We are not to be believed

This post is going to talk in non-explicit ways about the sexual abuse of children with disabilities, and the inclination of people to not believe them.

Writing about the history of people with disabilities is often a process of reading between the lines. Surviving records tend to be written by non-disabled people in positions of power, with the only surviving writing from actual disabled people being those approved of by others.

My specific historic interest is in residential schools for people with disabilities in the Atlantic region of Canada in nineteenth century. I spent a lot of time last year trying to read between the lines, to sort out what really happened in the Nova Scotia School for the Deaf and Dumb when the second principal of the school was suddenly unceremoniously fired two years into his contract, with many records from his tenure there destroyed.

This may seem like an odd thing to bring up right now. Whatever scandal caused the school to fire him – and I argued in my thesis that it was because of his support for a specific method of teaching that was not approved of by the Board of Directors – it shouldn’t matter now. Everyone involved is dead, and the records can’t tell me much when they’ve been cut out of the record book with a razor at some indeterminate point in the past.

We’re trained to look for supporting documents, and I found my way to the New Brunswick Hansard (the recording of speeches in the Legislative Assembly) where Mr Woodbridge is mentioned quite extensively after a law suit was brought against him. I have yet to find the true nature of the allegations, since the men standing up to defend him considered the allegations so spurious, so scandalous, so without merit that they would not even name them, saying only that the girl who had brought the charges – she also was not named – had disappeared, thus proving that the charges were spurious.

For those of us who read narratives of childhood abuse in residential schools, this is a very familiar way of “dealing” with the problem.

I was thinking of this story when many people emailed me the following news report: Ex-students claim abuse at N.S. schools for deaf.

“The children were easily victimized because they were cut off from their families and also really cut off in a sense because of language, so they were perfect victims for sexual wrongdoing,” said Tony Merchant, the Saskatchewan-based lawyer handling the suit.

The comments, as all comments are on any discussion of charges of sexual abuse, are full of disbelieve and distrust.

I think of this, and I think of the distressing results of the only study in Canada that attempted to discover the abuse of people with disabilities in any form of institutionalised “care”. This PDF outlines their results on Page 3. To sum it up: Most people with disabilities, especially women, will be sexually abused in their lifetimes.

And we are not believed.

I look at the destroyed records in Halifax, and at the brief mentions I can find of accusations against Mr Woodbridge in 1886, and the accusations that former students are bringing against the school from the 1950s and 60s, and I wonder, truly, how many more people are not stepping forward because they know they won’t be believed.

ETA: People are discussing very specific and graphic examples of abuse of people with disabilities in the comments.

5 thoughts on “We are not to be believed

  1. I know two blind women who said they were sexually abused or raped in blind schools, both at the age of 14, one in Nova Scotia in the mid-1990s and the other in Indiana some time in the late 1980s. In the Indiana case, the boy was prosecuted but the judge refused to convict essentially because he could not trust a blind girl to identify her assailant correctly. The lady who was raped in the NS blind school told me that the pupil responsible was never dealt with and went on to abuse other girls.

    I was in a special school for boys with behavioural problems from 1989 to 1993 and my own blog has become a sounding board for complaints about that school and another school in the 1980s and 1990s. Mostly it’s about staff brutality; I can’t afford to have people suing me for allowing others to call them paedophiles, unfortunately, but some have done. At my school, the bullying was rife (the staff pretty much encouraged it) and accountability was pretty much non-existent, and there was (what was believed to be) a sexual assault of some kind in the junior dorms in 1991. For whatever reason, the school took both boys back and told everyone to basically shut up because we didn’t know the half of it. As you might expect, rumours continued to fly around and the alleged attacker was branded a rapist and was used as the school punchbag for some time afterwards.

    I’m also amazed by how short the sentences are for decrepit old child abusers when they do get brought to book. In November 2007, a former headmaster of a special boarding school in Norfolk (a county in eastern England) got a two-year suspended sentence (meaning he would serve it only if he got into trouble again) for cruelty to children, which included inducing children to fight each other in public, to destroy their own birthday presents and to eat their own vomit.

    Former pupils said that the man should have gone to prison. Speaking personally, there are a lot of post-traumatic stress issues which come out of this kind of experience even if the individual incidents seem (to onlookers) fairly trivial at the time.

  2. Matthew, I’m so sorry. I know that sounds pathetic, but I am. I know these things go on, and far worse than we’re likely to get into here. But we are, of course, not to be trusted when we talk about it.

  3. From some knowledge of legal psychology I have to point out that, while unwarranted disbelief is of course not acceptable, reconstruction of alleged sexual abuse by non-trained people (ie. anyone other than the police or someone else authorized for criminal investigation where the incident occurred) should be kept to a minimum. This means that, rather than starting their own lay investigations, for example, institutions where students may be sexually abused should get the polic einvolved as quickly as possible to construe as uncontaminateTd as possible an accusation fromt he victim. Any aftercare should also take into account the risk of the victim being potentially led into accusations that are not true. This is not anything the victim can be blamed for, but a result of the way our memory works and responds to suggestion. This caution is also not merely for the sake of the suspected perpetrator, but also for the sake of the victim, since they would run a risk of being disbelieved in the legal system if it turned out there is any risk of “collaborative storytelling” (the process by which a victim constructs a possibly false story of what happens because of too much input from other people).

    IN fact, in the Netherlands there is some worry among legal psychologists that sexual abuse suspects are getting too little legal protection especially in situations where the alleged sexual abuse happened in power dynamics (such as at institutions). There are strict guidelines (which are not always followed) at the advice of legal psychologists on how accusations of sexual abuse in situations of power should be handled by police. These sound somewhat devaluing to the victims, but it is allegedly to prevent the increased risk of false accusations. Of course, it may seem this is the age-old “but I know someone who *really* faked!” argument.

  4. I have plenty of experience with this. My ex-husband turned stalker, and the man who tried to murder me was not arrested or booked on any charges despite my request because I am disabled. He caged me, he starved me, and he did other things I cannot yet put into words. He tried to break me, and even had an electric knife, plastic sheeting, rope, duct tape, latex gloves (forbidden in the house due to my severe allergy), a hammer and those huge black trashbags all in our kitchen over our stove out of my reach too. He said he would kill me. He had the means. They had proof of his crimes…

    Yet because I am disabled he is still out there. I am stuck in a limbo of fear, because until he commits another crime, comes after me, or dies they won’t touch him. They could never find him to serve the restraining order after they let him go. I was told that I couldn’t do anything. i had to give up my life, I had to give up so much just to stay alive, because no one will believe me because I have no voice.

    Of course, he turned out to have preyed upon other disabled women, I am not alone as a victim but, none of them were believed either. He confessed things to me, thinking I could never tell. Pedofilia among them. He stole money from me. He forged my signature on documents relating to the government that cost them money, but I am the one who may be held liable in a court of law if anyone is.

    All because I am the victim and i am disabled.

  5. Greetings all, I’m the person from Indiana that Yusuf was referring to. And if I remember correctly, when I was sexually assaulted at the school, the superintendent, dean of students, etc., tried to convince my parents not to press charges. And they said it was my decision, and I said that I wanted to press charges, because something wrong had been done and I wanted justice. So I can’t tell you how angry and upset I was, to hear that the judge thought that the boy was guilty, but because I was blind and couldn’t identify the person by sight, although I could by voice, he didn’t feel he could find him guilty. Let me tell you, I definitely can see how women, whether disabled or not, don’t report sexual assult, and God forbid if it ever happens to me again, I’ll have to think long and hard as to whether or not I’ll report it, because what good is reporting when you don’t get any justice most of the time?

    I was also verbally and I’d also say emotionally abused by a houseparent there for two years, and I was literally told by the staff that I was lying about it, and when my family almost sent me to public school because of it, they literally sat me down, took me out of school/class and sat me down with my teacher, the dean of students, head of the elementary department, and told me thta I’d never make it in public school, and that I was just amking a big deal about things anyway, so stop going home and telling my parents all of these things, because they were just exaggerations anyway.

    And I have to tell you that that whole series of events has done a number on my self-esteem, my feelings of self-worth, etc., that I’m still in my mid 30’s trying to come to grips with.
    .-= Ginny┬┤s last blog ..Discrimination in Oakland? =-.

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