Wednesday, May 28, 2014

#YesAllWomen: The Life and Times of a Vulnerable Woman

I am a vulnerable woman.

I don't like saying that.  I prefer to think of myself as able to handle anything that comes at me, and someone who does most of the normal things a 21 (almost 22) year old woman would do.  Vulnerable conjures up images of needing to be protected.  I don't need to be protected, or so I say.

But facts are facts, and the fact is that I am a visibly disabled woman.  When I am out in the world, I use a cane, a walker, a power wheelchair/scooter or a combination.  I can't move fast, especially when I am nervous or scared.  I have trouble getting up from the ground without anything to lean on.  My balance is nebulous, at best.

In short, I am the perfect target for a predator - an easy target.

In some weird ways, this has protected me.  Most guys don't look twice at a cripple, because we're viewed as damaged goods.  I've never been cat-called.  "Sexy" clothes usually take too much energy for me to put on (I'm a jeans and t-shirt kind of gal), so I don't usually have to worry that men will take my clothing as an invitation.

But on the flip side, being a visibly disabled woman means that my body is a free-for-all.  Since the day I was born, my body has not belonged to me so much as it has belonged to a countless parade of doctors, therapists, and even people on the street who think it is acceptable to ask about my body, make comments about my body, touch my body and move parts of my body.  My body and its history are seen as public domain.  I have been asked variants of "what happened to you?" by random people (usually men) in smelly train station elevators, in cabs, and on the street.  My body is stared at, pointed at, laughed at.  Paratransit drivers will, without my permission, physically pick up my arm from my wheelchair armrest in order to fasten the straps, rather than asking me to move my arm myself.  Even other women think it's acceptable to ask intrusive questions about my body and touch my body, often with the intention of "helping" me.  In the pecking order, those of us with visible body differences are among the lowest of the low.

Disabled women, like nondisabled women, are used as tools to make men feel good about themselves.  Only in our case, it's disguised as "help", and it's not limited to just men.  When we complain, we are told that they were only trying to help, that we are ungrateful for not accepting the help heaped upon us, even if it was no help at all.  Mundane, every day activities such as dressing or using the bathroom become power struggles, one where we have to "earn" the help we need.  We must be nice and polite and demure, even when our rights are being violated, because the world feels we are not entitled to our anger.

Again, the crucial similarity between the experiences of all kinds of women here is that it's never about the person whose body you're touching.  It's about the one with the power, and the one without the power exists solely to validate the other person's feelings.  This was the crux of the Isla Vista shooter's problem - he made it all about him.  Sure, what he did was extreme, but do we not see how that narcissistic mindset plays out in thousands, even millions of interactions between the powered and the powerless every day?

No one has the right to touch anyone else's body without that person's permission.  But from an early age, disabled women, particularly physically disabled women, are taught that their bodies are the property of others.  That it doesn't matter if you're hurting - and that, in fact, if you're hurting, it's probably a good thing.  Our bodies cease to be ours and are transformed in a litany of medical and scientific jargon and scribbled notes on pieces of paper.  We are indoctrinated to believe that our job is to lie there passively, and be good little rag dolls while our bodies are being yanked every which way.  We are not given agency over our own bodies.

That, combined with the natural vulnerability of many disabled women, makes us ideal targets for abuse.  And it shows.  According to a national survey done in 2012 on abuse and disability, over 70% of people with disabilities who responded to the survey had been victims of some kind of abuse.  Only 37.3% said they had reported the abuse to authorities, and the perpetrators in less than 10% of reported cases were arrested. And because we are so often directly dependent on other people, we are putting ourselves in potentially abusive situations every day.

#YesAllWomen needs to mean all women.  We cannot keep pretending that the experiences of queer women, women of color, and/or disabled women don't exist, or that the experiences of straight white able women somehow trump the experiences of marginalized women.  In truth, all our stories should be given equal weight.  We have far more in common than we think, and we are all fighting for the same thing - the power to have agency over our own lives and be viewed as human beings, rather than playthings for the enjoyment of men.  If we unite, we will be infinitely stronger, and hard as they may try, no man will ever silence all of us.

"what i would say if you would listen

don’t cut off the hand that feeds you, you said 
another one of your attempts
to reduce me
to a small, weak burden dependent on you

it’s not my job you’d announce 
with your cold glare 
watching me squirm and suffer 
when all I wanted to do was go to the bathroom 

you made me afraid to ask for help 
that I knew I deserved 
it was your job 
because you are human 
and so am I 

your words 
that belittled me 
still chill me to the bone 
what did you gain by hurting me? 

i am stronger 
and somewhere in my heart 
i forgive you 
but i refuse to forget 
and now 
i want you 
to listen 
to my words 

you were never the hand that feeds me 
because i feed myself 
and no one will ever 
have that power over me 

and for all you made me 
feel small inside 
i kept my dignity 
because it wasn’t yours to take 

remember that, remember me 
the next time you are careless 
with things that 
don’t belong to you"
-What Would I Say If You Would Listen, a poem by my dear friend Kathleen of The Squeaky Wheelchair