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Ableism & Sex Abuse: Interview with Heather Ure

In 2010, administrators at Sparksman Middle School (near Huntsville, Alabama) used a 14-year old girl with special needs as ‘bait’ to catch a 16-year old male, also a student with special needs, ‘in the act’ of sexual assault. The boy sodomized the girl and none of the administrators involved were reprimanded or punished. The guardian of the girl filed a federal lawsuit and very recently, the Department of Justice issued a brief siding with the guardian claiming that the school system was liable under federal law to investigate harassment and protect female students under Title IX. In fact, the Department of Justice accused the school administrators of “deliberate indifference” toward the girl with special needs.

Heather Ure, feminist disability activist and writer, recently launched a petition to Attorney General Eric Holder and the Superintendent of Madison County Schools to investigate the matter and fire the employees related to this case.

Alice Wong, Project Coordinator of the Disability Visibility Project interviewed Heather on September 20, 2014 about the petition and the online discussion she is starting using the Twitter hashtag #AbleistSexAbuseIs

Q: What was your initial reaction when you first learned of the actions of school administrators that resulted in the rape of a 14-year old girl with disabilities?

My initial reaction was a lot of worry about how this girl, now young woman, is doing emotionally, about the state of her health and well-being, having been abused so egregiously, not only by the other student who raped her, but by the adults who manipulated, exploited and abused her, her trust in them. I very much hope that she has great family and disability-savvy professional support, not to mention a strong local disability community, and that the people close to her are really tuning into her wishes about what she most needs to heal from the multiple violations she has experienced.

My other reaction, very much part of my first, was so much anger at the adult employees of her school who sexually exploited and abused her–and in doing so, who treated her as less than human because she was a disabled girl. Through my anger, I had one very clear thought, that these adults are dangerous, ableist sexual abusers and should not be allowed to be anywhere near any other children–that they should be fired immediately. I am in disbelief that they were not fired immediately following the rape, and can see no justification for any further delay. The safety of the children still at the school, both disabled and non-disabled children alike, is of utmost and urgent importance.

Q: I was personally shocked that this incident happened in 2010 and I’m only now hearing about this. Would you speculate on lack of response or sense of outrage when this first happened?

This past week was also the first I’d heard about the case, when my friend Eric Warwick (another neurodiversity activist) posted the Gawker article on Facebook. Not being part of the Toney, Alabama and Sparkman Middle School communities myself, nor being one of the local or national government officials involved in the investigation, I cannot know for sure what individual and institutional choices led to the incredibly long delay in action taken or publicizing of this case. However, through my own experiences as the parent of an Autistic child, as a neurodivergent woman myself, and as a disability activist, I have experienced a pattern of some non-disabled people’s, both individually and institutionally, not empathizing with, or struggling to empathize with the experiences of disabled people, even with something as brutal as the sexual exploitation and abuse suffered by this 14-year-old girl. A lack of empathy with or dehumanized view of disabled people not only enables the abuse in the first place, but also means that non-disabled people’s response to the abuse after the fact can be either non-existent, delayed, or extremely complicit with the abusers–for example, in this case, actually allowing them to stay in their jobs and in contact with other children at the school.

Q: While the teacher’s aide involved in the case resigned, the administrators have not been punished in any way. What is your interpretation of the way the school board handled this case?

I wondered if the teacher’s aide, because lower in rank, was pressured to resign, to take the hit for the higher-ranked administrators. Perhaps the DOJ investigations will or have been exploring this? Whatever might have happened behind the scenes, the fact that administrators known to have been directly involved in the sexual exploitation and abuse of a 14-year-old disabled girl are still employed tells us that the school itself is a very abusive, abuse-enabling system. When that is the case in an institution, it is not surprising to find out later that other people have been involved in complying with or enacting the abuse, and worst of all, suffering from the abuse. I hope that is not the case, but sadly, I would not be surprised if there were other children abused at this school.

Q: How do you think girls and women with disabilities are pathologized, abused and mistreated in society? By the education system and educators?

Phew, this is the hardest thing to talk about because it touches on such personal experiences, but I can speak best about this from my own life having been a neurodivergent girl and now woman, and talking to other disabled women friends about experiences with all kinds of abuse, including sexual abuse. My experiences will differ from other women and girls’ because my disabilities are different from theirs: because I went for so many years undiagnosed or with imprecise diagnoses, and because my disabilities tend (most of the time) to be more “invisible,” I have some “neurotypical passing privilege” that has probably protected me from some of the more extreme, violent abuse my friends and family who have more visible disabilities have suffered.

However, I am all too familiar, particularly from when I was younger, with relationships in which there was both some combination of both sexual coercion and emotional and verbal abuse, significant taking advantage particularly of my difficulty detecting deception and manipulation while it was happening to me, sometimes referred to less charitably as “gullibility.” That perception of women and girls with neurological disabilities as being “gullible” is certainly one of the pathologies our abusers and those who enable and excuse them tend to apply to us, that makes them feel emboldened in targeting us. I carried a lot of shame for years about how I would “fall prey” to an abuser–the shame magnified by the fact that I hadn’t yet developed the disability pride that I now feel about my brain differences–but the more neurodivergent women I became friends with who shared similar traits and experiences with me, the more I realized that I was not “weird” or “to blame” for being abused.

I also became aware of differences in the violence and severity of the abuse I’d experienced versus that of a physically disabled or chronically ill woman who, for example, may realize in the moment that an abuser is trying to coerce her sexually, but understandably doesn’t feel that she can resist because she is dependent on her abuser for her mobility and physical care, maybe for her economic support as well. I do think that whatever a woman or girl’s disability may be, the perceptions both that we are “easy targets” for abuse–that our disabilities make us vulnerable and less able to fight back–and that we are not as fully human, as deserving of empathy as other women and girls when they are abused, contribute both to the increased rates of abuse we suffer, and to the lack of public attention paid both to this fact and to the aftermath of abuse. All of these ableist perceptions seem to have been involved in both the sexual exploitation and abuse, and in the mishandling of the response to the abuse of a 14-year-old disabled girl in Toney, Alabama, and it does make me wonder how many other disabled girls have been abused while at school, by fellow students, educators or both.

Q: The Department of Justice accused the administrators at Sparkman Middle School of showing ‘deliberate indifference’ toward the student.  Would you speculate on how ableist attitudes may have fostered a culture and practice of deliberate indifference toward students with disabilities, specifically girls with disabilities?

I suspect that when considering a disabled girl as “bait” (note the dehumanizing terminology here), the “educators” at Sparkman Middle School just assumed that she would not emotionally or intellectually register their manipulations and abuse to the same degree a non-disabled child would, would somehow not mind (?) being used and endangered. In other words, they dehumanized her and did not consider exploiting and abusing her equal to exploiting and abusing a non-disabled child. One of the administrators involved, Ronnie Blair, even made this heartless statement to the Huntsville Times: “It’s a sad situation . . . At the same time, I feel very comfortable with the way the situation was handled. That’s about all I can say.” This statement alone tells me that there is a terrible and ableist truth at the center of this “story.”

Q: As a woman with a disability, what do you think justice should look like for this girl who was victimized by her school?

Although our petition emphasizes the need for completing the investigation and for the immediately firing of any employees involved in the girl’s sexual exploitation and abuse (because of the safety risk they pose to children currently attending the school), justice for this girl, now young woman, should look like whatever she wants and needs it to look like. She has had her consent and agency so violated that the last thing anyone should be doing is telling her exactly how to pursue justice, how to heal. I hope that her closest family and friends are offering her loving support and an array of all possible options, as opposed to imposing upon her one path or another. Particularly when a woman or girl is disabled, it is tempting for family, friends and authorities to “swoop in” and try to “save” her with what they think justice should be when she has been abused–again, because of that perception of vulnerability, and additionally, of lack of competence to know her own needs and wants.

In addition to the ableism inherent in these assumptions that she may not know what’s best for herself in the aftermath of her own victimization, non-disabled people’s “swooping in” with what they think justice should be risks a secondary violation or abuse of the victim–something Lauren Chief Elk has talked a lot about in her activism in response to violence against women. I use “swooping in” very consciously here, by the way, because it is a predatory action: sometimes those who think they are “helping” us can just end up enacting another form of predation or abuse, particularly if they do not center our agency and wishes. Finally, I don’t know if the young woman in this case will ever read this or if she has access to Twitter, but if she ever does read this, I want her to know that her disability community is here for her, that we support her and are more than happy just to listen to her or chat, if that would be helpful. Many of us, like you and me, Alice, are on Twitter, and would be so happy to connect with her–again, if that is something she would like to do.

Q: What are your thoughts about the male student with a disability who committed the rape?

I know that there will be ableists who blame the male student’s sexual violence on his disability, even without knowing anything about what that disability is, because it has been my experience that any time a disabled person commits a well-publicized act of violence, there will be non-disabled people who will either declare or imply that disability makes an abuser. This reductive, dehumanized view of disabled people as violent “monsters”–particularly of people who are Autistic, neurodivergent and/or have mental health conditions–is extremely damaging to us individually and to our community.

In my conversations with other disabled people about violence and abuse enacted by members of our disabled community, we often talk about how violence and abuse continue to be aspects of humanity–all of humanity–and that disabled people are human and subject to all of the same oppressive and abusive behaviors as all other human beings–including, as in this case, enacting male privilege and misogynist sexual violence against girls. So yes, a disabled person, like a non-disabled person, can be an abuser, as this sixteen-year-old boy was. But I do not believe that he raped because of his disability, and I feel I need to say this in this way–very directly–because I do know that there will be people who will either be thinking or saying something similar, and such thoughts and statements hurt our disabled community–actually make US more vulnerable to ableist abuse and violence.

Finally, I do think it’s important to acknowledge that disabled people can be ableist towards one another because of our own internalized ableism. This is called intra-ableism, or if there is abuse involved, intra-ableist abuse, and it is so hurtful and confusing when it happens–I’m personally most familiar with its emotional and verbal manifestations–because it comes from members of our own community who we might most expect to understand and be safe for us. I don’t know if intra-ableism was a factor in this 14-year-old girl’s rape, but it is certainly possible.

Q: What are your goals in this online petition you initiated recently? What actions would you like to see take place?

My first goal is to urge immediate action in the interest of the safety of the children currently in attendance at Sparkman Middle School. I believe that it is extremely dangerous for any employees who were involved in the exploitation and abuse of this 14-year-old girl to continue to work with children, and I am appalled that the Madison County Schools have allowed them to continue in their jobs for as long as they have. Obviously just removing staff will not fix an abusive culture, but it is an emergency action that at the very least needs to take place to introduce some increased safety.

My other goal is more long-term and profound, which is to continue the powerful conversation so many of us disabled people have been having on Twitter about the ableist abuse, sexual, emotional, verbal, and systemic, that we have experienced, and about what specific, “on the ground” actions we can take to fight all forms of abuse against us.

Some of us first started talking about the need for these conversations within the disability community during Suey Park and Lauren Chief Elk‘s hashtag #AbuserDynamics, which was a great hashtag because of how it emphasized how often our primary experiences of oppression are interpersonal abuse, but it did not focus so much on the nuances of disabled experiences of abuse. One thing I did find myself doing while participating in that hashtag, though–a very Autistic thing, in retrospect–was using it to map abuse and abusers, both through my own tweets/thoughts and others’, to make a mental map for myself of what are common things abusers do. I was especially interested in common deceptions and manipulations, because those have been so difficult for me suss out, counter and resist in my own life. And I realized that by mapping some of these things, I could perhaps prevent myself from even entering into some deeply abusive situations–the most challenging of which for me as a middle-aged adult being those which are emotionally and/or verbally abusive for both me and, even more painfully, for my neurodiverse family. When I told some other neurodivergent and Autistic friends what I was up to–consciously mapping abuse and abusers to try to recognize and avoid engaging with them–many of them said, oh yes, I do that too! At the time I think we discussed starting our own hashtag related to abuse to share some of our “mapping,” but didn’t take action right away.

Several months later, though, people were once again sharing their abuse stories on Twitter in response to revelations about how the NFL player Ray Rice had abused his fiancee Janay Palmer. There were two primary hashtags for this, #WhyIStayed and #HowILeft. Once again, while these were very powerful and vital hashtags, they did not address abuse as experienced by disabled people specifically, so I asked friends if they would like for me to initiate one that did. Thus was born #AbleistAbuseIs, a conversation in which disabled people have been sharing stories of all forms of ableist abuse (emotional, verbal, physical, sexual, institutional, medical, systemic, and intersections with racism, sexism and bigotry against the LGBTQ+ communities) that continues on Twitter today.

Alice, you and I hope this conversation will continue with #AbleistSexAbuseIs, which is in response to the horrible injustice in Toney, Alabama and is meant to address more specifically the sexual abuse of disabled women and girls, although disabled people who do not identify as women are also encouraged to participate. As with Suey and Lauren’s original hashtag #AbuserDynamics, the more we share with one another about our abuse experiences and our abusers, the less power they have over us, the less isolated we are in our victimization, the more we can heal and seek justice in solidarity with one another. One of my dreams is that, because of our collective efforts as disabled people fighting against ableist abuse in all its forms, in the future it would never, ever occur to anyone to abuse a disabled person as school employees did so inhumanely and heartlessly to a 14-year-old disabled girl in Toney, Alabama.


Additional Information


Heather Ure

Twitter: @heatherurehere

When tweeting, please use the hashtag: #AbleistSexAbuseIs


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