LivAbility Magazine
A woman in a wheelchair faces away from us. She has long hair, her hand on the push rim, the hashtag me too visible on the back of her chair. She is lit in teal.

Will disability be heard?

Story by Jennifer Longdon

It started with a tweet.

“If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet,” actress Alyssa Milano tweeted in October 2017. Thus, the #MeToo movement was born.

Except not really.

Many people incorrectly give the credit for the movement that was created by black activist Tarana Burke 10 years before Milano’s 2017 tweet.

In a nod to the staying power of the movement, Time Magazine named the #MeToo Silence Breakers as their 2017 Person of the Year.

The Time story sought to portray diversity by including a wide cast of voices of various racial and gender identities from the famous to the inconspicuous. But people were still left out: the disability community.

The Vera Institute of Social Justice has studied inequities in the criminal justice system since the 1960s and described the invisibility that defines disability and sexual violence:

People with disabilities are much more vulnerable to harm. They’re three times more likely to be sexually abused as children and three times more likely to be victims of violent crimes ranging from robbery to rape as adolescents and adults.  As troubling, survivors rarely get the help they need to heal. Organizations dedicated to serving people with disabilities and deaf people often have no experience working with victims of crime, while agencies focused on crime and victimization are typically ill-equipped to serve people with differing abilities.

An exploration of sexual violence is front and center every April, which is designated as Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Created by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and now in its 17th year, this year’s theme “Embrace Your Voice” dovetails with #MeToo. Participants are encouraged to raise their voice to show their support for survivors and foster constructive communication around the issues of sexual violence.

Dr. Tasha Menaker, director of sexual violence response initiatives for the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, said the coalition is working to address the intersection of sexual violence and its impact on the disability community.

“I think we would really be doing harm if we neglected to talk about sexual violence perpetrated within and against the disability community,” Menaker said. “That means doing outreach in a different way. For example, if flyers or websites are not screen reader-accessible, that’s not doing any good. We must think about doing this in an inclusive way.”

The coalition recently launched a healthy sexuality awareness campaign called Sex Turned Up with the hashtag #SexOutLoud. Its focus is having conversations that matter with the people in your life around healthy sexuality.

The Sex Turned Up campaign has a second component: awareness, education and fundraising for a rape crisis center in Arizona. Rape crisis centers provide services to survivors at any age who are coming forward at any point during their healing process.

Typically, rape crisis centers have several components including 24/7 service, a crisis hotline, in-house advocates, trauma-informed therapists and, often, the capacity for medical forensic exams should a survivor choose to report.

Menaker said there are sexual assault services in Arizona, but there are gaps in terms of service response. She explained an important aspect of rape crisis centers is that law enforcement is not housed within the center. Thus, people who might not want to report to law enforcement, or have concerns about going to a government agency because of their immigration status or other identities can still receive needed services.

“We have been doing a lot of outreach with other coalitions nationally to talk about what worked in the centers and what they would do differently,” Menaker said. “All of our work is through an intersectional lens considering the diverse needs and diverse oppressions that people experience to ensure that whatever we do from training and technical assistance to working to develop a rape crisis center is inclusive.”

The momentum of #MeToo has not diminished and, if anything, seems to grow stronger and more resolute in its search for inclusion, diversity and intersectionality. Disability voices must find their way to the table.

“I think that to survivors with disabilities, it’s not just about being inclusive in terms of structure, but also making sure the people who are working at the center come from diverse backgrounds,” Menaker said. “Having people at the center who are fluent in American Sign Language, that there are accommodations for people who are blind, for example and doing the outreach within the community so people are aware that the center is available and is accessible and meeting diverse needs.”

Learn more at the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence.

Chat with a Victim Services Specialist

The Sexual & Domestic Violence Services Helpline is Open M-F 8:30a – 5:00p

602-279-2900 | 800-782-6400 | TTY 602-279-7270

Jennifer Longdon

Jennifer Longdon

Jennifer Longdon is a Phoenix-based writer, speaker and advocate.