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.