The everyday assault of disabled women: ‘It’s inappropriate sexual touching at least once a month’

The Guardian - Thu Nov 25 11:00

Amy Kavanagh is as happy as anyone else that the world is opening up – but there is one thing she is not thrilled to be experiencing again. “As much as I’m excited to be getting out and socialising again, it comes at a cost,” she says. Kavanagh is blind and sexual harassment is as frequent in her everyday life as it is disturbing. “I get harassed in public, on the street, in shops, on public transport, in cabs and even in professional environments. Pre-pandemic, I experienced inappropriate sexual touching at least once a month,” she says.

While there has been a renewed focus on women’s safety since the deaths of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa, little attention has been paid to the harassment and violence faced by disabled women. Yet women with a disability are almost twice as likely to have experienced sexual assault (5%) as women without a disability (2.8%), according to ONS data for the two years to March 2020. This is not an anomaly; in the previous three years, the figure was 5.7%. In 2021, a survey of more than 1,000 disabled women carried out by the Trades Union Congress found that 68% had experienced sexual harassment at work. The figures constitute a hidden blight on disabled women’s lives.

Kavanagh says men often target her under the guise of assistance. “A typical experience is that someone offers to help me cross a road and, whether or not I accept, they grab me by the arm and refuse to let go. Often they will use this opportunity to touch my breasts, make inappropriate comments about my sexuality or physical appearance, or ask me personal questions about my body,” she says. She is certain that men target her because she is blind. “I can’t easily identify them, I can’t see them coming or know if they are following me or watching me.”

Amy Kavanagh
‘We don’t know whether your intentions are good or if you are the next person who might hurt or assault us’ ... Amy Kavanagh. Photograph: Kaye Ford Photography

In response, Kavanagh started a Twitter campaign under the hashtag #JustAskDontGrab. There were hundreds of responses – including deaf people sharing how people “get their attention” with inappropriate touching and wheelchair users being moved without their consent. Ruth Murran, a wheelchair user, shared an experience of a man pushing her, without warning, during a trip to a shopping centre. When another woman intervened, he claimed he was just trying to help.

While the campaign’s message seems clear, Kavanagh says “disabled people often face hostility if they don’t accept help”. This could be verbal abuse, physical violence or even sexual assault. “This is why it’s so important to listen to disabled people when you offer help, as we don’t know whether your intentions are good or if you are the next person who might hurt or assault us.”

Katie, a wheelchair user, has also faced harassment and assault in public. She has a six-month-old daughter, so hasn’t been clubbing for a while, but when she did it lurked on every dancefloor: “Pretty much every time I went out, you’d have someone grab your breasts. That was quite common.” She says the groping was “people walking past, taking an opportunity … Because I’m sat down, I think it is more anonymous.”

If she went for a date in a bar, being seated in a booth came with risks, too. “People put their hands under my clothes, things that I have not consented to. And, obviously, I am marginally more vulnerable than other women. I can’t just quickly get up.” If, in a busy venue, she transferred out of her wheelchair into another chair, it created an extra level of vulnerability, as she couldn’t get away. “When you protest, it feels dangerous; you never know how they’re going to react. So you feel like you can’t say no.”

Both women say the problem is reinforced by the ableist narrative that disabled women are not attractive – and therefore won’t be on the receiving end of sexual harassment or violence. Kavanagh says this means that, when she talks about harassment, “the first reaction I always get is disbelief. People simply can’t believe that a blind woman gets groped. Disabled women are desexualised and infantilised, so people don’t think we experience anything sexual, including unwanted negative sexual experiences.”

Katie says she would now report any harassment, but “back then I would say: ‘Well, this is just what happens.’ Part of the reason for that was that people would say: ‘Well, why are they doing that to you? Because who’s going to see you as a sexual being? Anyway, you’ve probably misinterpreted their behaviour,’ or: ‘You should be grateful.’ I’ve had both those things said to me before – by friends.”

Also, perceived vulnerability runs through the stories of all the disabled women I speak to. Sarah (not her real name) is autistic and works as a journalist. Asked to describe her experience of sexual harassment, she says: “Where do I even begin? Creepy propositions, overly sexualised comments, being invited into hotel rooms … It is very disheartening,” she says.

Sarah says the problems can start when people disclose that she is autistic to others without her consent. “People take this as: ‘Oh look – they are vulnerable,’” she says. Predators can see autistic and other disabled people as not quite people, which makes it easier to justify harassment (if only to themselves). There is often an implicit assumption that these women don’t have the intellectual capacity to recognise harassment – or to stop it. Sometimes women find their disabilities are actively used against them, such as hypersensitivity to noise being used to justify a meeting in a hotel room, rather than the lobby.

“I also find reading intentions from faces very difficult,” Sarah says. Many people, she says, are aware that this is a common feature of autism and manipulate their facial expressions in a deliberate attempt to confuse disabled women about their intentions. When an autistic woman finds she has been misled, she can be made to feel this is her fault. “I take safety extremely seriously for this reason,” Sarah says. It has made her suspicious and sometimes fearful.

For the Paralympian Anne Wafula Strike, it is hard to tell if harassers who make lewd comments about her body target her because she is a wheelchair user, a woman of colour or both. Her experience, she says, differs “depending on how I’m wearing my hair – if I want to look very African in the way I do my hair; stuff like that. And I think that, being a woman of colour, people push boundaries more, definitely.” Disabled women of colour are seen as “easy targets”, she says. While Wafula Strike is confident that she can tell the difference between “a man who is genuinely interested in me, with good intentions, and others that take advantage”, she worries that less outgoing or younger women may not.

Dr Hannah Morgan
‘Disabled women face neglect’ ... Dr Hannah Morgan. Photograph: Supplied image

Despite the statistics and testimonies from women such as Wafula Strike, Kavanagh and Sarah, none of the major women’s organisations I speak to say they can comment on the particular problems faced by disabled women. Instead, I speak to Dr Hannah Morgan, a senior lecturer at Lancaster University’s Centre for Disability Research. Disabled women face “neglect” by mainstream women’s services and anti-harassment efforts, she says.

“The impact and legacy of overprotective services” prevent disabled women from exploring their sexuality on their own terms, and separate them from the peer networks that build the confidence and knowledge to challenge inappropriate behaviour. There is also “strong evidence that disabled women have been less likely to be believed or seen as credible witnesses in a prosecution, and the false assumption that disabled women are ‘safe’ from forms of sexual harassment … because they may deviate from socially constructed norms about beauty and sexual attractiveness”.

Often, she explains, disabled women have to choose between freedom from harassment and freedom in general. What do you do if you are groped by the taxi driver who represents your only access to the high street, or the barman who puts out a pub’s portable ramp for you to meet your friends? Morgan agrees with all the other women to whom I speak: disabled women are subject to “assumptions about their ‘inherent vulnerability’ and a greater assumption that the perpetrator will get away with it”.

It can become unbearable – and has real social effects, too. “The psycho-emotional impact, or emotional toll, can lead some disabled women to reduce their potential exposure by limiting their social activities or participation in work or education,” Morgan says. In a world where inaccessibility and ableist attitudes keep disabled people out of society, sexual harassment is one more horrible reason to just stay at home.

With attitudes to disability so entrenched in society, the hope for change can seem minimal. But as we have seen this year, sharing stories can start new conversations and spark change. If we are truly to take on harassment culture, it is time to place disabled women’s experiences front and centre.