear my shouting or see that I was distressed. I remember thinking that he could have taken me anywhere if he wanted to.
I finally managed to wrestle back control at the lights and continued on my journey, shaken.
Attempting to report these incidents is tricky. Naturally, disabled women face the same issues as non-disabled with authorities not taking reports seriously. However, disability compounds these issues in cases of assault and harassment. The desexualisation of disabled bodies means that reports are taken even less seriously than usual.
Equally, there are access barriers to reporting assault due to a lack of interpreters or proper equipment.
What can we do?
We can do so much more to tackle these problems. Baroness Campbell’s efforts to include disabled women on the new Domestic Violence bill are a start, but, more than that, we need to change how we see disabled women.
We are mature and sexual, and we deserve better treatment when we report that someone has taken advantage of us.
Staff in hospitals and homes need to create better mechanisms to protect disabled women from predators, and those in the public sector need better training on the issue. On an individual level, if you see a disabled person experiencing harassment, please intervene.
The perpetrator obviously will not take their disabled victim’s resistance seriously, so if you are non-disabled you could make a real difference.