Nov 052014
 

What do you do when your abuser is also your care provider, someone who bathes you, or dresses you, or whose assistance you need if you want to leave the house or communicate with other people? What do you do if people constantly tell you not only how good a person your abuser is, but how courageous and wonderful they are for helping you? What do you do when your abuser doesn’t treat you like a human being, but neither does much of the rest of the world?

Last month was Domestic Violence Awareness Month. IN all the awareness-building, all the activism and solidarity online, I saw almost nothing about people with disabilities who are victims and survivors of relationship violence.

This absence is startling when you consider that people with disabilities are statistically more likely to experience relationship violence than nondisabled people. (And considering that what we know about the prevalence of relationship violence for people of all abilities is only the tip of the iceberg, that’s scary.)

It’s not so surprising though, that disabled people are mostly absent from awareness campaigns, when we consider that disabled people are often invisible in society, and that invisibility is often what makes intimate partner violence (or violence of any kind) possible.

When an abuser can physically control if their victim leaves the house, and whether they get to talk to anyone, or can contradict their partner’s words and be believed because their partner has trouble communicating or sometimes loses touch with reality because of their mental illness, the incidence of violence against people with disabilities becomes even more invisible.

I recently read a small, qualitative study that looked at the impacts of intimate partner violence on the lives of women with disabilities. (As with research of nondisabled people’s experiences, a lot of the material on relationship violence and disability centres on the experiences of women. Men, and people who don’t fall into the gender binary, also experience relationship violence.)

The women in this study identified abuse as the most significant health risk they faced.

We can’t ignore that!

Many policy changes in the United States are calling for healthcare providers to screen for abuse. The implications of this need to be considered carefully when it comes to disabled people. Their abuser may be with them during an appointment to facilitate care or communication, and it may be assumed that this person has to be there. It’s impossible for any victim to truthfully answer the kinds of questions suggested here, if an abuser is in the room.

These are yes/no questions, though, and most people can find a way to indicate yes or no. It’s appropriate for a healthcare provider to spend time alone with all patients. Healthcare providers need to take an active role in meeting patients’ communication needs themselves, such as by making sure whatever technology the patient uses is there with them, learning how to use that technology, or providing a sign language interpreter. (Tip: If a partner says it would just be simpler for them to speak for the patient than for the patient to communicate directly with the healthcare provider, red flags should pop up like they’re on helium. They may put it in terms of making things easier for the doctor. I’d hate to think any doctor (or other healthcare provider) would privilege their own ease over communicating with the patient, but I’ve heard of too many times when a medical office has refused to do the work of getting interpreters for patients who need them to believe that this couldn’t happen.)

Many of the health factors research has shown are prevalent in people who experience abuse may be chalked up to disability without a full evaluation being done, so healthcare providers need to check their biases and beliefs about disability and illness and give their patients comprehensive care. Sometimes, when healthcare providers are less familiar with a patient’s medical condition, they may mistakenly attribute small changes to that condition, or presume that these small changes will be less bothersome to someone with a disability. There’s also the assumption a lot of people make about disabled people’s relationships not being romantic or sexual in nature, coupled with assumptions about what abuse looks like, that could colour healthcare providers’ evaluations of whether their disabled patients could be at risk of relationship abuse.

Being abused can both cause disabilities—physical as well as psychological—and exacerbate existing impairments. Experiencing abuse can impact how people manage their impairments or medical conditions—withholding access to healthcare is a form of abuse. The physical and emotional toll of abuse can lead to stress-related illnesses, compounding abuse victims’ disabilities with additional disabilities and illnesses. (as someone with multiple disabilities, I can personally vouch for the ways that multiple impairments make it harder to mitigate being disabled in this world.)

Another key factor that came up in this study was low sexual self-esteem. When we’re constantly bombarded with airbrushed photos of models, and magazine articles telling us the 101 best ways to please our guy in bed (not everyone has—or wants– a guy, and sexual pleasure can’t be distilled into surefire tips the way, say, scrambling an egg can be.) Meeting these cultural expectations is impossible. For people with disabilities, who often cannot do sexual things the ways other people can, and the ways our culture says “real” sex can be done—and who’ve gotten repeated messages that their sexualities either don’t matter or don’t exist—having any sort of sense of sexual self-worth can be a challenge. The women in this study talked about not being physically able to meet the sexual expectations of their partners, or the expectations society has of how women should be an act sexually.

The participants in this study whose sexual self-worth was lowest were those with disabilities acquired in adulthood, changing their sense of self (sexually and otherwise) and, because of these cultural messages, making it hard to build a new, just as strong, sense of self.

Several of these women expressed that they dated men they would not have considered prior to their injuries, dated men who had criminal histories, or with whom they didn’t click, or whom they didn’t find attractive. This does not mean that they dated men who were more likely to be abusive; it says, I think, that they had perhaps turned off, or at least dimmed, their own warning signals.

Some people with disabilities may tolerate abuse in relationships out of fear that no one else will want them. Sending this message is common among abusive partners, and this form of abuse is even more insidious for people with disabilities because many have also gotten that message from friends and family. As I mentioned above, many people think that folks who get romantically involved with disabled people are a step away from sainthood, and they sometimes will undervalue the sexual, intimate, or equal partnership parts of the relationship.

Part of the structure of society’s attitudes towards the sexuality of people with disabilities is that, even if we do have sexual thoughts, we don’t and shouldn’t have the time to act on them because we’re just so darn busy being disabled. If low sexual self-esteem is a risk factor for abuse, then someone had damn well better make time for recognizing disabled people’s sexualities.

Some of the risk factors correlated with experiencing relationship violence are especially common among people with disabilities. Unemployment rates are high among people with disabilities (the study linked at the top of this post also made this connection). And, while the specific statistics vary, it’s generally understood that people with disabilities are abused, in both childhood and adulthood, at higher rates than people without disabilities.

We have a culture that makes all sorts of excuses for abusers, and all sorts of excuses for why it’s not more inclusive of people with disabilities. If we had true community accountability we wouldn’t tolerate abusive behaviour. We wouldn’t have, when a parent attempts to murder a disabled child, an outpouring of sympathy for that parent, instead of the child she harmed.We would have a culture that says: “We know life was hard for that parent, but it’s never okay to try to kill your child.” That culture would also say: “We need to do better by disabled children and those who care for them.” (Yes, I’ve been talking here about intimate partner violence, specifically, but family violence is similar in that it happens in the home, and within the family unit—both of which are considered—like romantic relationships– beyond reproach and closed to outsiders.)

We’d also have a system in place for people of all abilities, because right now, people with disabilities don’t have equal access to the system we have for intimate partner violence victims/survivors.

It’s not all doom and gloom, and WTH is wrong with this world, though. My little anti-violence activist heart skipped a beat when I discovered these twoorganizations work specifically with people with disabilities who’ve experienced relationship abuse or other forms of interpersonal violence.

On that hopeful note, I’ll close for now (though I have at least another page worth of notes about things I’d like people to know about this topic).

Oct 212014
 

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 as I did. Basically, 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, mostly 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, (and not very charitably) 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.

Decolonizing also means 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’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, classismhomophobia 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. I initially 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 working 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/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 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 benefitted 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 ttestify 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