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.