I was never taught to say, "no" to touch because saying no was never an option in the first place. I was born with cerebral palsy and grew up surrounded by professionals who came from a medical model viewpoint. I'm also an abuse survivor. I believe my identities of disabled woman and abuse survivor are deeply interlinked.
From infancy, well-meaning professionals were involved in my life with a goal of making me as fully functioning as possible. These interventions were often painful, invasive and frightening – numerous times I was held down while my feet were forced straight to be casted. A compliant and quiet child is much easier for everyone so I was praised and rewarded when I didn’t cry.
I quickly learned I had no ownership or say about my body, and to comply with the demands of others unquestionably. It was commonplace to meet a professional for the first time and be in my underwear. My body was touched without any warning let alone asking my consent. I complied with all this because I was told it was the right thing to do. Everyone encouraged me to see that the people who were causing my pain and fear were actually kind people who wanted to help me. This paradox taught me to leave my body when scary things were happening and hand over control to someone else.
When I was eight years old, that trained compliance worked in the abuser’s favour. They also undressed me, touched me and hurt me whilst telling me it was to help me and that I shouldn’t cry or make a fuss. The dissociation response I had learned through years of medical intervention became my best friend during the abuse. It allowed me to escape what was happening and wall it off so that I could continue being the happy little girl I’d been groomed into being for the convenience of others.
The pants rule that is often used to teach children about inappropriate touch, and potentially could have introduced me to the concept of abuse, doesn’t necessarily apply to disabled children if they need support with personal care. At school, I couldn't choose who supported me to use the toilet. Even if I didn’t like the person, I was expected to allow them to touch intimate parts and see me naked. As a disabled adult these situations continue. On my personal assistant’s first day I’m expected to be naked with them for a shower after only meeting them for a thirty-minute interview. This awkwardness never gets easier but it's something I must tolerate if I want to be clean.
I now actively avoid engaging with medical professionals as much as possible for fear that they will reclaim the hard fought for ownership I have over my body. I'm trying to work through the many layers of negative messages I've been given by professionals and the abusers. This is all the more challenging when society often views disabled people as asexual, and ableist attitudes prevail. It’s even more challenging if the therapist I’m looking to support me holds ableist views, often unconsciously. I've experienced therapists who project their perceptions onto me and think of disability in terms of tragedy and therefore congratulate me for doing what they think would be impossible if they were in my position. This creates a huge divide in the relationship as we aren't on the same page. I'm looking for a therapist who understands the social constructions of disability and can link this to my experiences and feelings without making assumptions.
I’m not intending to portray disabled people as vulnerable victims but rather as human beings deserving of dignity and respect with the right to have control over their body. If you know a disabled child, I urge you to teach them their rights. Learning to say no has been my greatest and most hard fought for gift and it’s still very much a work in progress for me.
Views expressed in this article are the views of the writer and not necessarily the views of BACP. Publication does not imply endorsement of the writer’s views. Reasonable care has been taken to avoid errors but no liability will be accepted for any errors that may occur.