I ask that you please post my story on my behalf. Please include my actual name, Lisa Irving. My adversities have helped me to become a strong, compassionate woman who holds hope when others have lost it, or don’t believe hope exists anymore.
Decades ago I began to search for information about my adoption. I recall finding a letter from the adoption attorney who commended my adoptive mother for taking on the “Burdon” of caring for a “handicapped” child. The attorney’s letter was written in 1969. Fifty years later some of those perceptions have not changed much.
The first time I grasped that a stranger was cutting me with his words was when I was maybe nine years old. I don’t recall the specifics of what the grown man said to me but I remember understanding that he was putting me down because I was blind. Similar scenarios have played out and taken their toll on my spirit, chipping but not eroding my essence.
Here are just a few more examples of cruel words and ableist attitudes that have imprinted themselves within my inner-being. A college music professor, told me how helpless I looked using my cane. An “ ex” told me to, “put that thing away”. (He meant my cane). For a while I did hide my cane because I just wanted to blend in but I never blended in.
In the late 1980s a nursing home administrator who I worked for called me into her office. She privately told me that she was not going to give me “special treatment”. She went on to tell me that she would never have hired me because of my very thick glasses. Twenty years later I met up with the former administrator at an adult education class. I wanted so much to confront her but I figured she’d likely not remember, or she’d deny her ableist and heartless attitude and words.
Let’s talk about intrusive touches. A few encounters really stand out. For starters, in the mid-1970s, I left the nearby school for the blind and started seventh grade at the nearby public school. I recall standing in the front office and in walked a Special Education teacher who introduced herself as, Ms. Hudson. Ms. Hudson proceeded to put her hands on the frames of my glasses and attempted to remove them from my face. I resisted. Her words stung the insecure adolescent who just wanted to fit in at her new school. The teacher trained to help students with disabilities spoke past me and said, “feisty creature!” I wasn’t even human! I didn’t have autonomy over my developing body according to this college educated professional.
Fast-forward thirty years. I and my elementary school age son were at a cross walk waiting to cross the street. A man came up from up behind me and grabbed my arm. I screamed. I yelled for him to get his hand off of me. Of course, he self-justified his actions. I countered that I had no clue what his intentions were. I told him something to the effect that his intentions could have been to rape me. He screamed back, “who would want to rape you!” (Actually, 85% of disabled women are victims of sexual assault or rape).His inference was that I wasn’t a sexual being. I guess the stork really did deliver my son.
More recently, about several years ago I was back in the dating scene. I was interested in a well-rounded, educated and spiritual grounded man I met at church. I concluded real fast that he didn’t view me as his equal after one particular demeaning and hurtful encounter. I had asked for directions out of the worship center. This man who worked with acutely ill individuals and had a background in divinity came up from behind me; placed his hands on my shoulders and propelled and manipulated my body out of the sanctuary. I wasn’t a woman in his eyes; I was an object without consideration for emotions, feelings or relationships. On a more humorous note, I later discovered that he was already engaged. Lol.
Over the past few years I’ve become more vocal and more assertive when misguided folks opt to use their hands rather than their words. Contrary to the woman at a San Diego bank who vehemently disagreed when I informed her that I was her equal; I am and that will not change. Therefore, my body is mine and no one touches my body without my consent.
Criminologist and Co-Director of Centre for Gender Studies at University of Sussex