Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Oscar, Twinkies and Closed Doors

I had an experience, yesterday, that once again reminded me of the vulnerability that comes with having a disability. I mean, I know this, I've known it for a long time, but occasionally I am reminded, in real life, in real time, of the simple fact that there are dangers that are unique to my status as a disabled person. What happened yesterday is still too fresh to write about, I need more time and more distance, I need to be able to write about it without fear making my fingers type the wrong words with the wrong keys.

I've studied the research on violence against people with physical disabilities, with intellectual disabilities and those at the intersection of both. I know that people with disabilities are much more likely to be victims of crime - almost every kind of crime from physical assault to sexual victimization to financial abuse. I knew this, once, at an intellectual level. I know this now on an extremely personal level.

My experience yesterday made me want to write about my initial response when I heard the story of 'the Blade Runner,' Oscar Pistorius. The first media report simply reported that he was in a bathroom, when he heard an intruder and panicked and as a result of that panic he fired a gun through the bathroom door striking and killing his girlfriend. After this report much more came out about the case and there are all sorts of pundits, many gifted ones from the disability community, who are looking askance at the verdict and asking hard questions about the facts of the case.

I do not need to or want to do that kind of analysis here.

I just want to record my reaction to what I first heard.

My reaction beyond horror. My reaction beyond decrying guns and the myriad tragedies that happen when guns are readily available. My reaction beyond the deep sorrow of another woman killed at the hands of another man.

That very brief news report, that first one, only spoke of a man with a disability fearing intruders, feeling vulnerable, reacted with panic.

That's all I knew.


I immediately remembered my own first few days as a disabled man. We had moved to Toronto from the country, we lived in a place too small for mapquest or a GPS to find, and I was alone in the bedroom, sitting on the side of the bed, slowly getting dressed. My disability was new and everything was a new experience. It took me a very long time to get dressed. My legs simply didn't do what they had done only days before. I refused help with this task, I would relearn by doing, I resisted help. The same with walking. Today I can walk, short distances fairly well, but I have to be near a wall so that I can orient myself in space by touching the wall with my hand. I fall over in open spaces. My walking, that day that I sat dressing myself, wasn't something I did easily yet.

Joe had left and had anticipated being gone for an hour or two. I knew that just getting dressed and getting out to my desk in the office we'd set up in the dining room would take most of that two hours. I'd be fully occupied doing something that once would have taken me only five or six minutes. Suddenly I heard the front door to the apartment open. Or at least I thought I did. I sat there, listening hard. I called out Joe's name. We were new to the apartment and hadn't learned yet that voices don't carry from the bedroom to the front room. I kept hearing sounds. Movement. I began to panic. I knew that Joe was to be gone for at least another hour and a half.

Who was there with me?

Who had keys to this apartment?

Who lived here before?

I knew I couldn't run. I wouldn't be able to stand up and defend myself. I felt utterly lost, alone and vulnerable. For the first time in my life I looked for a weapon. I'd never done this before. All I could find was my reacher. I'd be able, if necessary, to reach out and tweak the nose of my assailant. Then I heard footsteps coming down the hallway.

"Who is it!!" I screamed, panic filling my voice.

"It's me," Joe said, "I forgot my wallet, I had to come back."

I dropped the reacher and felt relief flood my body.

I tell you all this not to justify in any way someone who fired a gun through the door at unknown persons. I tell you this not to make any kind of comment on the Pistorius case at all.

I tell you this because I'm worried about the commentary I'm hearing about the case. The dismissal of the idea of vulnerability and disability. The dismissal of the fact that with disability is tied to vulnerability at all. I would have loved it if, rather than it being used as an excuse or a defense, someone had begun to look at the very real dangers that people with disabilities face. I would have loved it if it had led to a discussion about violence against people with disabilities.

Instead I think the Pistorius trial has done damage, in the public mind, to the real life experiences of men, women and children with disabilities. Vulnerability and disability has been spoken about almost like the 'Twinkie Defense.' The real people behind the statistics of abuse have real stories to tell and now will tell them under the shadow of a man who reached for a gun and fired through a closed door. That closed door may now be firmly shut in the minds of many to the realities of the lives of those who live with violence and abuse and neglect solely as a result of their status as people with disabilities. 


Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

This is unbelievably timely. I am going into a classroom today and teaching about why people with disabilities are more vulnerable to abuse. I think I am going to assign reading this post for homework.

You have really effectively conveyed how incredibly vulnerable you felt. I was very relieved to read that it was Joe returning for his wallet. And that you were not faced with an intruder.

Love the image of the nose tweaking.

Anonymous said...

I understand what you say about vulnerability. However, I feel that this stems not from disability itself, but from the inability to be able to defend oneself.

I don't think that this applies to Oscar Pistorious. The fact that he wears prosthetics, does not affect his ability to get around indoors. Also his possession of a gun would of course reduce his vulnerability.

There is absolutely no shadow of a defence for him in this case

Dave Hingsburger said...

Anon, I tried to clearly say that this post was NOT about Pistorius ... I have to disagree that this is not a disability issue. The statistics clearly states that people with disabilities are much more likely to be victims of crime. Again, in no way was I stating, in my post, that I saw his actions as justifiable ... just concern that his use of 'vulnerability' will discredit actual 'vulnerability' of people with disabiities.

Mary said...

I know what you mean.

When I'm sitting in my wheelchair whizzing about the place I feel very confident. But when one of my wheels came off a couple of weeks back all that confidence evaporated. I was not alone and there was no apparent danger but I felt vulnerable in a way that went right to the pit of my stomach to be in a public place yet immobilised (see this blog post for more details).

So, not specifically Pistorius, but I can certainly see how a disabled man *not wearing his prostheses* would feel more vulnerable, more anxious and panicky upon hearing a noise than a non-disabled man. An attacker won't give him time to put his legs on any more than a mugger would have given me time to get out the allen keys and fix my chair.

None of which excuses having a loaded gun in your bedroom, much less firing it. I'm still very ANTI that. But the whole "I'm disabled but I'm not vulnerable!" thing... I see how it's an attractive idea, I'd love to believe it, but separated from my mobility aids, lacking the means to run or hide or fight in any meaningful way, yes, I'm more vulnerable.

Anonymous said...

I think it's so important that this is said and heard.

Rickismom said...

Tremendous insight and a very good point

Anonymous said...

Hi Dave,

I'm so sorry you've had a rough time. I wish you the best in recovering from it.

-- Littlewolf

Cindy said...

I am not disabled but as a woman if I was driving on the highway and experienced a flat tire, for example, I would certainly feel vulnerable and have to admit my reaction to a vehicle with "questionable" characters (or almost anyone I don't know and who is not a cop) stopping by me would not necessarily be the most thought out.

Rosemary said...

Thinking of you, Dave. It sounds like you had a very bad experience.

Emma said...

What are you comparing to though when you say disability makes people more vulnerable? I know that fear as a wheelchair user with a body that cant run or fight back, but I also knew that fear as a bipedal child and pre-mobility aids woman, at the same gut churning helpless terror level. So is it actually more that disability makes people more vulnerable than able bodied adult men?

Mary said...

Emma, I too am in the adulthood-acquired disability category and I think I see your point that non-disabled people also experience fear. You are quite right that "gut-churning terror" is not the preserve of people deemed more vulnerable than a non-disabled adult man.

For myself, though, I find the threshold at which Disabled-me reaches each "level" of fear is so much lower than it was for Non-disabled-me, because these days I'm aware that most of my emergency options have been removed - I can't run up and down the stairs, I can't get out of the bed and underneath it within a few seconds, I can't lift a fire extinguisher.

Anonymous said...


for me, living with an "invisible" disability, there is a transfer of my thoughts regarding my vulnerability.

I often found myself at the mercy of other peoples hands that even the usual touch can be stressful and even painful. In a situation where I feel threatened this can lead to very uncommon reactions from me. Most of the time I just "freeze" in place but in some situations I deliberatly have to rein in my violent tendencies.

It is hard. I am sorry you felt this way.

Hope you can cope in the future.


Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry that you were involved in an experience were you where violated in any way. Please know how valued you and your contribution is to the lives you touch. When you are feeling up to it please come back to the blog as your doings help damn the darkness for so many of us. In the meantime know you and Joe are in our thoughts.