Mar 102018

The Internet is giant! It’s a library that will never get full (at least, I hope it won’t) and has decades of material. Most of us can barely get through news (fake or not) and opinions posted each day, let alone find the gems of the past. This week’s post is from Dave Hingsburger, published way back in 2006. (I think that makes it about 500 years old in Internet-time.) Dave started his blog that year, and has been writing, almost daily, since then.

I’ve written before about how much I admire Dave’s work.

He was one of the first to publicly (at great risk to his career) give voice to the fact that people with developmental or intellectual disabilities are sexual beings, that they have the right to have their loves and desires acknowledged and supported.

Here he is, doing that support.

Today I’m going shopping for a dildo and a butt plug – on work time, on a work mission. There are times I love working in the area of sexuality. This is one of them.

The weird thing is that when I’m actually in the store looking for the purchase, I get kind of shy. I want to yell out “I’M HERE IN A PROFESSIONAL CAPACITY AS A THERAPIST WORKING WITH THOSE WHO ONCE HAD THEIR SEXUALITY REPRESSED – THESE ARE NOT FOR ME!!!”

Read the rest of this terrific post.

Feb 252018

Everybody’s getting in on the “let’s publish sex and disability articles” deal these days.

Query Google (or your favourite search engine) for “sex and disability,” and your top results will almost always be from major online and print publications, and will date from the last four or five years. I’m not complaining about this. It’s fantastic that sexuality and disability, separately and together, are getting so much air time.

But like all good things, we didn’t create this conversation from scratch. Today’s voices aren’t the sexuality and disability pioneers the clickbait headlines want us to think they are. Years, decades really, of confabs in living rooms, at conferences, and later on online bulletin boards and chatrooms got us to this point.

Some of these conversations are lost in people’s memories. Some are hiding in obscure, or out-of-print books. And then there’s the Internet, the decades-old Internet with all it’s treasures. Remember, people were getting online in the early 90s, and I’d argue, with no evidence whatsoever, that disabled folks were some of the first to realize how powerful online spaces would be.

So, yes, the Internet, full of treasure – sometimes buried, sometimes obvious, sometimes forever lost to the ubiquitous “404. Page not found” message, which usually shows up when there’s a particularly enticing title and meta-description.

I’ve been digging these online and offline gems out for a while now, and it’s time for me to stop hoarding and start sharing. (though come to think of it, treasure-seeking pirates are usually portrayed as disabled…one eye? artificial leg? Yup, disabled.) So, maybe hoarding is just what we treasure-seekers do.

First stop: FWD (feminists with disabilities) for a way forward

FWD/Forward published essays, interviews, and opinion pieces on feminist and disability topics, “in response to the lack of disability content in online feminist spaces.” They were live from 2009-2011, and closed due to lack of community support. It takes more than passion and commitment to keep a Web site running.

Fortunately for us, some generous soul has archived everything and is keeping the site live…for which I’m incredibly grateful. I was pretty active online when FWD/Forward was happening – and I had no idea they existed. There really aren’t words for how sad this makes me. I could have learned a lot about writing and advocacy from these folks. This was important work being done, and valuable people to know.

I can, and do, get lost in this site for hours. I’ll probably share more favourite pieces over the coming months, but, first, this excellent introduction to disability and sexuality.
Disability and Sexuality 101, or, Do disabled people have sex?

The reason PWD aren’t considered as sexual – particularly “visibly” disabled PWD – is that the idea of “the perfect body” as the only sexual body dominates popular discourse. Additionally, we have the stereotypes of PWD as pathetic or stoic, far removed from the sexual. Not to mention the fact that disabled people tend to be shoved away from the general public. This idea is not due to some inherent aspect of disability that negates sexuality, it’s just bigotry. The lack of recognition for PWDs’ sexuality has meant, less so in recent years, that a lot of PWD aren’t given appropriate sex education. Without proper sex ed, it’s harder to take charge of one’s own sexual life and body. This lack of information has its role in enabling the high rates of abuse against PWD. There is a lot of horrific policing of the bodies and sexuality of disabled women in particular, as you’ll read about on this blog in less 101-type discussions.

And this…this is one case where you do want to read the comments. There’s so much good, honest, thoughtful dialogue here. At the risk of sounding like an old fuddy-duddy, there’s a strong feeling of connection I just don’t get from so many online conversations today.

If you have a sex and disability resource you’d like to see get more attention – a favourite article, book, academic paper, or what have you, hit the contact form at the bottom of this page and send it my way, please. Remember, I’m looking for older, or more obscure material – let’s say anything more than five years old.

Feb 202018

Sexual healthcare is vital for anyone and everyone who’s sexually active, but, between inadequate research, inaccesible buildings and equipment, inexperienced and insensitive healthcare providers, and a whole bunch of other factors, most people with disabilities aren’t getting their sexual healthcare needs met. Before I read this article from the Disability Visibility Project, I knew that logically. It’s my job to know it.

Still, after reading, I’m left without words at the level of trauma and incompetence the writer’s doctors subjected her to. She wound up having major surgery that she might not have needed had she had the same level of access to preventive gynecological care that most nondisabled folks do. I’ll let you read the rest of her story yourself. I salute this woman’s bravery! She’s been through way too much!

And, she’s not the only one. Folks of all genders face these kinds of barriers to healthcare everyday. Biases against LGBQ or transgender folks, or racist attitudes or behaviours, or stigmas against folks who are homeless or unemployed – it all happens within the healthcare system (as well as everywhere else), and can mean the difference between getting quality or lackluster care, or even getting care at all.

Every day, people with disabilities aren’t getting the healthcare they need because the healthcare system isn’t set up to serve everyone’s physical needs, and providers aren’t being trained to recognize their own unconscious biases against disability so they can treat disabled patients with proficiency, and respect.

Ad our culture’s shame around anything sex-related, and prevailing beliefs that disabled people aren’t (or shouldn’t be) sexual, into the mix, and we have a sexual and reproductive healthcare system that is basically broken for people with disabilities.

We need to change this, to ensure that researchers and clinicians know about currently available resources, to inspire researchers to investigate best gynecological practices for all bodies, to make sure healthcare providers have training and experience before they leave school, again with all minds and bodies.

Feb 102018

One of the major stressors on disabled people’s relationships is negative (or even incorrect) attitudes and beliefs about disability from outsiders. Yup, it’s the people who have no business commenting on the relationship, or who have no clue about disability, that get most in the way of disabled folks’ intimate lives and partnerships.
Sometimes it’s direct interference – such as the people who make comments about stuff that’s none of their business, or even “warn” a nondisabled person to not get too involved with the disabled person they’re dating or falling in love with

Sometimes the interference comes less from in-your-face comments, and comes more from knowing the negative unsupportive attitudes are out there – and feeling pressure to prove those assumptions wrong.

A prevailing myth about disabled people is that we don’t have a lot to offer a romantic partner, and that we’ll be an energy drain on anyone who gets involved with us. The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability puts it way more bluntly, saying that the prevailing myth about disabled people and relationships is: “People living with disabilities and chronic illnesses are pathetic choices for partners.” Sometimes people make up stories to explain to themselves what they’re seeing, turning our spouses or partners into our friends, siblings, parents, or even payed caregivers. People make up stories about how a disabled person’s inability to wash the dishes, or bathe themselves, or scrub the kitchen floor translates into that person’s inability to be a supportive, responsible partner.

There’s also this general myth about how to be a great friend, lover, life partner – or even child or sibling – really it touches any relationship we’re in, and it basically says that the way we show care towards each other involves doing things for each other. This leaves out all the emotional, psychological, and even spiritual stuff that makes up the structure of a relationship between any two (or more) human beings.

The Real Story: All relationships are about give and take, and while (sometimes) that give and take looks different when disability is thrown into the mix, there’s nothing about disabled people that makes us less able to, or less interested in, caring for our partners. There’s no rule that says that being able to wash the dishes is the only way to show your boyfriend you care, or that being able to bathe yourself without assistance is a requirement for a mutual care-filled long-term partnership.

So, yes, knowing that people believe us to be less-than (or believe us to be wonderful, just not a wonderful marriage prospect for their daughter, brother, best friend) is stressful. We’re trying to fight stereotypes, and, you know, actually do the work (and the fun) that goes along with being in a relationship. Sometimes that balancing act isn’t so balanced.

Sassy Outwater talks about this beautifully over at Acsexyble.

I reflexively almost push back too hard when in a relationship with an able-bodied partner, try to do more for myself, as if I’ve almost adopted this attitude of not wanting them to fall into a caregiver role. I have to catch myself and work really hard at not doing this, because it’s destructive to self-confidence and relationships.

Click here to read the rest of the post.

Jan 182018

It happens when parents send their gay children to “conversion therapy” to “turn them straight.” It happens when doctors withhold sexual health information, or sterilize a patient without that patient’s informed consent. It happens when the medical establishment performs medically unnecessary surgeries on babies because their genitals and other sex characteristics don’t match what medical textbooks say is “normal.” It happens when people with disabilities are denied sex education, or when disabled adults’ relationships are laughed off as “cute little friendships.” It happens when disabled people’s caregivers forbid relationships, separate lovers, and punish sexual exploration.

What happens?

People, usually people in power (like parents and teachers and doctors) are sending the loud and clear message: “We get to decide who you will be. We get to pass judgment on the essence of who you are.”

It’s not limited to people in power, though. Random strangers on the street make decisions about other people’s sexual choices, and sexual expression – it leads to everything from verbal taunts to profoundly horrific acts of violence.

What does this say? It says that the people around us – the ones we trust (or are supposed to trust), and the ones we don’t even know that some of those people believe they own our bodies.

This judgment, this control, this manipulation or ridicule – it all snapped into focus for me when I read this blog post from Dave Hingsburger, drawing parallels between the criminalization of LGBQ and transgender folks and the absolute, often punishing control, that’s been exerted over the sexual lives of people with intellectual disabilities.

It’s the idea of ownership, that people who make these sweeping and controlling judgments of sexual expression are acting like they own another person’s body, as if it’s right and normal to take this ownership, as if they have, or want, “ownership over another persons body, another persons heart and another persons choices.”

Jan 052018
A magnifying glass, for looking closer at what's right in front of us.

I wrote a while back about the multi-layered and inexcusable discrimination many disabled parents face.

There’s nothing about having a disability that makes someone less capable of parenting.ser

That feels too obvious to even say, but it’s a truth, obvious or not, that needs to be repeated over and over until people get it, until disabled parents
don’t have to fight tooth and nail to be able to care for their own children.

But, expecting and new parents with disabilities usually face doubt, or invasive questioning, or inadequate services, or loss of child custody, or months- or years-long court cases fighting for parental rights (usually while the child lives in foster care). These actions are taken, we’re told, to protect children. But these situations are usually about disability, not about child welfare. They’re about assuming that disabled adults themselves aren’t any more capable than children. They’re aboutthe lack of education legal, medical, and social service professionals get about disability, and about how that lack leaves room for personal biases. They’re about these same professionals knowingly or unknowingly setting disabled parents up to fail the “tests” put to them to judge their parenting fitness, by not providing parenting information in accessible formats (Braille, audio, large print, plain language) or by not providing accessible equipment (such as a changing table with the right set-up for a wheelchair user needs to reach everything and keep the baby safe).

Now, a new law in Illinois spells out the rights of blind and vision-impaired parents.

Under this law, social workers, lawyers and judges (and anyone else involved in child custody proceedings) won’t be able to use a parent’s blindness as evidence that they should or shouldn’t be given custody, and blindness cannot be a factor in evaluating a person’s fitness to become a foster or adoptive parent.

This law establishes “procedural safeguards that require adherence to the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

Yes, you read that right. A state law was drawn up and enacted to make sure a nearly 28-year-old federal law is followed. Not just that, but the Americans With Disabilities Act protects people with many kinds of disabilities. This law focuses only on blind parents.

Why not more inclusive? I don’t know, except to guess that whoever proposed this law has a personal stake in making sure that blind parents aren’t discriminated against. That’s awesome, but I wish they’d been more forward thinking to include all recognized disabilities, or at least some categories, such as sensory and physical disabilities.

As it stands now, this extra state protection applies to only a small part of the disabled parent population. If you’re blind, and you’re an Illinois resident, you’re good, but, knowing that disability discrimination touches everyone, and that it can have disastrous consequences when children are involved, I can’t help wishing that the time and effort taken to draw up extra legal protections couldn’t be used to create protections that are more wide-ranging.

On the hopeful side, perhaps the passing of this law will raise awareness among policy-makers and activists.


For more data on parents with disabilities in the United States, check out this post I wrote about the 2016 White House Forum on Parents With Disability. (Just an aside: It’s hard to imagine this forum happening in the current political climate.)

Or, see why I included parenting in target=”_blank”>this list of “need to know” data for healthcare providers.

Nov 142017

Last week I had the privilege of being on a panel about stigma, sexuality, and disability with Andrew Gurza and the cohosts of The Pulse.

We managed to squish a lively discussion of flirting, dating, stigma, self-disclosure, and loads more juicy stuff into a 35-minute radio segment.

The best part is that the show was recorded, and turned into a Podcast – and it’s up there on their Web site, right next to shows they’ve done on adaptive tech, travel, TV and movies – and more serious topics like the underemployment of disabled people, and the lack of services for Indigenous people with disabilities.

I really appreciate that the staff of The Pulse included a show on sexuality, acknowledging that it’s as big a part of life as all these other pieces.

You can listen to this conversation about stigma, sexuality, and disability at the following links:

Oct 212017

In 2014, I was getting ready to move across the country, so my activism was mainly limited to reading articles and joining Twitter chats. Here’s what I wrote for that year’s “Decolonizing The Anti-Miolence Movement” conversation, which coincided with Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

As always when I post these older pieces, I share this one with the caveat that my writing style, and the way I discuss and analyze social issues, has changed in the last three years. But, I do stand behind everything I’ve said here (even if I’d put it differently now) so I’ve chosen to just edit a few bits for clarity and leave the rest as is.

***Original Post Starts Here***

I’ve been taking part in the Save Wiyabi Project’s teach-ins on decolonizing the anti-violence movement. It’s hard to say important things in 140 character chunks, but we’re doing it, and I think it’s powerful. No, Twitter chats won’t change policies, but they will inform people, they will (or at least I hope they will) change the way activists do their work.

For me, talking with people of colour and Indigenous people–framing feminist issues around decolonization, poverty, community, and more–feels like coming home.

My formal feminist education (read: Women’s Studies degree) started this way.

Yes, I am beyond grateful to have had a first Nations woman, a First Nations scholar, as my first Women’s Studies professor. Some of my classmates didn’t appreciate this opportunity to learn quite so much. They objected to the amount of material about First Nations people. I guess when they signed up for Women’s Studies 100, these young women, pretty much all white and mostly middle-class, expected to learn about themselves.

Yes, Women’s (or as it’s more commonly known now) Gender Studies does give students the opportunity to learn about themselves, much as the consciousness-raising groups of the 60s and 70s did. But, I say, if you want it to be all about you, go to therapy (and that’s no dis on therapy).

After all, the class we were taking was Women’s Studies, not Feminist Studies, so talking about the experiences, histories, beliefs, thoughts of many groups of women, not just the ones whose experiences mirrored our own, not just the ones who made what is commonly remembered as feminism happen, only makes sense.

Telling the story of feminism as “this was the first wave,” “this was the second wave,” and, “Oh, look, here’s a third and fourth wave” only tells part of the story. Framing feminist issues around the issues the leaders of these movements experienced and raised only tells about some women’s lives, of some people’s lives.

I’ve always felt more at home reading feminist writings by women of colour, Indigenous people, and other marginalized groups.

There’s a resonance to WOC (women of colour)and Indigenous writers, a truth-telling that moves beyond the individual…

Maybe I feel so called to these scholars, activists, and writers because even though their work doesn’t reflect my experiences as a disabled woman, they’re a lot closer to what I experience in this world than what a lot of white, particularly white middle-class feminists, have to say. The hot button issues of many white feminists just don’t speak to me as loudly. The “glass ceiling” means something very different to people with disabilities who regularly experience job discrimination before we’re ever hired—and frequently we’re not hired. Sexual harassment on the streets means something very different when our bodies are rendered invisible—when people push past a wheelchair user carelessly bumping them in the head with a grocery bag, or talk to someone’s service dog instead of to them, for example—and sexual abuse becomes much more a threat from people who provide our physical care or are in charge of our medical treatments, education, or rehabilitation.

I think all of us who call ourselves, or have called ourselves, feminist would do better to listen to WOC and Indigenous scholars, activists, writers, speakers—not only around their own lives and experiences (because it’s not often enough that White scholars, activists, social service providers, lawmakers, do this) but around everyone’s experiences. I think we can and need to adopt a more community-oriented approach…

Decolonizing the anti-violence movement means looking critically at the state. Here the state doesn’t mean Alaska or Florida (though both those states, especially the latter, would greatly benefit from learning a thing or two about how to treat people of colour and indigenous people). Here the state refers to institutions like the criminal justice system, social services, domestic violence shelters—basically any institution run by or funded by the government.

Folks are also looking critically at the anti-violence movement—who controls it, what it’s politics are, whether it’s approaches are inclusive of everyone. Looking critically at the anti-violence movement means looking at who it doesn’t serve, and changing those imbalances. It means opening up the anti-violence movement to more diverse voices, not just the voices with the professional degrees and fancy words. It means making sure the service providers and policy makers look like the service recipients. It means not drawing artificial lines between those who help and those who are in need of help.

It’s hard to sum up everything I’ve learned from two-plus hours of nonstop tweets and reading almost two dozen articles.

Two things that came out of these conversations are that the justice system needs serious reform, and, we cannot adequately address the needs of people of colour or Indigenous people who have experienced violence without looking at the historical and cultural factors that have shaped their lives. I’m going to meander through these points a little bit here, touching on ideas that turn what I thought I knew on its head.

The current structure of the criminal justice system is harming more people than it’s helping. For a long time, I’ve bought into the logic that all abusers need to be locked away. Arresting an abuser and sending them to jail, however, often leaves the person who experienced abuse without financial or practical support. Arresting the abuser may not be what the abused person wants, may not be what is best for the household at that particular moment.

If the safest thing, and the thing the abused person wants, is to leave, they’re often limited in their choices for where to go. Domestic violence shelters, aside from frequently being full, or not culturally appropriate, aren’t open to or available to everyone. Natasha Vianna mentioned during the teach-in that many pregnant women aren’t allowed in shelters until several weeks into their pregnancies. Many shelters are not accessible to people with disabilities

Prison, in general, isn’t the answer to the problems of intimate partner violence. I was stunned to read some of the stats in this article.

  • 85-90% of women in prison have a history of being victims of violence prior to their incarceration, including domestic violence, sexual violence, and child abuse. (ACLU, 2011)
  • In California, a prison study found that 93% of the women who had killed their significant others had been abused by them. That study found that 67% of those women reported that they had been attempting to protect themselves or their children when they wound up killing their partner. (California Sin by Silence Bill, 2012)

There are more people in prisons, but the rates of sexual assault and intimate partner violence have not decreased.

The criminal justice system can do what it’s meant to—ensure justice. Lauren Chief Elk talks in this article about a law recently passed in San Francisco, requiring that all rape kits must be processed within two weeks of collection. This law doesn’t require anyone to report their assault, just makes sure that the evidence is processed in a timely manner if they do choose to report.

What it does do is make sure that individual law enforcement officers aren’t making decisions about whose rape is more valid.

Should this happen? No. Does it happen? Yes. Discrimination, racism, classism, homophobia or transphobia, moral judgments, are not absent from law enforcement.

Victim-centered justice needs to be the starting point for correcting many of these problems. No, victim is not a dirty word, not always harmful to everyone who’s experienced violence. I initially, as a young feminist, learned that it was. Not all people want to be called survivors, contrary to my previous teachings within feminist sexual assault response circles that we never disempower people by calling them victims. For some people, acknowledging they were harmed, wounded, victimized, by their abuser(s) is crucial to their understanding of themselves.

Victim-centered justice seeks to deliver the power back to the person who experienced violence, however they choose to identify themselves. Victim-centered justice: It’s not about the system. It’s not about the offender. It’s not about the people helping. It’s about the person who was abused. They’re the best experts on their lives. They’re the ones who know what’s best for them.

A victim is much less likely to reach out for help if they know that a whole social service and criminal justice process will be unleashed just by them talking to someone about what’s happening or what has happened.

Yes, many people who are abused frequently doubt their worth, and may be less likely to seek help because of that. Being victim-centered means, though, offering support without presuming what sort of help is needed. The act of offering care, support and choices can help victims find their sense of self-worth, putting them into a position to make the right choices for them at that moment.

The desire to save people is strong. The desire to not see people hurt is strong, but deciding what people need without consulting them, without learning about their lives, is likely to lose you their trust.

I don’t know how this translates when offering support to children. Most people who work with children are “mandated reporters,” which means that if a child shares that they’re being abused, the person they share this with then must contact the police, Child Protective Services, or both. How do we help children not feel betrayed when they share their biggest secret and, next thing they know, their lives are turned upside down by court proceedings, moving house, and other forms of chaos? I really don’t know.

Victim-centered justice includes believing the victim, not insisting that they provide impossible sources of proof. Victims of (intimate partner violence (IPV) are required by the criminal justice system (CJS) to meet impossible standards of proof. They’re required to produce evidence of physical or emotional injury. Short of running a hidden video/audio recording device in the home 24/7, it’s often impossible to document empirical data. Do we have to wait until someone is fighting for their life in an emergency room before we believe them?

ON the other hand, The onus is so often on the victim to escape. That thing people who don’t know any of the inner workings of a situation too often say: “She could have just left.” The prosecution in Marissa Alexander’s trial insisted, despite not having actually been there, that Marissa could have found a way to escape if she was afraid enough. It’s enough for me that she reports not having been able to escape safely. For many people in the midst of a violent event, the questions are: Escape where, escape how…will escaping put others (such as children) in danger?

Black and Native women have been bullied and harassed by the legal system since the beginning of colonized time, so the anti-violence movement’s centering of the legal system as a solution centres white women’s needs over those of black and native women.

Race has and does influence how many victims of domestic violence are perceived. Black women who’ve experienced violence have always been silenced, their experiences have been denied, or blamed on them. The dehumanization of black women, first as slaves, then as invisible but useful domestic help, has perpetuated this idea that what a black woman says just can’t be so. Historically, those times when the United States made it legal to treat black people as less than human really aren’t that far behind us.

The second leading cause of death for black women between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five is murder perpetrated by an intimate partner.

So, Black youth are experiencing high rates of IPV that escalate. Perhaps supports we already have in place are ineffective. Are they ineffective on practical levels, or on access levels; that is, do IPV victims feel comfortable, safe, and welcome in accessing existing anti-IPV infrastructure, such as shelters, support groups, social services to change circumstances like poverty, hunger, or homelessness. Do they feel like they have the power and safety in these spaces to work on figuring out what’s best for them, or do they feel cautious and on-guard?

It’d seem like mandatory arrests when police are called to a domestic violence report would be a good thing, but they’re usually not. When the police can’t figure out who the aggressor was, they frequently arrest both people, revictimizing the victim, taking both parents away from children, etc. Mandatory arrests may also take the wage-earner out of the house, as I mentioned above. Plus, murders in States with mandatory arrest laws for cases of IPV are higher than those in states without the arrest laws.
Victims realize that if they call the police, their abuser will be arrested. So, they don’t call, and abuse escalates. You can read more about that here.

Much of this discussion on decolonization of the anti-violence movement uses the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) as a starting point for dialogue.

This Act, while helping many people, has benefited certain groups over others. There’s a conflict between the anti-violence movement, which works with the state to draft things like VAWA, depends on government funding, and so on, and groups who are fighting against institutional violence, such as Indiginous people and LGBQ and trans people. For example, people of colour are unfairly targeted by the criminal justice system, and are resisting this targeting. (Yes, racial profiling does still exist, even if it’s not in written policies.) LGBQ and trans people are, and historically have been, targeted by law enforcement for presumed sexual transgressions.

The anti-violence movement is working with law enforcement, so feels reluctant to speak critically about CJS policies that harm people. Workers at domestic violence shelters and sexual assault centres are often reluctant to get too involved in a case of someone whose abusive partner works in law enforcement, because they fear that this will put them at odds with the same system they’re cooperating with on other cases. But, this means many victims don’t get served.

We need to focus on community-building. Arresting abusers and sheltering abuse victims may keep some people safe, but it also isolates people from their networks, and fractures communities. Since First nations tribes and families have been fractured by colonization, we need to do what we can to prevent fracturing from other sources. Only a couple of generations ago, First Nations children were torn from their families and sent to government-run boarding schools where their culture, their very sense of themselves, was stripped away from them. First Nations communities are still feeling the reverberations of that today, in ways only community members can truly know or understand.

The anti-violence movement has become a professionalized field, not as much of the grassroots movement it started out as…so people without the right professional credentials aren’t hired or included. Since people with economic and social advantages are usually the ones who have the most access to education and professional experience, the people working with oppressed communities are frequently not from those communities. Education is not necessary for many positions in social justice and organizing work. The education people get in schools and professional training isn’t better than the education people get through experience. People know what they need, are frequently in touch with what their communities need in ways social service providers, lawmakers, and activists who don’t belong to those communities can never be.

This brings us back to victim-centered justice, not only making plenty of space for a victim to make their own choices, but also recognizing our own biases around what sorts of choices we think they should be making. A shelter worker from a middle-class background may not be able to understand why a woman who experiences abuse in her home and who also lives at or below the poverty line chooses to stay with her abuser—who happens to bring in enough money for the family to eat adequately, if not well. The shelter worker may not be able to understand this both because she doesn’t want to see the woman hurt, but also because she viscerally cannot understand enduring physical or emotional abuse for the sake of having some kind of financial security.

Victim-centered justice involves not judging a victim, regardless of what choices they’ve made in the past, giving a victim choices, not assuming what a victim will want based on how old they are, whether they have children, etc, believe, explain what you can do and find out what the victim needs from you (that is, don’t assume what the victim needs and start giving it to them).

Victim-centered justice is not supporting the jailing of a survivor of violence who has refused to testify at the trial of her attacker.
Victim-centered justice is not saying that someone wouldn’t make a good witness to the crime that was enacted on her body so the crime won’t be prosecuted.

Here are more good practices to follow when supporting someone who has experienced violence.

What are the answers? I don’t know. I think it starts with allowing many systems of justice to work together. The criminal justice system can do what it does best—keep people safe from violent offenders. Restorative justice, which is not, as it is often portrayed, solely or even primarily about about forgiveness and reconciliation, unless the person who has experienced the violence decides is the best option for them. Communities can work on being more supportive of its members, less tolerant of violence.

People from different communities, people who have different experiences and different kinds of knowledge, need to continue to talk.

Want to learn more about decolonizing the anti-violence movement?

What is domestic/intimate partner/relationship violence?

Child survivors and victim-centered justice

Free Marissa, VAWA, and how anti-violence backfires

Jun 272017

Graphic of a hand making a thumbs-up gesture.A week ago I snuck into the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals Webinar on supporting people with intellectual disability who are lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, or something else under the label of LGBTQ+. It felt like sneaking because I don’t work with folks with intellectual or developmental disability, directly or otherwise, but, actually, I signed up like everyone else. I’d heard about the Webinar on Dave Hingsburger‘s blog and I wanted to hear what he and the other panelists had to say.

I didn’t want to take a spot from someone who needed to be there for their work, so I signed up five minutes before the talk was scheduled to start, figuring that would make everything fair! :-)

Why did I go if I’m not a direct support professional? Promoting healthy sexuality for everyone is what I do. These conversations we’re having online are just the tiniest, tiniest part of what’s happening with disabled people’s sexualities in the world. If I can be a voice, no matter how small, to bring some of that into the light, I will.

I’m not going to go through all the facts and statistics they covered in this talk. They’re all in this article (this is a PDF file) from the International Journal For Direct Support Professionals.

Don’t be put off by the word journal. This one’s easy to read – not full of scholarly words and long rambly sentences. Basically, it looks like this journal is written for busy people who need the facts as quickly as possible!

But, there were a few interesting tidbits from the Webinar I’d like to share.


It shouldn’t still need saying, but people with developmental disabilities are entitled to the same rights as all people; including (from the journal article linked above):

  • Sexuality and sexual expression
  • Dignity and respect
  • Privacy, confidentiality and freedom of association
  • Access sexual education reflective of their cultural, religious and moral values

That people with intellectual disabilities haven’t been respected in these ways has lead to tremendous harm. Dave told the story of a client who had grown up in an institution, but was living in the community when Dave met him. The client was deeply depressed, though most of his care team decided he was just unmotivated. Dave and other supportive staff eventually learned that this man had had a long-term relationship with another man with intellectual disability when he lived in the institution. This man was grieving the loss of his lover. Once understanding staff members new what was going on, the lovers were reunited.

That story had a happy ending, but it just as well could not have – and the ending might not have been any happier if the couple in question was heterosexual.

The denial that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities even have a sexuality runs so deep that just asserting their desire and right to date someone can be like them “coming out” – no matter what their sexual orientation is. For a person with an intellectual disability, just announcing that they have a crush, or are in love, or have sexual feelings and desires is met with disbelief, ridicule, rejection, punishment – no matter the gender of their crush object or lover.


This panel worked on answering: How do people with intellectual disabilities know it’s safe to talk about their sexual orientation and sex and sexuality in general?

A few quotes that jumped out at me related to how folks work with their clients:

“If you haven’t made yourself a clear ally, you’re not an ally.”

“People in your care need to feel safe from you.”

“It’s my job to earn their trust not their job to give me their trust.”

“When you push someone to have a conversation, that just becomes another kind of abusive act.”

Allow people (applies just as well to friends or family as to clients) to come forward when they feel most comfortable.

Show acceptance and willingness to listen by being nonjudgmental in other areas of their lives.

For example: Avoid judgmental comments on their preferences, such as that they shouldn’t put jam on their peanut butter and toast because it has too many calories. (Support professionals are their to support adults with intellectual disabilities with living their lives to the fullest. That means not micromanaging or taking autonomy away – making sure these adults have choices, and access to whichever choice they choose. )

People will not trust you with the bigger stuff if you’re always harping at them about the smaller things.

Direct support professionals were encouraged to figure out who will be the carrier of sexuality information at their agency. Talking about sex and sexuality is something most people are pretty bad at, and giving the right information to clients with intellectual disabilities means being able to talk comfortably about sex and comunicate details in ways clients will understand and remember.

I really appreciated how honest and down-to-earth the speakers were – acknowledging that sexuality is messy to talk about in general,. We’re dealing with all sorts of social taboos, as well as the wrong-headed thinking that has governed the way the sexuality of people with intellectual disabilities has been “managed” for centuries. That’s not something anyone can reverse overnight, or through a journal article and an hour long panel discussion. I also appreciated that they acknowledged that many agencies serving adults with intellectual disabilities still have restrictive policies around acknowledging sexuality, and that staff at those agencies probably weren’t being given access to educational seminars like this one.


As I was putting this post together, I came across this piece published in Slate last week. Really impressed with how the writer and editor chose to put this together, with the voices of folks with intellectual disability front and center.

Postscript the Second

The overall theme of this Webinar and the accompanying journal article was pride, and the article has one of the best, most direct, answer to the question: “Why isn’t there a straight pride day?” I’ve ever seen:

Because heterosexuality has never been outlawed, punished, or considered a mental illness and being heterosexual has never been cause for a child to be thrown out of a family, or for someone to lose their job or their home.

Mar 022017
A magnifying glass, for looking closer at what's right in front of us.

(Originally published on another blog in 2014. My writing voice has changed a lot since then, but I still agree with everything I said here! I have a lot more to say on disability and harassment, and am reposting this older piece here to get the conversation started.)


Every time I leave my house I may experience being seen as less-than, or incapable. I may be touched, poked or prodded, physically directed, spoken down to, stared at, pursued by people, all in the name of helpfulness and kindness.

Every time I leave my house, I may be touched without my permission, not a handshake of greeting or a tap on the shoulder, but an arm-grab, an arm around the shoulders, hands against my torso propelling me towards where it is thought I need to go, an uninvited hug. My body is used instead of words. I’m touched in these ways in the name of helping me.

All of this because I am visibly disabled, some of it because I’m a small woman.

Every time I leave my house, someone will get into my personal space when I want to be left alone—in places and at times when one would expect that I could be left alone—and yes, people do follow me. In most contexts, following a stranger is called stalking. When you’re disabled it’s called the follower being kind and concerned, or not knowing better.

When disabled folks get to talking about personal experiences, the discussion usually comes around to all the times people touch us without our permission.

We tell each other stories. There are frequent nods of recognition and rueful, sometimes amused, sometimes mirthless, laughter.

We’ve all been there.


Recently, a friend blogged about walking down a street, training her service dog, while a woman—a stranger to my friend–tracked her progress, following them in her car. One imagines that this woman must not have had anything important to do right then; one also knows how incredibly rude and creepy it is to stare at someone, and that it’s considered predatory to follow anyone without their expressed consent.

Another friend adjusts his work schedule (when he can) so as to not ride the bus at peak times, when there are likely to be more people engaging in what he calls “the grabby”–physically grabbing and directing him to an empty seat, or on or off the bus. Sometimes (not always) this grabby is accompanied by queries as to whether he needs help, but people rarely listen to his “no.”

What never seems to come up in these commiseration sessions about our experiences as disabled people in public spaces is exactly what to call what happens to us. For lack of a better term, I call it street harassment.

Unlike many forms of street harassment, what people with disabilities experience in public spaces is all but invisible, not because onlookers are accustomed to it, not because they want to pretend it’s not happening, but because most of the actions comprising this harassment are chalked up to kindness, ignorance, concern, helpfulness, or good intentions. Who wants to put down anyone’s good intentions?

How do I know it’s perceived this way? Because people make these excuses for their own and others’ behavior. Frankly, it’s tiring after a while to hear that someone getting into my personal space, or making assumptions about me, or handling my body or my mobility aid without asking is just trying to be kind, or doesn’t know any better, or thought they were being helpful.

As a human being living in North American culture, I have certain expectations of privacy and personal space. Most of us who grew up in this culture grow up expecting that we won’t be touched by random strangers, that there is a hierarchy of touching (where your new acquaintance on the bus doesn’t stroke your arm or put their hand on your back).

As a woman, I have an expectation that people will be conscious of gender in their interactions with me. I’m often startled by the way men touch me, many of whom, I would like to think, would think twice about touching women they don’t know in the ways they touch me. The touching is obvious, out there; there’d be no way to deny it if someone was trying to be sneaky and manipulative with their intrusions.

Perhaps part of the problem here, part of the disconnect, is that I am genderless in these people’s eyes. I’m disabled first, woman second. Indeed, for some, I’m disabled first, negating my womanhood and putting me somewhere in a nebulous space of being childlike but having a woman’s body and doing adult things (like going out and buying my own groceries).

it’s also tiring not having words to describe this experience, this sensation of always being on guard, for there’s no place, time, or way this might or might not happen. it just does…single women, married men, concerned citizens of all genders may think they know exactly where I want to go (without asking me, or if they ask, not waiting for an answer) or draw attention to me I don’t want or need, or blow a need or want I do have into far greater proportion than it needs to be.

Most of what I’m describing here isn’t explicitly violent, though physical and sexualized violence against people with disabilities does happen, in both private and public spaces, at alarming rates.

No, it’s not explicitly violent, but not being aware of it also paves the way, I think, for more violence. The more often something happens, the less likely people are to notice it.

Plus, it truly does unsettle me that disabled people’s space is invaded every day.; that this invasion leads to people feeling worn out, so demeaned, so reduced—and yes, so threatened by actions which onlookers see as considerate. It’s alarming that a disabled woman was surprised when her friend apologized for having to physically hustle her through an airport security line in response to TSA agents’ curtly given directions to hurry up (after all, that physical manipulation to follow the rules is seen as something that just has to be done, and we aren’t supposed to have feelings about it).

I’m sometimes alarmed by the strength of relief expressed by disabled people (including me) when a trip out in public is positive, with people talking to us like adults, respectfully assisting us only when asked and giving us loads of personal space.

We’re frequently objects of curiosity in public spaces. If it stopped at curiosity, we’d be doing fine, but that curiosity often translates into intrusiveness.