Our Stories Matter: A Reflection on Disability and Assault

July is Disability Pride Month, and disabilities can and do interact with relationship abuse in many ways. Carrie is a member of the Safe Passage community who has chosen to share parts of her story as a survivor with a disability. All names have been changed to protect identities.

Content warnings: sexual assault, ableism.

In Disney movies, there is a classic romance moment where the guy tucks a strand of the girl’s hair behind her ear before leaning in to kiss her (Disney’s heteronormativity, as always). Growing up deaf and using hearing technology, this moment always disappointed me. I knew that I would never have this pre-kiss instance.

If someone tries to tuck a strand of my hair behind my ear, they knock my cochlear implant off of my head. Then we have an awkward shuffle of my fingers to grab it and put it back in place. By that time, we’ve both been reminded of my disability, and the romance has passed.

Graphic that reads: I still hold my breath in front of others when I cannot hear, terrified of the noise my lungs may be making.

Society teaches us that disability can be a turn off.

This is one example of how I grew up thinking I was less-than because of my disability. I continue to struggle with it, and often feel that people are doing me a favor by being romantically interested in me.  

Disability Justice found that 83% of women with disabilities are sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, and 19.7% women with disabilities have undesired sexual experiences with their partners (compared to 8.2% of able-bodied women). It’s important to acknowledge that these statistics conform to a binary gender model. I identify as a disabled cisgender female and find these numbers relevant to my life, but I recognize that they don’t reflect everyone.

When I was 17, I had my first serious boyfriend. We moved very fast sexually—I was thrilled to feel desired. I felt undeserving of his interest in me, and he quickly caught onto this. Soon enough, he began using my disability as a weapon against me. He would make fun of me when I misheard him, and tell me my Deaf accent sounded weird when my technology was off. Once, he said that I breathed too loudly when I couldn’t hear. I still hold my breath in front of others when I cannot hear, terrified of the noise my lungs may be making.  

I became convinced that no one else would want me—who wants to repeat every joke? Who wants to pause the movie in order to have a side conversation? Who wants to accommodate my disability if they don’t have to?

Graphic that reads: I felt indebted to him for tolerating me and my disability, and so I gave him anything he wanted, even if I wasn't comfortable with it.

Society teaches us that disability is not desirable.

I felt indebted to him for tolerating me and my disability, so I gave him anything he wanted, even if I wasn’t comfortable with it. It did not occur to me that the 83% chance of becoming a person with a disability who experienced sexual assault was inching closer.

Almost a year into the relationship, I told him “no” for the first time. He wanted to have sex with me in a position where I could not see his face. I wanted to be able to read his lips, otherwise I felt unsafe. But he didn’t care what I wanted. He proceeded to sexually assault me, holding me down despite my attempts to lunge away from him.

That day, the 83% that I had been running from caught up to me. The irony of it is that in asking for accommodation of my disability, in telling him I couldn’t hear him, he made it clear that he heard me and he silenced me. He chose to be deaf to me in that moment.  

I pass for hearing nearly everywhere I go.

I have grown up with hearing technology, I do not sign fluent ASL, I communicate orally, and I do not generally have a Deaf accent. When people learn that I am deaf, they usually respond to me with: “No, you’re not!” or “But how? You speak so well,” or “Well, you’re not really disabled though, right?” I tend to keep my mouth shut to these replies, exhausted from trying to prove that I can navigate the hearing world and still struggle with my disability while doing it. 

I go above and beyond to accommodate hearing people: I read lips, find each speaker, identify which background noises are coming from where and which ones are important, watch for body language and facial expressions, translate each individual person’s way of speaking upon meeting them, search through accents and dialects, and distinguish between mouth shapes and eyebrow arches. Through all of that, when I ask for someone to repeat themselves, I am often still met with annoyance.

Graphic that reads: Society teaches us that disability is not desirable.

It took a year for me to gather the courage to report the rape.

The response was essentially nonexistent, and I felt silenced again. Looking back on that time, I wish I had thought to ask for help from an organization like Safe Passage. I needed support and was met with closed ears. I felt scared to report, fearing that I would not be believed, and my treatment validated that fear. 

When I first started grappling with the mistreatment I had experienced in that relationship, I had difficulty trusting myself and my memories. I worried I was exaggerating and being dramatic, words that have also come up (from others and myself) when I have tried to point out my disability. With time, however, I became more certain of my experience. The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that my body still deals with daily solidified my understanding of what had happened to me.

While my report did not result in any type of action, I am glad to have put my story into the 3% of domestic violence and relationship abuse cases reported by survivors with disabilities. In a world that blames survivors and looks down on individuals with disabilities, it was terrifying to tell my story.

However, our stories matter—regardless of who believes us. 

If you are or know someone who is looking for support around relationship abuse, please call our helpline (M-F, 9am-5pm) at (413) 586-5066, toll-free at (888) 345-5282, or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-7233.