Category Archives: feminism

Disability Is A Feminist Issue: Gendering Health Access

When I tell people I write for a feminist site focusing on a disability issues, one of the most common responses I get is confusion. ‘What does disability,’ people ask me, ‘have to do with feminism?’ I’ve written before, very topically, about why disability is a feminist issue, and I’d hope that a lot of the content on this site backs that assertion up, considering that we’ve talked about a number of issues considered important in the feminist movement, like reproductive rights and rape, just to name two examples.

But I’d like to spend a little time drilling down into some specific aspects of disability and living with disability that tie in with feminism, very strongly, because I continue to encounter pushback when it comes to integrating disability into conversations about feminism.

Today: Gendering when it comes to access to health care and disability services. Gender inequality is a core issue in feminism and it can be seen especially clearly when it comes to disability issues, which is one reason I’m always surprised to see that people don’t consider disability a feminist issue. I’m not talking here about the gendering of disability itself, which also occurs and is a separate issue that really needs its own post to do it justice. I’m discussing gendering when it comes to who can access health care and what kind of health care people can access, and how that plays out for people with disabilities.

Let’s start with the fact that, in the United States, to access health care, you need money. You need money to pay out of pocket, or you need money to buy insurance, or you need the kind of job that includes insurance as a benefit (we’ll talk about who can access government assistance, including health care, in a moment). Guess who is likely to have less money? Women. Women of colour and nonwhite women in particular are on the bottom of a pretty incredible income disparity as a result of intersecting oppressions. When women get sick, when they are injured, when they acquire disabilities, they are less likely to be able to access treatment because they cannot afford it, they are less likely to be able to adhere to treatment because over the long term it is expensive, and they are more likely to experience complications because of issues like caring for children, trying to deal with poor access to food, and other things while also trying to get better.

Outside the United States, money can still be a profound determiner when it comes to accessing health care, because money is tied in with so many things. People with money are more likely to have pursued advanced education, to be informed about health issues, including the early warning signs of conditions in need of treatment. People with money can access care the government doesn’t cover, can afford private hospitalization, can pursue treatments that cost a lot of money, and can persist through a health crisis when it comes to demanding and getting treatment. People with money can afford that supplemental private insurance that may make the difference between being turfed off in a corner somewhere and given actual treatment. Money talks, worldwide, and women are less likely to have it, less likely to hold it, less able to earn it.

But, but, poor women can go on government assistance! Then they don’t need money to pay for health care, so everything is ok. Yeah, except, the income standards for government assistance are hopelessly skewed and hopelessly wrong. Women have to be not just poor, but really poor to quality for government assistance, and they have to stay poor. Disabled women who apply for government benefits must be willing and able to jump through a number of hoops on command; they need to pull together reams of supporting documentation, to prove they are disabled enough, and guess what the government really doesn’t like paying out benefits on? Conditions like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and fibromyalgia, which disproportionately impact women and are often dismissed as ‘not real disabilities,’ so even after doing everything right, these women might still be denied benefits.

For women who can get on disability, it’s a lifetime of poverty. The government has very strict limits about income and assets for people receiving benefits, which means that disabled women can only work very limited hours, can’t save money, and certainly can’t own any meaningful assets. ‘But they don’t need to, they’re on benefits.’ Well, poverty tends to intersect rather dramatically with a lot of feminist issues; how do you escape an abusive partner or caregiver when you have no money in savings and you can’t afford a hotel, a deposit on a new place, bus fare out of town? How can you plan for your future when you can’t save any  money? How can you pay for treatment the government doesn’t cover when you have no funds? How do you buy the meds everyone says you have to take to be a ‘contributing member of society’ when they cost hundreds of dollars every month and the government delays your benefits for mysterious reasons all its own?

Accessing health care also requires time. You need the time to sit on the phone to make appointments. You need time to go to the doctor’s office for evaluation, time to go to the pharmacy to pick up prescriptions, time to perform prescribed exercises at home, time to argue with insurance companies about benefits. Time is something women tend to lack access to because they’re often juggling a myriad of tasks. Or they’re working in the kinds of jobs where asking for time off to get medical care is frowned upon. Or they’re working multiple jobs to afford to stay alive and can’t figure out where to fit a doctor visit into their schedule. Or they have young children whom they can’t leave alone, but can’t take to the doctor, either.

And let’s talk about the fact that a number of health conditions are underdiagnosed or diagnosed too late in women as a result of gendered ideas about who gets what. Heart attacks, for example. Are often not diagnosed in women both because they are believed to be a ‘male’ health complaint, and because heart attacks in women present differently than they do in men. This means that women are more likely to experience complications from heart attacks, if they survive, because they weren’t identified early enough.

Drilling down, we can see that certain classes of people wait longer for treatment and are often provided with inadequate care when they do receive it. Often, women are among these groups; for instance, women of colour/nonwhite women and poor women tend to experience delays in accessing breast cancer treatment.  It’s notable that breast cancer is a very popular social cause, yet there are still significant disparities in terms of who can access diagnosis, treatment, and support for  breast cancer.

This is a feminist issue. Women are dying, right now, all over the world, because they can’t get the care they need, and when they access care, they are treated unequally. For women with disabilities, the gendering of health care access creates a lifetime of barriers that don’t need to be there, from being told you ‘aren’t really’ disabled to being denied care on the grounds that the problem you’re having ‘doesn’t happen to women so it must not be happening.’ Gender disparities in health care access and treatment have very real and meaningful consequences for women who are sick, as well as disabled women. They can literally be the difference between life and death.

Tell me that’s not a feminist issue. Go on.

Imperfections

I am one of those people who often cannot ask for help.

At times, I am so afraid of seeming weak, or whiny, or overly-sensitive, or dependent on other people that I tend to either ignore my own needs until I start flailing around at the last minute in order to not get overwhelmed, or minimize the possibility that some things could be going wrong. I am one of those people who needs to outwardly look like I know what I’m doing and that I have things totally under control — preferably at all times. (Intellectually, I know that this expectation is intensely unrealistic, and can be dangerous; even the most “put-together”-seeming person can be a total wreck in private.)

Part of this is a defense mechanism that I developed around the same time that I started getting made fun of in grade school for my mild cerebral palsy and the limp it caused. Somehow, I figured that if I could be perfect at something — my something being academics — and make it look effortless, other kids would stop making fun of me. This didn’t work out quite the way that I planned; regardless, I still tend to hold onto remnants of this habit.

Part of it is also my own internalization of the cultural ideals that tell people with disabilities that we must always “compensate” for the imperfect status(es) of our bodies or minds, a la the Good Cripple or Supercrip, as well as the cultural messages that tell many women that they must be “perfect” while making it look downright easy, in accordance with the current “ideal” feminine role. A great number of women are told, in ways subtle and not, that we must try to “have it all,” and do it without a drop of sweat showing. We must look good all of the time, we must wear clothes that are “flattering”, we must keep a figure that approximates whatever sort of beauty standards happen to be “in.” We must take care of others’ needs and feelings and make this our number one priority, and think about ourselves last (if at all). We must project an outward appearance of cheeriness, strength, or deference, no matter how we might actually feel. If we cannot do most or all of these things, we have failed. And when this loaded set of expectations intersects with the PWD-compensating-for-disability trope, look the hell out.

These are just a few examples, of course, and these expectations shift in various ways depending upon race, class, ability status, sexuality, gender identification, education, and a host of other factors that are often derided as being remnants of “identity politics.” Identity and its politics, however, still continue to matter.

Here’s where I am going with all of this: For the past few weeks, I have been dealing with newer and more unpleasant fibro symptoms that are starting to affect my day-to-day life. At first, I thought these symptoms were just the result of a bad day, and then a bad week, bad month, et cetera (you can probably guess as to where this leads). I wanted to believe that these symptoms were not a huge deal, and look like I knew how to deal with them until I made it back to “normal,” however tenuous that position is for me. Now that these new and interesting symptoms have become a bigger deal than I had anticipated, a lightbulb has also gone off in my head: I need to work on letting go of this all-or-nothing, but-I-should-always-have-it-together-even-when-I-don’t-and-do-not-need-help mindset.

Today, I finally made the decision to schedule a doctor’s appointment to get help with my new symptoms.

Acknowledging that I don’t have some things completely “together” and that I (gasp) need medical help with these symptoms may be a tiny first step toward changing the tape loop in my brain that tells me that I am on one side of a binary — that I am either a or b, all or nothing, need help with everything or do not ever. There is a middle ground. Until now, I haven’t been able to acknowledge that.

We also have the right to be in public

This is a guest post from Thetroubleis, a knitting, writing, dog training, queer uppity negress who enjoys writing about race, madness, disability, adoption and the intersections of the aforementioned subjects. She is a big geek who spends good deal of time raging against fandom and canon underrepresented of marginalized people and squeeing about new episodes. You can find her writing at The Trouble Is…

I’m disabled. I do weird things that bother other people. I have trouble controlling the volume of my voice and I use a service dog. I’m easily distracted and have a tendency to become very intensely focused on one thing. I hate certain buildings and noises, they make me want to crawl out of my skin or scream until it stops. I can’t tell you why they’re wrong, but I simply know they are. Sometimes, fear sinks its claws into me and doesn’t let go until its had its merry way.

These things bother abled people quite a bit. Ever since childhood, I’ve been judged for not preforming humanity correctly, as anyone who wants the basic decency afforded a real person should. Reading at the dinning table to avoid a freakout is disrespectful. Refusing to look people in the eye must mean I’m hiding something. Making my mom order for me because I couldn’t stand to talk to strangers was freaky and just not right. It cannot be allowed stand and thus, I had to be molded, to become more normal. The discomfort of others with my natural state was always more important than anything I could need.

I preform better now. Most people can’t tell I’m not neurotypical anymore, unless I’m having a panic attack or am in the arms of mania. I haven’t had a screaming fit in public in years and I walk up stairs normally now. Yet, I’m still off. Even the things I do to cope, so I won’t behave in a manner that will end with me being locked back up, are judged far too often.

This is ableism.

Knitting through stressful situations, or to keep focused, seems to really bother abled people and non-knitters. Out of courtesy to other people with attention problems, I even try to use quiet needles and keep my knitting under a desk if I’m sitting at one. Yet, every time I’ve been scolded for not paying attention, I’m simply told I’m being distracting, without any understanding that I’d be willing to work around other people’s needs. Often I’m pretty sure I’m not being scolded for being distracting, but for the possibility of it. Because what I need to do to get by is weird, so of course it’s my fault when people gawk.

I have a service dog, in training. His name is Figaro and he’s the best thing that has ever happened to me. The general public is not so sold on him. Every time we go out, snarky comments start up and I live in area that’s pretty service dog friendly, thanks to the efforts of our program and other handlers. This behavior isn’t even coming from gatekeepers, but from people who seem generally angry if they see Figaro. Admittedly, he’s not perfect, but his worst behavior is slipping out of a heel or popping up from a down. The act of him simply lying under a table while I eat seems to be an affront to the proper way of doing things.

These are just stories from my life. Other people with disabilities deal with other situations, some much, much worse than mine. Policing of behavior is a chronic thing for many PWDs, regardless of the actual effect of their behavior of other people. The abled community has its standards to uphold and some girl having her dog lay on her to calm her down is too weird to let stand. People end up locked up because of these standards. People end up dead. We end up cut off from any real support any coping methods we may have had, all in guise of conformity.

One would think feminists, who I hear aren’t too keen on the policing of womens’ behavior, would see the parallels in policing the behavior of other marginalized people. Really, truth be told, the feminist movement has never been very good at being inclusive, at understanding intersecting oppressions. Therefore, I’m not very surprised, just further disappointed. This happens time and time again in various movements sold as progressive.

All people, have the right to public spaces, even people who annoy you. Sometimes, because of conflicting access needs, compromises need to be made, but shunning people who don’t preform correctly isn’t compromise. It’s just more of the same bigotry. We no longer have ugly laws but people still attempt to enforce the spirit of them. Ableism isn’t feminism, so if you’re abled, actually listening to PWDs? It’s a capital idea.

Conversations About Body Image: A Place at the Table for Me?

Conversations about body image come up often in feminist communities, and unfortunately, many of those conversations are predicated on the dual ideas that all people should love their bodies and that lovable bodies are healthy ones. This can be seen in the language used by campaigns designed to get people thinking about body image; I can’t tell you how many ‘positive affirmations’ I have encountered that say things like ‘love your body, because it is beautiful, healthy, and strong.’ I guess people who don’t have healthy or strong bodies can’t love them, or people who actively reject beauty can’t love their bodies either. And, of course, this reads like a mandate: You must love your body, because the idea of not loving your body is highly alien, as is the idea of feeling neutral about or disassociated from your body.

For people who may dislike their bodies, for any number of reasons, these conversations end up being exclusionary, as they are often treated as ‘unenlightened’ for not loving their bodies and they are lectured in an attempt to get them to submit. For people with disabilities, an added layer of complexity is introduced, as it is assumed we do not or could not love our bodies because of our disabilities. Similar complexity can arise for some members of the trans community, who may experience inner conflict with our bodies but feel uncomfortable expressing it, for a variety of reasons ranging from fear of being perceived as spokespeople for the trans community when we are just talking about ourselves, to fear that discussing dislike/hatred for one’s body is not acceptable. Especially when encountering campaigns mandating that people love their ‘natural’  or ‘inner’ beauty, I am left with more questions than answers.

I was reminded of this by ‘Black Torso,’ the piece I featured in my post on sculpture last week. What, for example, is a breast cancer survivor who chooses to get reconstructive surgery supposed to do? The rebuilt breast is not ‘natural,’ so does that mean the patient does not love ou body? What about the breast cancer survivor who cannot afford reconstructive surgery or is not a candidate for it? Maybe ou hates the scar and is uncomfortable looking in the mirror, but feels unwelcome in body image discussions rooted in the idea that ‘love’ is mandatory for all people when engaging with their bodies.

I’d like to start deconstructing conversations about body image to make a seat at the table for people who might feel relegated to the fringes of those conversations right now, and there are a couple of angles that need to be considered with more care in conversations about body image and in campaigns designed to spark conversations about body image.

The first is the idea that everyone must love their bodies. Not all people love their bodies and they should not be required or pressured to; indeed, we should be actively creating a space for people who aren’t comfortable with the bodies they are in that doesn’t consist of ‘we will educate you into loving your body.’ We should talk, too, about the reasons why people may experience conflict with their bodies, and how social attitudes, life experiences, and other things may play a role in the relationship people have with their bodies, without singling out people or shaming them for not loving their bodies, or not loving them all the time.

The second is the idea of ‘healthy, strong, natural’ bodies being celebrated in these campaigns and focused on in language about body image. The fact is that not all bodies are healthy, strong, or natural. Health is something that changes over time from person to person, and while some people may always have healthy bodies, others do not. ‘Natural’ is also not necessarily something everyone possesses, and I dislike the idea that a body needs to be ‘natural’ (who is defining this, incidentally?) in order to be celebrated.

Finally, we have these really complicated intersections between body image and disability, compounded by a lot of social attitudes about disability. Disability is scary, so disabled bodies are scary, and I notice that many body image conversations leave out people with disabilities, because no one knows what to do with us. Looking through many of the responses to the American Able art project, I was struck by the fact that many people were uncomfortable with viewing a disabled body, especially in the context of desirability. If our bodies are so frightening that people can’t see them on television and in ad campaigns, it shouldn’t surprise me that people have trouble fitting us in to discussions about body image.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of room, in body image conversations, for people who may feel conflicted about their bodies, for people who reject a lot of the ‘affirmations’ promoted, for people who may not fit into the categories some participants in these conversations assume apply to everyone. Are there exceptions to these rules? Conversations where people are thinking about issues like disability and the rejection of beauty? Yes, there absolutely are, but they are exceptions, not the norm, and that is a trend I would like to reverse.

This is what we talk about when we talk about working towards the neutral place; creating a space where bodies and identities are neutral, so there is room for everyone, room for all relationships between people and their bodies, room for people at all levels of exploring their identities and their bodies.

Pap smears, fat-shaming, and the lithotomy trap

[X-posted at Hoyden About Town]

So I’m sitting watching the evening news, and on comes a chap telling us women and girls that we oughtta go and get more Pap smears. Then on comes a woman to talk about how Pap screening rates are going down in young women, and to speculate about possible causes for this. The cervical cancer vaccine comes up, as does the “awkwardness” of the test, and our inappropriate embarrassment, which we apparently need to get over.

What I don’t hear addressed in the mainstream media in these discussions of Pap screening? Well, lots of things, like heterosexism, and ignorance about Pap age/sexual experience guidelines, and sexual assault (inside and outside the medical system). However, the one that really stood out in my mind today is also a factor that isn’t going to be fixed by lecturing women. Fatphobic abuse in the medical system.

There has been a fair bit of talk around the feminist traps about some of the other factors, especially the aftermath of sexual assault and its effects on medical interactions. I’m not going to go into that in this post, but it’s a huge, huge issue. What I would like to talk about for a moment, not because it’s more important but just because I have a first-person anecdote, is medical fatphobia.

We know fatphobia kills. In all sorts of ways, in all sorts of settings. And one way in which it can kill is the horrendous tendency of doctors – quite a few doctors, from the stories I hear around the place – to trap women and girls on their backs so that they can shame them while they’re vulnerable. And what they don’t realise, or don’t care about, is just how long-lasting the effects of this can be – and not in a good way.

Medical education materials abound with motherhood statements about ‘Preventive Medicine’ and ‘Lifestyle Intervention’ and ‘Opportunistic Behavioural Education’. General practitioners are exhorted, over and over again, to take any and all opportunities they can to tell people they’re fat. Really, over and over. And OVER. And doctors, labouring under the mistaken impression that this will cause said people to magically become skinny and therefore ‘healthy’, go ahead and do it, then smugly boast about it between themselves, sighing about how no-one ever listens to them. Or, perhaps, under the impression that they can then self-satisfiedly sit back and tick a box on the chart about how they’ve engaged in initial Lifestyle Education, which they learned all about at the last Lap-Band seminar.

Medical education is a powerful, powerful matrix of fat hate, based on the twin premises that telling people they’re fat is (a) helpful and (b) harmless.

So let’s talk about how that plays out in practice:

When I was 19, I had a Pap smear. It was my first. I went to the nearest available doctor, who worked in a setting where they dealt with a late of people in late adolescence and early adulthood. I wasn’t particularly concerned about it; a very little vague unease at the unknown, but no particular trepidation. I didn’t bother taking anyone with me, and I just booked the appointment in between other things I had to do, like med school classes and whatnot. And off I went.

I got my Pill script, had my BP taken, then assumed the position. And the doctor came up into his position, as they do, then stopped.

He looked at my thigh. “Not quite the right spot,” I thought, “but hey, he probably knows what I’m doing more than I do.”

Then he touched my thigh. Around the middle, underneath (in lithotomy position).

Then he JIGGLED IT.

He jiggled my thigh.

And then he grimaced.

And then he did the Pap smear. I was frozen, completely unable (by my inexperience, position, and by general medical disempowerment) to say anything.

And then I fled.

Was I ‘traumatised’? I didn’t have nightmares. I went and got my next Pap smear dutifully, largely because I really didn’t have any choice – no Pap smear, no Pill script. (Ask me about contraceptive hostage-taking! You know you want to!)

But every time I get a Pap smear, every single time, even now more than twenty years later, I see his face. I see him jiggling my thigh with that look of disgust. Every time I lie down and spread my legs for the speculum, I am reminded of exactly how repugnant my body is.

My first impulse is to tell you exactly how fat I wasn’t, back then. To tell you that it wasn’t ok for him to do that because I was physically fit at the time. To tell you at length about how my aerobic capacity was at the 95th centile, that I could do a hundred pushups, that I could swim a k without stopping, that I was beating my fit male friends at squash, that I was getting State medals in my chosen sport. But that’s all irrelevant – because fat-shaming isn’t ok for people who are actually fat any more than it’s ok for people who aren’t. Fat-shaming doesn’t get a pass when it’s limited to people as fat as I am now, or twice as fat as me, or whatever. Fat-shaming isn’t bad because it’s directed at inbetweenies as well as at fat people. Fat-shaming is harmful for EVERYONE. Fat-shaming is not.ok.

As long as some doctors keep seeing lithotomy position as a prime opportunity to ladle on the shame, girls and women are going to avoid Pap smears. So hey, ball’s in your court, medical profession. Fix it. Get your own house in order, and meanwhile, stop telling US we’re the ones doing it wrong.

Reproductive Justice is for Everyone, Even People You Don’t Like

There’s a sign on the wall of a local clinic which says, according to my paraphrasing memory:

You have the right to decide if you want to have children or not, and to determine their number, timing, and spacing.

The clinic provides reproductive health services to low income members of the community, and plays an important role in ensuring that people have access to everything from safer sex supplies to prenatal care. I’m a big fan of theirs, and I’m a big fan of that sign, which I think embodies the core of reproductive rights and justice. Everyone has the right to make decisions about their own bodies, and one of the core values of the reproductive rights movement should be supporting people in this. Supporting all people, leading all kinds of lives, making all kinds of decisions.

Educating people so they can make more informed choices. Helping people access services to allow them to carry out the choices they are making, whether that’s a decision to get an abortion or to have a child or to get some birth control. Fighting sexual assault and rape as violations to bodily autonomy.

Recognising that while a choice might not be one you would make personally, you can still support someone in making that choice, and you can still enable that person’s ability to make decisions freely. As soon as we start making decisions about the ‘right’ kind of families and the ‘right’ number of children and the ‘right’ number of abortions to have, the concept of reproductive justice starts to fall apart. Who decides these things? Who is the arbiter of whether someone is making the ‘right’ choices?

There’s one group that gets left out of a lot of reproductive justice discussions: People with disabilities.

I’ve seen the decision to have a child with disabilities compared to child abuse, whether we’re talking about a child with a prenatal diagnosis, or a child born to parents with an increased risk of having a child with disabilities. I’ve seen disabled parents treated as though they are committing child abuse simply by being disabled, and being parents. I’ve seen people act like people with disabilities don’t need access to sexual education, because obviously we don’t have sex. I very rarely see any of these actions labeled as what they are, which is ableism.

Denial of reproductive rights to people with disabilities is ableism. Denial of our needs in the reproductive justice discussion is also ableism. Telling us we don’t belong at the table is ableism. We deserve reproductive justice too, and we have needs that are not being addressed by the current reproductive rights movement.

One of the problems with attempting to bring disability into reproductive justice conversations is that people act like the issues we cite are things of the past; they aren’t important, because they don’t happen anymore. People with disabilities are never involuntarily sterilised to prevent them from having children. Children are never taken from disabled parents. People are never shamed for deciding to continue pregnancies when a prenatal diagnosis indicates that the baby will be born with disabilities.

Well, these things are not in the past. They are happening right now.

A few recent cases from here in the United States: A child was taken from blind parents, solely because her parents were blind. It took intervention on the part of the National Federation of the Blind to restore the child to her home. The children of a disabled woman were denied visitation rights on the grounds that it would upset them to see their mother. A quadriplegic woman was told she couldn’t be a good parent. These are just three recent, high profile cases where parents were told they couldn’t care for their children because of their disabilities. Believe me, there’s more where that came from.

As for forcible sterilisation, the Ashley X case attracted a great deal of attention in feminist communities, but it’s far from the only one. Last week, we linked to a story about drugs that suppress sexual desire being used in autism ‘treatment.’ In Central and South America, forcible sterilisation, particularly of Indigenous women, is widespread and the United States has a history of sterilising Indigenous women as well. Tessa Savicki, a Massachusetts mother of nine, is suing after a hospital sterilised her without her consent during an unrelated medical procedure in 2006.

If sterilisation of people with disabilities isn’t a problem anymore, how come someone wrote a bill in 2009 to bar forced sterilisation of people with disabilities?

In a conversation at dinner the other night, I had to physically restrain myself when one of the people at the table attempted to argue that a mutual acquaintance was being ‘irresponsible’ by having a child at her age, ‘because it might be born disabled.’ This is not the only conversation like that I’ve witnessed, on or offline.

For people with disabilities, the reproductive justice discussion is extremely personal. People debate whether we should be allowed to have children, people believe that compromising our bodily autonomy is acceptable for the ‘greater good,’ and people debate whether or not we should have been born. For people who were born with disabilities, hearing people claim that parents having disabled children is akin to child abuse is rather appalling.

The thing about reproductive justice is that it’s not just for the people you like and the people you agree with. It’s not just for young, nondisabled, cisgender women who want to use birth control right now and have access to abortions, with the possibility of having children later. It’s also for parents of large families. It’s also for disabled parents. It’s also for religious parents. It’s also for disabled children. It’s also for people who are not interested in having children. It’s for everyone living in a body, no matter what kind of body it is, no matter what kind of life that person leads. Reproductive justice, true justice, should be all-encompassing.

Excluding people with disabilities from the conversation by either being actively hostile or dismissing our concerns is not reproductive justice.

Disability and Domestic Violence Apologism

Content note: This post discusses a domestic violence case involving a woman with disabilities, and includes details on domestic violence apologism as well as threats made in the court room.

Disability and domestic violence are intersecting issues with very serious consequences. People with disabilities are more likely to experience domestic violence and we are also less likely to receive assistance. We may be afraid of reporting, we may not be believed when we do report, and when our cases do go to court, sometimes the attorneys supposedly prosecuting our abusers engage in domestic violence apologism.

A recent court case in England is a classic example of what often plays out when people with disabilities are abused and report it. Two pensioners were married for 37 years. In 2003, the wife[1. The news story names the individuals involved in this case, but I prefer not to.] experienced a stroke. Seven years later, her husband started abusing her, because he apparently decided that her disability was an ‘act.’

On May 9 at about 11am [she] was sitting at the lounge table doing some paperwork. Earlier she had put some logs on a woodburner. He came in and said was she trying to burn the house down and then hit her around the head three or four times. She grabbed the phone to call the police but he took it off her and threw it in the fire. She then left the house and tried to get in her car but he took the keys.

‘She got in anyway and locked herself inside. He then drove his car in front of hers to block it, not that she could get anywhere as she didn’t have any keys. She called the day centre and her daughter for help. After about half an hour her daughter and son arrived.’

The next day, she reported her abuse to social services, and it ended up in court. Here’s what the defense said about the husband’s actions:

‘He couldn’t get any help with her because where they live is so remote so they were stuck together and the frustrations built.’

This type of apologism comes up a lot. ‘She made me do it’ is a classic excuse used for domestic violence regardless of disability status, and with disability in particular, it’s very popular, evidently, to make claims that it was the disability that drove the abuser into becoming abusive. This naturally legitimises abuse, because while people condemn it on the surface, they secretly think things like ‘well, he was under lots of pressure’ or ‘I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a caregiver’ or ‘it must be so hard to have no help.’ Caregiver abuse becomes acceptable because, well, disability is just such a burden and it’s so hard and they didn’t get the services they needed.

Caregiver abuse doesn’t stop with cases like the one above. There have been a number of cases this year alone where caregivers have killed people and it’s reported in the media as a tragedy for the caregiver. Courts tend to return more lenient verdicts to abusers and murderers when disability is involved, because of ‘unusual circumstances.’ And people wonder why some people with disabilities are concerned about caregiver abuse. When abuse of people with disabilities is painted as something sad or hard for their families to deal with, instead of abuse of human beings, when caregivers are given lenient sentences because ‘the disability drove them to it,’ it normalises caregiver abuse.

It’s bad enough that the defense and, apparently, the court in this case thought that the husband was somehow justified in behaving abusively towards his wife because she was disabled. The prosecutor also had to join in:

That day when he told her off about the fire, she gave him cheek so he slapped her.

Where have I heard this before? Oh, only in every single reported case of domestic violence ever. Was it really necessary for the prosecutor to hop on the victim-blaming bandwagon too? When the media and defense attorneys constantly parrot lines like this, it reinforces the idea that some people just deserve domestic violence, and when the prosecution joins in, it, well, it makes me really angry.

Because, guess what? No one deserves domestic violence. No matter how much cheek or lip or sass or anything else is involved. No person deserves to be hit. No person deserves to be deprived of mobility. No person deserves to sit in court while the attorney supposedly acting in her interests suggests that, well, she kinda deserved it.

Oh, but this case gets worse.

The 68-year-old was ordered to pay £150 compensation to [her] but he told the court that, as they had a joint account, he would hand it over to her and she would simply put it back in the bank.

Economic abuse is extremely common in domestic violence situations, especially when they involve people with disabilities. The fact that this man openly admitted in court to the fact that he would do this shows me exactly how much contempt he had for the court, the law, and his own wife. And the fact that the court didn’t sit up and take notice is a sad but not surprising reminder of how often people turn their heads in the other direction in the face of domestic violence and abuse.

The victim has been relocated and, from what I understand from the article, is living independently with an aide. That’s the one bright spot here: Too often in cases like this, the victim is forced to return to the abuser.

Quick Hit: In US, Women Hit Hardest by Medical Debt

From a post at Change.org:

According to a study (pdf) by the Commonwealth Fund, in 2007, 33 percent of working-age women, compared to 25 percent of men, faced medical bills that left them unable to pay for food, rent or heat; caused them to take out a mortgage on their home or take on credit card debt; or used up all their savings. Economists can’t agree on the precise number, but medical expenses account for somewhere between one third and two thirds of bankruptcies in the U.S. The damage isn’t just financial — once the debt is acquired, people are less likely to seek continued care.

This is a US only study, and is influenced in large part by the health care policies and costs here in the US, but I would not be surprised to find that whatever medical costs exist in a country fall disproportionately hard on women with disabilities.

Quoted: Audre Lorde

The supposition that one [group] needs the other’s acquiescence in order to exist prevents both from moving together as self-defined persons toward a common goal. This kind of action is a prevalent error among oppressed peoples. It is based upon the false notion that there is only a limited and particular amount of freedom that must be divided up between us, with the largest and juiciest pieces of liberty going as spoils to the victor or the stronger. So instead of joining together to fight for more, we quarrel between ourselves for a larger slice of the one pie.

— “Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving” (1978), in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (The Crossing Press, 1984)

It’s Always More Complicated: The “Justified” Abortion

[Trigger warning for “disabled child = burden” narrative.]

Last night I was reading several pro-choice tumblrs, one of which had linked to “The Choice“.

What makes us human? When is a life worth living? Worth ending? How much suffering is bearable? Is avoiding suffering brave or is it cowardice? When is abortion justified?

Should Fred be born, my wife would never return to work. My daughters would always come second. Some basic research online and asking friends in health roles showed a high chance of divorce before my son was a teenager, the stress of care literally tearing our family apart. Every news article we read showed little or no government support, with charities closing their doors. The doctors were encouraging about support; the real life carers we spoke to, not so much.

I’d never support killing a born child on any grounds. Yet here I was, suggesting death for a child almost born. I may not be a good man, but I’m a husband and a father. Had we not known, I’d be living with Fred’s condition today; but we take the tests so we can act on the information received.

So, let a bad man say the words that will condemn me: Fred’s life would have been less than human. It would have been filled with love, yes, but mostly loneliness, confusion, pain and frustration. The risk to my marriage and the welfare of my daughters was too much. I chose to minimise suffering. For my wife, for my daughters, for myself and most of all for Fred, I chose abortion. It was a choice of love.

I have complex reactions to this that are not really easy to talk about, but the one thing I do want to make clear:

Abortions do not need to be justified.

I know there are strong political and advocacy reasons why stories like these – the so-called “justified” abortion – are told whenever people talk about abortion and the law. They are “good” abortion stories, with the happy family, the desperately wanted child, the “horrors” for everyone had the abortion not been performed.

I struggle with these sorts of stories because I don’t know a way to talk about them. I want to talk about the way that disability is discussed in them – always, always, as horrible, as tearing families apart. And yet, these are people’s lives. I don’t think in any way they made a “wrong” or “bad” choice, or a “brave” one, either. They made the “right” choice, in that it was the “right” choice for their family, and I fear that talking about the language used is abusive. You’ve shared your painful story, your very personal story, and I want to now talk about disability and how it’s used to score points in the so-called abortion debate.

And yet, I desperately do.

I deeply resent the way anti-choice advocates point at people with disabilities and talk about how they’ll all be eliminated if we allow abortion-on-demand. The sheer amount of hate directed at Don when he goes to pro-choice rallies by the anti-choice contingent, because they see him as a traitor to their cause, is amazing to me.[1. Of course, they direct more at any pregnant pro-choice women – there’s a video clip from Toronto last year with someone telling a pregnant woman “I hope your child kills you”.]

I don’t see these same people at protests and demonstrations about making Halifax an accessible city. I don’t see them at demonstrations about improving health care options. I don’t see them doing anything for people with disabilities except using them as pawns, and I loathe them for it.

And yet, many pro-choice advocates also use people with disabilities as pawns in these so-called debates. They hold up stories of fetal abnormalities as “justified abortion”, as the acceptable test-case, the one they know the general public is likely to agree with. I see no analysis, no discussion, of the ableist nature of this narrative. It’s an acceptable justified abortion because the fetus was abnormal, and who wants a broken child that’s going to ruin everyone’s life?

All abortions are justified.

It troubles me so much that it’s only the “abnormal” fetuses that are okay to use as abortion stories.

[Originally published on my tumblr]

[Note: Things we are not going to do in this thread: Debate whether or not abortion is “okay”. Publish shaming comments towards women who have abortions. Talk about people with disabilities as burdens. Discuss individual actions as though they occur in a complete vacuum and are not influenced by societal attitudes and pressures.]