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Women’s Month: women with disabilities are six times more at risk of abuse – hear their cries

Picture: Tracey Adams

Picture: Tracey Adams

Published Aug 4, 2022


By Professor Juan Bornman

She sits opposite me. Big blue eyes that pin me down. Swimming pool water blue. I also see her frail body that sits skew in her wheelchair. I notice how her arms flap about uncontrollably and how her legs twitch and kick.

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Her hands are tight little fists, almost like a bird’s claws. I realise that she will not be able to hold a pen or type on a keyboard, and neither will she be able to point to pictures or words.

Her head flops forward and then jerks back. She has no speech. But what she does have, is a medical exam that shows long-term sexual abuse.

She is brought to me by a social worker and a police officer from the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences (FCS) unit with the request to assist her to tell her story.

Big blue eyes that watch every move I make. Innocent eyes like a child – yet tired and scared – eyes that have seen too much.

Eyes that can help us piece together what this slight woman-child has endured.

I explain: “I am going to ask you some questions. These questions have a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ answer. When the answer is ‘yes’, I want you to blink your eyes two times, so that I can see you mean ‘yes’. Do you understand what I want you to do?”

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Big blue eyes that deliberately blink. Twice.

“Is you name ^Angela?” Two blinks.

“Do you live in Pretoria?” Two blinks.

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“Are you 16 years old?” She hesitates and makes some noises. I start to worry – perhaps this has been too easy, and Angela doesn’t understand my question. I look at my notes again.

“Ah, I see in my notes that it is your birthday next week – then you’ll be 17.” Two blinks and a smile.

“Do you have a sister?” Two blinks.

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“Is she older than you?” Big blue eyes that stare at me and don’t blink. Just as I had hoped, because Angela is the oldest and her sister is the younger one.

“Do you have two brothers?” I expect two blinks – but they don’t come. I repeat the question. No blinks. Confused, I look at my notes again and stare at the names of her two brothers.

“Angela, if the answer is ‘yes’, I want you to blink two times. Do you understand me?” Two blinks.

“Do you have two brothers?” Expectantly I look at her. No blinks.

Then the social worker interrupts and explains that there might be some confusion. Angela has two living brothers; her oldest brother had died tragically.

“Do you have three brothers?” Two blinks.

Slowly, question by question, with the help of the medical evidence and the testimonies of her siblings, we are able to piece Angela’s story together.

We discover how she was abused by those individuals who were supposed to love and protect her – her parents.

How she could not protect herself because she does not have the physical ability to do so, because of her disability.

How she is dependent on others to dress her, feed her, bath her, and assist her with her toileting needs … and how these care activities became opportunities for abuse.

We discover that she has been denied the opportunity to attend school and make friends with others outside the household.

Two months later, after starting to expose her to augmentative and alternative forms of communication, we notice that she responds well to pictures and even starts to write some letters using big print, all over the page, yet totally understandable.

Unfortunately, Angela’s story is not unique.

There are many women-children out there like her who fall prey to sexual abuse predators, because their disability prevents them from using speech to communicate.

Communication affords us the opportunity to protect ourselves. Not being able to speak increases our vulnerability – after all, a silent victim is the perfect victim.

Perpetrators recognise and exploit this vulnerability. Research estimates that women with disability are six to 10 times more at risk for abuse than peers without disability.

In August, we celebrate Women’s Month.

Let us not forget about Angela and the many women like her.

As Martin Luther King once said: “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”

^Not her real name.

* Professor Juan Bornman of the Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication at the University of Pretoria. Prof Bornman is also president of the International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (ISAAC).

** The views expressed herein are not necessarily those of Independent Media.