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Alexis Fabricius



Visually impaired women discuss personal safety to inform the development of relevant violence prevention strategies

Alexis Fabricius
York University (Toronto, Canada)

Keywords: Disability, violence prevention, women, critical psychology, feminism

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, and are university students. This literature 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/or strategies are developed for disabled women, they typically do not account for the heterogeneity that is inherent within this population, and thus develop flawed designs in an 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 badly needed.

Women with sensory impairments are a group within the population of disabled women that have not historically been included in violence prevention efforts. As such, I conducted a number of focus groups with twenty blind and partially sighted (B/PS) women throughout 2017. I asked women to share their answers to a variety of 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. However, 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 about how they used alternative forms of evaluation (such as cues from 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 a number of 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 - 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 can be seen in the ways that they discuss trying to stay safe and access justice -  many believe that they are responsible for reducing their vulnerability, that instances of violence are because they did not take appropriate action, and they fail to enforce personal boundaries out of the fear that they will be accosted   and because they do not want to dissuade a sighted person from helping a B/PS person in the future. Additionally, they discounted themselves as reliable witnesses to the police, so rarely sought assistance from them after having experienced violence or harassment.

Policies and violence prevention strategies that are led by B/PS women’s experiences mean that vulnerable women can have tailored programming developed for them that actually speaks to their unique needs. 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 oppressive systems. To that end, suggestions for future violence prevention programming centre heavily around education. At the individual-level, programs that teach B/PS women to rely on their own evaluative methods and to demonstrate the value inherent in these strategies. This can be explored through acting out potentially threatening scenarios in a safe space that will permit women to practice trusting their own evaluations. Moreover, these types of programs also have the ability to facilitate mentorship and friendship opportunities between women in the visually impaired and blind communities so that they can share strategies on how to stay safe in a sighted world. There is also the possibility for politicization and advocacy through education.

On a social level, 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. Many of the participants commented on the fact that strangers frequently assault them (physically and sexually), which places their experience in stark contrast with able-bodied women, who are often assaulted by people with whom they are acquainted. However, the participants spoke frequently about the issues that arise when seemingly benevolent strangers impose their help on B/PS women. Though the intent is rooted in the desire to help, the manner in which they force unsolicited help upon B/PS women can be startling, disorienting and often terrifying. Public education campaigns should take aim at two aspects of these behaviours: a) becoming more familiar with guiding techniques but more importantly b) asking people to engage with the assumptions that underline their desire to help a disabled woman. If someone has not asked for help, nor looks like they are in distress, imposing aid on another adult reveals how some able-bodied individuals think about disabled women – as weak, incapable and in need of paternalistic aid. In fact, this mentality is not unlike that of a colonizer. We must remind people through public education that they should reflect on why they feel the need to impose help on a disabled woman, while reminding them that if she really does need help, ensure that your assistance is embedded within respect. For example, introduce yourself, ask how you can help, and then to let the woman in question guide the interaction.

On a larger level, we must increase access to support services for disabled women. A number of the participants who were victimized spoke of trying to access post-assault support services but were either turned away because the staff felt that they were ill-equipped to meet the needs of a visually impaired woman, or counsellors and staff blamed the woman’s victimization on her disability. Thus, support services represent another sphere that could certainly benefit from increased education in cultural competence so that fewer barriers will prevent disabled women from accessing support.

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, and increased education is the first step in that direction.

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