The boy who saw an alien: stopping sexism and disability discrimination at the start

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Jen from Women with Disabilities Victoria shares a personal story during the International Day of People with a Disability and the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence.

In the midst of an excellent round of hide-and-seek, a three-year-old recently told me, “When you don’t have your glasses on you look like an alien.” 

This made me chuckle to myself. Without my glasses on it’s clear my eyes have different colours and sizes and in fact don’t look like a pair at all. While it gives people a surprise, there’s no reason why my unusual eyes or resulting disability should be taboo. It’s refreshing the way kids can candidly express a surprise like this.

The boy continued to look up at me and became increasingly concerned. Bespectacled, my eyes are somewhat concealed and he felt he needed to set me straight saying, “So put your glasses back on. Put them on.”

He became insistent. “Go on. They’re over there. Put them on.”

A sombre feeling crept over me. It was wearing thin. I wasn’t enjoying being told what to do. 

It felt like our society’s attitudes towards disability and our society’s attitudes towards women were crashing together inside this one small human. What had begun as a straightforward observation of difference transformed into policing of that difference. 

Being told how to look is all too familiar to girls and women. People with disabilities, too, are regularly invited to feel shame for non-normative bodies or minds. 

People who have experienced ongoing discrimination in its many forms will know how its repetition can eat away at you and your humour. Over a lifetime it can erode your self-esteem.  

As the day went on, the boy and his siblings played. Adults intervened at various times – telling the boy not to cry when he was hurt in a minor accident, telling his sister not to complain when he deliberately hurt her as a ploy to get a toy. 

On this particular day, the gendered nature of these everyday interactions was amplified for me, and the relevance of the Stop it at the Start campaign had never been more stark. This Australian Government Campaign’s prevention message is that disrespect towards women can result in violence towards women, so it is important we don’t excuse disrespect to women displayed by young people.

What will the boy’s future hold, I wondered. Will he tell his girlfriend: ‘You’re ugly without make-up.’; You’ll get fat if you eat that’; ‘You look like a slut in that’? 

If this pessimistic prediction sounds melodramatic, apologies. It is just that there is growing evidence, like VicHealth’s national survey results, to suggest that rigid gender roles support the high rates of men’s violence against women. 

It is inevitable that the boy’s future will involve interactions with women. Statistically, there is also a high chance his future will involve people with disabilities. We are one in five Australians. So what will he tell us? Time and time again in so many ways, people with disabilities are told that we are an embarrassment, a burden that we are undeserving of respect. 

Attitudes and outcomes for people with disabilities are of course not gender neutral. International research alongside Australian interviews and population studies by Professor Anne Kavanagh and Dr Lucy Healey, among others, find that disability and gender combine to compound the risks of experiencing family and sexual violence. 

In the Voices Against Violence research, Jane* spoke about her experiences of family violence; “He sexually abused me, a number of times from the age of six until 14 years. For a long time I believed it was because I was disabled [Jane has mobility and speech impairments]. I felt guilty, why couldn’t I have stopped him? The truth is, that was impossible. I couldn’t speak out, plus the fear etched in my mind, the threat of being put in a home.” 

The Royal Commission into Family Violence heard the evidence of Ms Brown;* “Maybe if there were better disability services while we were together… I would have felt more confident to leave earlier. I was regularly told, ‘We can't provide that, your husband can do it.’ That puts a lot of pressure on any relationship…” These service and attitudinal barriers severely delayed her search for safety for herself and her children. 

While in Melissa’s* evidence to a Victorian inquiry into abuse in disability services demonstrated how even in disability services, women are subject to gender based violence; “A disability support worker stalked me over a period of 6 months… I reported this to the service provider at least 3 times… About a month after that the worker sexually assaulted a woman who is also a client of the service. To this day I say, “I was talking. Why wasn’t anyone listening to me.” 

It’s powerful that women are speaking out. Victoria’s disability services inquiry and Royal Commission reports show that people are listening. The reports make recommendations to Government and agencies (like the NDIS and the Police) for service access standards, workforce development, peer support and advocacy. These recommendations can achieve greater service accountability, and reduce the rates of violence against women with disabilities. 

The Victorian Government has committed to implementing the Commission’s recommendations, and pending sustained support this vision can come to fruition. The Government’s response to the disability abuse inquiry is to partially implement the report’s recommendations, including promoting people’s right to choose the gender of staff who provide intimate supports. This refreshing gendered approach to disability rights will go some way to increasing safety for women in disability services.

My time with the kids made me wonder, while the wheels of government turn, what’s happening on the ground, in our own lives. How do you show women with disabilities respect in your day-to-day life, amongst colleagues, clients, community and family? If we are going to stop it at the start, how are we addressing compounding forms of discrimination in our everyday lives?

 

Jen is Women with Disabilities Victoria’s Policy Officer addressing violence against women with disabilities. Women with Disabilities Victoria is a systemic advocacy organisation delivering representation, policy advice and research. Our prevention programs include the Enabling Women and the Workforce Development Program on Gender and Disability. Our board, membership and most of our staff are women with disabilities. See WDV’s resources and publications, subscribe to the Violence Quarterly email or connect with them through Facebook and Twitter. 

For support:

Australia 

1800Respect https://www.1800respect.org.au/
Sexual Assault Crisis Line http://www.sacl.com.au
Men’s Referral Service http://mrs.org.au/contact-us/
Ask Someone http://www.asksomeone.org.au 

Victoria

Safe Steps http://www.safesteps.org.au
Office of the Public Advocate Victoria http://www.publicadvocate.vic.gov.au