Last month, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” It struck a chord: The internet was rapidly filled with testimonies from people speaking out about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault, hashtagged #MeToo. That conversation has included people from all walks of life, but one group hasn’t been well represented: the disability community.
While the hashtag does include disabled people, many of the most popular tweets, Facebook posts, and other social media shares feature familiar faces: white, nondisabled cis women. The slew of ensuing mainstream media coverage has reflected this in turn, largely ignoring the issue of disability in conjunction with sexual harassment and violence. This is a deeply unfortunate turn of affairs, because the disability community is actually significantly more likely to experience sexual harassment and violence—and exploring how, and why, should be an important part of any related discussion.
While Milano may have popularized this two-word phrase, its real origins with regard to sexual violence appear to lie in a movement that started ten years ago with Black activist Tarana Burke. Burke is haunted by an experience as a youth camp director, when a young woman approached her asking for help and Burke referred her to another counselor, feeling frozen and unable to utter the words “me too.” Burke’s work on sexual harassment and violence with the Me Too movement, which connects survivors in areas outside the reach of rape crisis services, primed the pump for Milano’s comments—and some feel she’s been left out of the conversation.
Overall, participation in a hashtag like this can be a fraught experience: People may fear reprisal, shaming, or other consequences if they speak out, and these issues can be more pressing for people from underrepresented groups. While disabled people are active on the hashtag, those who choose to remain silent shouldn’t be blamed for it; they may feel excluded by how the conversation is framed, or they may fear exposing themselves to further harassment and violence. Sexual harassment and violence can also look different for the disability community than they can for nondisabled people, and that can make navigating these kinds of discussions trickier.
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Vilissa Thompson, a social worker and founder of Ramp Your Voice!, told Rewire, “A lot of people have experiences of trauma that haven’t been affirmed,” noting that disabled people who try to report sexual abuse may encounter disbelief, mockery, or harassment from authorities, sexual assault advocates, or even friends, and this can make the seeming solidarity of the hashtag feel alienating. Others fear being retraumatized through seeing the stories shared on their feeds, just as some nondisabled survivors of sexual harassment and trauma do.
Disabled people, however, also face a strange contradiction: Even in a society where social movements push to reframe sexual harassment and assault around issues of power and control, not sex, disabled people’s desexualization still means that they’re often discounted in conversations like these about sexual violence.
Indeed, nondisabled people often discount the possibility that disabled people can experience harassment and assault—which may explain why inaccessibility in rape crisis centers is a systemic problem, or why people fail to understand what sexualized violence looks like for the disability community. Even the New York Times opinion section perpetuates the internalized myth that disabled people aren’t viewed as objects of sexual attraction, and therefore aren’t targeted with sexual harassment and assault.
“There are disabled people who haven’t been harassed, and internalized that ‘it didn’t happen because I’m disabled,'” Canadian academic Kim Sauder told Rewire.
In fact, that stereotype can itself be bound up in sexual harassment: In high school, a group of male classmates cornered Sauder and said, “no one is going to want you,” because she has cerebral palsy.
The desexualization of the disability community is only one part of the puzzle. As Sauder pointed out, disablism often takes the form of infantilizing disabled people: treating them as exceptional because of their disability status. The popular notion that cruelty to disabled people is “beyond the pale” perpetuates the idea that sexual harassment and assault don’t happen in the disability community, she said, because of the widespread belief that “who would do such a thing?”
Tenley Lozano, a disabled veteran who served in the Coast Guard, told Rewire that sexual harassment is what drove her to leave the service, knowing it was impossible to file a report that would be taken seriously when her harassers were her supervisors or friends with her supervisors. After she separated from the Coast Guard, the harassment she endured left a lasting legacy of trauma that was reopened when she started being harassed by the men in the shipyard at the company she works for. Lozano isn’t harassed because of her disability status, but rather because she’s a woman in a male-dominated industry. But as someone who uses a service dog and is open about her disability, she often isn’t fully represented in conversations about these issues.
And as disabled people are desexualized or their reports of violence are dismissed, it becomes harder for them to seek justice for assault. As disabled writer Grace Lapointe told Rewire, “The sexual predator who assaulted me as an adult explicitly said that my disability made me a great target!” Society has created a perfect storm, Lapointe says: Poor outreach and education may also make it difficult for disabled people to identify what they are experiencing as inappropriate, which further exposes them to abuse. In some cases, disabled people are even deprived of the language they need to report the crime, as in the case of those who use augmentative communication, but don’t have words like “rape” or “genitals” on their communication boards to express what they are experiencing.
In fact, Sauder notes, power and control are very much at work for disabled people, especially disabled women. The most vulnerable group of disabled people—those who rely on caregivers or live in institutional settings—is also the most likely to experience sexual harassment and abuse. It always feels, Sauder said, that abuse stems from “a family member, or a private employee who’s providing care. Not a dude in the bushes. He’s a myth.”
Thompson says that information about sexual abuse in the disability community is readily available, and hashtags like #MeToo could be used to raise awareness, which is a key step in fighting it. “People seem shocked,” she said, when she makes fellow social workers aware of the issue, adding, “The information is out there, and now you need to be accountable for using it in your work.”
For social workers and activists alike, she argues, that includes exploring how sexual harassment and violence may look different for members of the disability community, despite still being fundamentally about exercising power and control. It’s still dehumanizing, and it still allows people in positions of power to maintain power by intimidating people into silence. Nondisabled people, however, may not be sensitive to how certain kinds of remarks and actions may be harassment for disabled people. For example, comments about—or attempts to touch—mobility devices can take on a sexualized element, as can intrusive questions about how someone has sex, invasive speculation about someone’s body, or expressions of surprise that someone is married or in a relationship. A little woman in the workplace, for instance, might encounter repeated comments about her size that constitute not just disablist harassment, but also sexual harassment, depending on their tone and delivery.
Action requires acknowledging that disabled people are part of #MeToo as well, and that they’re at greater risk of sexual harassment and assault. But as Thompson says, it also requires using this information and remaining accountable. Activists need to think about how to make their materials accessible to the disability community, which includes providing content in multiple formats, such as print, video, audio, captioned, transcribed, and other measures to ensure everyone can engage with that content. Considering the statistics on harassment and assault in the disability community, activists need to explicitly address these concerns in educational materials about these issues—there is no “standard” harassment victim because harassment happens to everyone, and one-size-fits-all educational supplies won’t meet the needs of many victims.
The best way to produce inclusive educational material, of course, is to foreground the work and expertise of disabled people, and any sexual harassment and assault initiative that doesn’t include disabled people in leadership will inevitably fall short. As advocates and supporters explore how to educate people about what sexual harassment and assault look like, they may also want to consider the disability community’s history of marginalization and take proactive steps to make materials explicitly welcoming.
Building inclusive moments can be challenging, but the benefits—in this case, bringing an underrepresented area of sexual violence into the light—are well worth it. Including the disability community in these conversations about sexual harassment and abuse will make it much, much easier for disabled people to fight these issues and find solidarity when they reach out for help.