The “Me too” movement sparked a wave of revelation and liberation for women around the world. It gave women a voice to free the voice they had kept quiet for so long, sometimes an entire lifetime. When women say “Me too”, they say it knowing they’re not alone. They do it feeling the solidarity of other women, while seeing themselves in the stories of women who are also feeling liberated by the ability to say those two little words that say so much without having to say more, because there’s always “more” buried deep into the subconscious of each memory.
“Me too”, women say, and a weight is lifted in some way. “Me too” some want to say, but have to build the courage to lift the weight of those words because they might only be two words, but they weigh a ton under your tongue when it’s your story these words are part of. When we say “Me too” we wear the emotional safety pin that identifies us as survivors rather than labeling us as victims.
Sadly, however, there is still a group of women whose voices are seldom included in the conversation –women whose existence has been so marginalized that most people get surprised at the thought of having to liberate them from the claws of sexual abuse. The sad truth is, disabled women are, more often than not, victimized and abused without them even realizing that what they have experienced is abuse. They don’t know they have the right to say “Me too”.
There are many factors that contribute to the silence of disabled women. The majority of them are directly connected to some form of ableism which branches out into the way disabled women are seen by society as well as how disabled women see themselves in society. For starters, let’s take a look at how society views sex and disability. The myths that dance around the subject are abundant and loaded with ideas of asexuality or pity based de-sexualization of anybody whose body or mind does not fit the norm of how sexuality and desirability are branded into day to day life.
Disabled people are denied access to our own sexuality. The fears of society toward disabled bodies make disabled bodies fear society, and that’s one of the cycles we must break. But doing so is easier said than done. For many disabled women, the lies force-fed by ableism have grown truths around them. Many disabled women stay silent because they don’t even know they’ve been abused. They have no idea they’ve been used, and those who see it don’t see it because, well…who would ever hurt a disabled woman? Many non-disabled people believe disabled women to be undesirable, and therefore immune to sexual assault or rape. Such damaging myth not only feeds other forms of ableism, but also denies the fact that rape and sexual assault are not about sex and sexual satisfaction, but about power and control. All forms of abuse are rooted in power and control.
And power and control over our bodies and lives is what disabled women lack, and one of the main reasons why disabled survivors have not been a bigger part of the “Me too” movement. This brings us back to the part of how disabled women see themselves in society. Many disabled women deny themselves the right to see the value of their own humanity. As disabled women, our value has been reduced to broken goods. We are not expected to become wives or mothers. We are not expected to be desired. As disabled women we often feel alone, and struggle to find our way home to ourselves in a world that fails to see value in who we are in our disabled bodies.
In reality, disabled women seldom see true representation of themselves in the non-disabled world. It wasn’t until very recently that the contributions of disabled artists, for example, were given a spotlight and a platform of representation. Tony Award winner Ali Stroker is the perfect example of how disabled women are still not included even when we’re included. When Ali won the award, she spoke about the importance of representation, and dedicated her award to young disabled girls because she knew how important this moment would be to them. She had also felt the pain of invisibility when as an artist, she could not see herself in other artists. She could not see herself in the images and stories presented by the media. And even in her moment of glory, the realities of ableism could not be denied.
There was no ramp to the stage even though Ali sat among her peers holding the possibility of a win in her hands. There was no ramp to the stage because, well…the non-disabled world is used to that.
They’re used to treating disabled people as if we don’t exist. But we do. We exist, often, silently in the background of other people’s lives, quietly in the stories played by those who are used to playing our part. Disabled women are not invited to be a part of the non-disabled world. Many disabled women have a hard time fitting in or finding a place among non-disabled women whose expectations of beauty prevents them from seeing sisterhood and shared oppression in the narratives of disabled women’s lives.
Maybe that’s why the “Me too” stories of many disabled women go untold. Disabled women are forced into silence. Forced into the ableist lies that say what happened to them was not abuse. The lies that led them to be used while falling in love with the abuser, or believing to have given consent when they had never consented to anything having to do with their bodies. Doctors, nurses, attendants and everyone else in between always did what was “good” for them.
Our minds have a way of protecting us from certain truths. One of the most piercing memories most women who grew up disabled have is having to parade naked in front of the men in white who had the authority to decide the future of our bodies. Learning to disassociate from our naked disabled bodies is one of the most common survival skills we learn.
Sadly, it is also one that will profoundly shape the way we react to sexual abuse. In many cases, we compartmentalize the various forms of abuse we’ve been exposed to, and moments involving our disabled bodies’ experience with abuse are thrown into the basket of denial. Ableism then grows thick roots around them, and we simply move on believing what happened was ok, or what happened never happened, or what happened does not happen to other disabled women and girls.
But it does.
Disabled women, for so many, many reasons, are even more at risk of abuse than non-disabled women. The dangerous lies strengthened by ableist beliefs put disabled women at risk of victimization every single day. The fact that society tends to view us as fragile, to many predators makes us an “easy target”. Also the reality that many disabled women are, indeed, more fragile than others, also makes them an easier target. Lack of sex education and informed awareness of our sexual rights is another contributor to the risk of sexual abuse and rape. But more than anything, it is society’s willingness to throw us away, perhaps the biggest cause of our lack of participation in the liberating experience of being able to say “Me too”.
I remember when I said “me too”. It was on Facebook –a long post in which I shared a particular memory of my youth. A memory that led me to the edge of other memories –memories connected to the very beginning of my personal awareness of body ownership and the right to say no. Many disabled women are never taught they have the right to say no. Our disabled bodies have been so medicalized and forced into silence that we get used to treating them as if they were not ours. It is easier, sometimes to deal with pain when we pretend it’s not our pain. We are always stronger when we think we are on the outside looking in. Witnessing women’s “Me too” moments led me to realize how many “Me too” moments of my own I had experienced.
–The neighbor who wanted to teach me how to kiss at age five when he sat me on his knee
–The doctor who lusted after my nine year old naked body.
–The stranger who flashed me knowing that from my sitting down angle I’m always at crotch level.
–The non-disabled classmate who forced himself on me in the elevator at school
–The old man who loaned me money for a burger and then demanded repayment behind closed doors.
There are all those moments and more. –Moments that make me wonder about the many disabled women out there who still don’t know that what they’ve experienced is abuse. I wonder about the disabled girls who still think their bodies are broken and therefore the sexual abuse they lived is not abuse, but love…the love society told them they will never experience. Ableism has a way of warping some truths and making sexual abuse feel “normal”, but it’s not.
That’s why I write this now. I want disabled women to know they always have the right to say no. Most importantly, I want other disabled women to know they’re not alone. I want other disabled women to know they can come out and say “Me too” and do so knowing we understand and validate their experiences dismantling the ableism that pushes society to deny us the right to assert ourselves as women with bodies capable of the same humanity as everybody else.
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Maria R. Palacios is a polio survivor, disability activist, author and artist whose artistic expression is one of the tools and weapons of her advocacy. Maria R. Palacios is one of the Capitol Crawlers from the iconic march of 1990 that passed the ADA. Her advocacy, since then, has taken many forms eventually morphing into her current voice –a voice unafraid of sharing the survival stories of the disabled people the world wants to forget.