Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series looking at how the Judge Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination is impacting people of color. Last week CiKeithia Pugh wrote about how white privilege showed up at the Senate hearing. This week Carrie Basas, our white ally and disability rights ally, shares how disabled people are impacted by sexual violence.
By Carrie Griffin Basas
A few weeks ago, I was halfway across the country explaining to a room full of business lawyers that sexual harassment and assault are all about power—they are forms of discrimination fueled by other oppressions. Yes, sexual violence is sometimes about wanting to sleep with someone but it is always about power.
I had lost a lot of the men and some of the older women in the room. They wanted a clear, simple policy on what not to do when it came to workplace relationships. What I challenged them to do instead was to observe and interrupt power and notice how forms of violence and oppression are interconnected. My advice seemed to have nothing to do with sex, but everything to do with who counts and who gets to decide.
The other week, I sat in a long meeting that was dominated by men. In the wake of the Kavanaugh hearing, I scanned the room and couldn’t help but wonder how many of the people there had assaulted women. I was wrong and embarrassed to speculate. It is just I am not looking at people with fresh eyes; I am looking at them with weariness and fear. I feel more precarious and vulnerable than usual. And it’s not my whiteness that makes me feel this way. These times remind me more than ever what it is like to live with a disability.
I feel vulnerable to others having physical power over me—realizing I exist within a body that depends on a cane to get around and can easily be pushed to the ground. I feel vulnerable in social spaces where tall men loom over me, unintentionally, and boys are allowed to be boys in their off-color comments or power plays. I feel vulnerable when some people stare at me for being a woman and vulnerable when other people stare through me as if I am not even a person. I still have whiteness as a shield and protector, something my poc counterparts can’t count on to protect them.
I feel vulnerable because I see others in my community sharing their stories. I feel vulnerable because of numbers. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the National Intimate Partner and Domestic Violence Survey, and research conducted by the Disability and Abuse Project, 70% of disabled people experience some form of abuse, 40% of that sexual. Disabled people are twice as likely to experience violent crime and three times as likely to be sexually assaulted than nondisabled people. A recent NPR article put sexual assault rate at seven times as likely for people with intellectual disabilities. And when disabled people report violence, we are less likely to get an adequate response from police. In one study where almost 38% of disabled people reported violence, only 10% of their assailants were arrested. Very rarely do these studies disaggregate and report on disabled people of color; we can safely assume the rates are higher for disabled pocs.
I feel vulnerable because I have been vulnerable to others; that is my experience, my history. My entire way of being in the world and social rules about power are woven into my body because in many spaces where I am, in so many social encounters, I am an object. An object is not merely a sexual object. An object in its truest form is something to be acted upon. In acting on something, we distance it. We strip it of its identity, its personhood. We take it from lasting to disposable.
Disabled people are infantilized within our society. We are not seen as having agency. Rather, we are seen as requiring care and assistance, and penalized for it when we do. Being interdependent is not a door for inappropriate touching or other transgressions. It is not an excuse for diminished police response, inaccessible victim support services, or disbelief that disabled people actually have sex. All of these beliefs compound our silent victimization. People are simply living out societal norms when it comes to acting on disabled bodies.
People with disabilities are often not allowed to have boundaries. I fear this for my disabled daughter when she goes off to camp or hops on a school bus alone. I worry no one will have boundaries with her and she will grow up to think she doesn’t deserve them. And my fears are grounded in truth. According to the World Health Organization, children with disabilities are 3-4 times as likely to be victims of physical and sexual violence than their non-disabled peers, 5 times as likely if they have an intellectual disability.
I am not alone in being turned into an object. My experience links me with so many other people who know on a daily basis they are more likely to be assaulted and less likely to be valued or believed when it happens. Approximately 60% of Black girls experience sexual abuse by age 18. Over 23% of Latinx women experience sexual or physical violence during their lifetimes; Asian American women can experience similar rates. More than half of Native women have experienced sexual violence. And almost half of Indian Health Service emergency rooms do not have an accessible protocol or trained personnel in place for sexual assault. Additionally, transgender people of color are more likely to have been sexually assaulted in their lifetimes; the rates range from 53%-65% for Black, Middle Eastern, American Indian/Native, and multiracial transgender victims. If we need further proof that sexual violence is not about sex, but it is about who is a person and who is an object, consider over 80% of LGTBQIA hate crimes that end in murder take the lives of people of color.
Most people who experience sexual violence or other forms of abuse will not be giving testimony in a confirmation hearing. Most people reflected in these numbers have been objects and remain objects. Communities of color are spaces where we dump our trash, invest less in school buildings, and chalk up poor health to poor habits. Institutions are where we dump our disabled people. And prisons are where we dump our POC brothers and sisters, many of whom have disabilities or will acquire them while incarcerated.
This week, I feel shame and disappointment we cannot sustain our outrage for everyone. It takes a Supreme Court confirmation process to speak—and even then, just for a small subset of experiences. I worry the problem isn’t so much a problem unless we can see ourselves in it.
I need to know about your suffering and you need to know about mine—and neither should matter less just because you will never fully know my reality, nor I yours. We need to bear witness to and stop people from becoming things in our history and present—from human trafficking to concentration camps, police brutality to forced sterilization. When we strip people of their humanity or we turn them into objects—such as commodities now on our power duo t-shirts and posters of Dr. Ford and Anita Hill—we make them belong to us and we make them subject to our rules. We no longer hear their screams at the same volume. We no longer believe they are in pain.
More reading on the topic:
- How a Prosecutor Decided that an Attack on a Disabled Black Kid was Just Bullying, Pacific Standard
- I’m Disabled and I Get Sexually Harassed — Here’s Why That Matters, Teen Vogue (PoC author)
- The hidden victims of campus sexual assault: Students with disabilities, Al-Jazeera America
- Learn more about the intersection of race and disability with #DisabilityToo
Carrie Basas works in education advocacy and formerly in civil rights law, specializing in disabilities rights. She was a law professor focusing on race, disability, and health justice. Carrie has a MEd in Education Policy, Organizations and Leadership from the University of Washington. She earned a Juris Doctorate from Harvard Law School and an Honors B.A. in Psychology with a minor in Sociology/Anthropology from Swarthmore College. Contrary to the impression left by this post, Carrie enjoys appropriately timed hugs from trusted friends and colleagues and would appreciate jazz hands from all others.
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