By Alexis Fabricius
Much of the literature that considers gender-based violence (GBV) prevention strategies is limited in its scope – it focuses on the experiences of women who are white, heterosexual, able-bodied, university students and misses the opportunity to consider the needs and experiences of women who are historically most vulnerable to GBV. One group that is often excluded from the research that informs the development of violence prevention programming is disabled women. This is despite the fact that they constitute one of the largest minority groups in the world, and that violence against women with disabilities occurs more often, for longer periods, and in more varied forms than it does against able-bodied women or men with disabilities. When violence prevention interventions and strategies are developed for disabled women, they typically do not do not account for the heterogeneity that is inherent within this population, thus their designs become flawed in the attempt to speak to all disabled women. Naturally, the needs of women with cognitive impairments versus physical impairments versus sensory impairments vary widely, and their experiences with violence can also differ significantly. Individualized interventions are urgently needed.
Women with sensory impairments are a group within the population of disabled women that have not historically been included in violence prevention efforts, and so I conducted a number of focus groups with twenty blind and partially sighted (B/PS) women in 2017. I asked women to share their answers to questions or statements such as: Tell me about a time you felt unsafe. What safety advice would you give to another B/PS woman? What alerted you to the fact that something was wrong? To whom do you turn when you have been victimized by violence or harassment?
From this data, it is apparent that B/PS women are acutely aware of how the sighted view them and their capabilities. They are seen as vulnerable to violence because of their disability, and the violence that they suffer is seen as a natural (though unfortunate) consequence of their impairment. This concept of vulnerability was a complex one, evidenced in the fact that the partially blind women wrestled with using vision aids (e.g. the white cane) out of the fear that it marks them as an easily identified victim, while the blind participants noted that using these same tools made securing help from the sighted easier, and that it had the added benefit of keeping them safe from environmental dangers. Thus, views of vulnerability were tied to aspects of identity, acceptance of their impairment, and experiences with the public.
Additionally, many of the B/PS women lamented that they lacked appropriate evaluative tools to determine whether or not they were in danger when a potentially threatening situation seemed to be unfolding around them. The participants described a constant state of “unknowing” – they could never be truly certain that they were safe. It is interesting to note that throughout the focus groups, many of the women would relay anecdotes of how they used alternative forms of evaluation (voice, smell, body positioning, etc.) to alert them to where a potentially dangerous person was, if they were being followed, and if they were in immediate danger, though in the next sentence would return to examples of how they were without these tools. Because we live in a heavily sighted world, it is easy to understand how secondary forms of evaluation may be looked down upon in comparison to vision, but the ingenious methods that the participants described need to be shared in the B/PS communities so that women can learn from each other and provide badly needed mutual support.
The participants also described their experiences with stranger danger. Unfortunately, the women in my focus groups shared stories that ranged from harassment to aggravated assault, and in each instance, they were targeted specifically because of their visual impairment. However, there were several discussions that centred around how seemingly benevolent strangers (those who have the intention of helping a B/PS woman) unwittingly hurt the participants or put them in harm’s way. They describe having help imposed on them (despite not having asked for it), of being led away from where they were trying to go, of being turned around and disoriented by people who thought they knew best – all of these actions become terrifying when you cannot see and do not know the person who is doing them to you. This has led to a number of the participants having a deep fear of moving through the public sphere.
Finally, the women described aspects of disablism. For one, they were unable to secure help in the aftermath of violence, particularly from women’s shelters and other community-based organizations focused on helping women who have experienced violence. The participants were instead blamed for their violence, and their disability was cited as the reason for their victimization. Thus, a number of the participants demonstrated signs of internalized oppression and victim blaming. In particular, this was seen in the ways that they discussed trying to stay safe and access justice. Many believed that they were responsible for reducing their vulnerability and that instances of violence were because they did not take appropriate action. They failed to enforce personal boundaries out of the fear of being accosted and because they do not want to dissuade a sighted person from helping out a B/PS person in the future. They also discounted themselves as reliable witnesses to the police, so they rarely sought assistance from them after having experienced violence or harassment.
Policies and violence prevention strategies that are informed by B/PS women’s experiences means developing programming that speaks to the unique needs of vulnerable women. I try as much as possible to make suggestions for institutional/policy reform and social change, as opposed to asking B/PS women to bend to the needs of a system that already disadvantages them; however, I do recognize that we must provide tools to keep B/PS women safe while we work to dismantle patriarchal and dis/ableist systems. To that end, suggestions for future violence prevention programming would include teaching women to trust in their alternative evaluative methods, and to demonstrate the value inherent in these strategies. Opportunities for networking and mentorship within the B/PS community would be helpful, as women can share strategies for staying safe in a sighted world. On a larger level, we must demand adjustments to the standing definitions of “hate crime” to include violence fuelled by dis/ableism, and we must increase access to support services for disabled women. More specifically, this means training support service staff to be able to discuss violence with disabled women, and to not engage in victim blaming and to avoid dis/ablest advice or comments. On a social scale, attitudinal and behavioural changes can be sought through increased representation of disabled women in the media, and through public education campaigns on how to interact more critically with disabled women.
The goal, ultimately, is for disabled women to not just feel safer, but for them to actually be safer; this can only be achieved by demanding real and necessary change from the larger social forces that drive dis/ableism in the first place, whether it’s through the academy, through our legal system, or through our media. This study led to tremendous personal growth for me, and I ended the resultant paper on a reflexive note, as my initial analyses and reactions to my data were steeped in unconscious ableism. After critically engaging with my data and being forced to confront some of these assumptions, I realized that the manner in which I was representing my participants was incorrect and not true to their own experiences. Being forced to critically engage with these unconscious thoughts was a rewarding learning experience for me and was one of the most beneficial aspects of this study for me on a personal level. Based on my own experience, I know that change is possible through being alerted to problematic thinking coupled with reflexivity – something that we as critical researchers must be doing constantly. It is not enough to critique the systems and methods that give rise to psychological research, but one must also engage with unconscious ideas that may taint analyses in ways that perpetuate harmful systems and ideas.
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Alexis Fabricius is a graduate student at the University of Guelph in the Applied Social Psychology program. Her undergraduate research examined how the experiences of blind and partially sighted women can be used to develop relevant violence prevention programming. Presently, Alexis’ applied work examines how gender impacts the course and outcome of women’s health experiences. Her recent research focuses on using qualitative methods and critical theory to challenge traditional approaches to interventions, programming and policy. Alexis also owns and operates a feminist women’s self-defense company, Invicta Self-Defense, and is the Co-Director of the The Feminist Connection (a network designed for the feminist psychologists across Ontario).