I Refuse to be Disabled by Fear

I’ve been thinking about the Jill Meagher case and feeling sad. Sad for Jill and her family, and sad for all the women out there who remain invisible and unsupported when they experience acts of violence.

I live just a couple of kilometres from where Jill was taken. Because I’m a woman who is deafblind, I can’t be aware of my surroundings. I’m used to semi-consciously claiming every night I walk through on my own. It doesn’t matter if it’s 6pm. It doesn’t matter if the streets are as crowded as they would be during the day. I think of my guide dog or my white cane as potential weapons. I always carry a charged mobile phone. I walk like I own the place and I know where I’m going, even when I don’t.

I’m suddenly grateful to the well-meaning public that watches the blind lady walk down the street – wonder of wonders! – and does not hesitate to stop me mid-stride to ask if I’m alright. I feel quietly glad that my guide dog makes me so memorable that people might tell their friends and family about me, even if they’re criticising me for not letting my clearly hungry Labrador eat scraps off the ground. I’m even comforted to know some people think that if you’re disabled you don’t have sex.

Some people will respond to this by saying I shouldn’t walk around after dark so much. I should take more taxis, have more people helping me. Maybe I shouldn’t live alone. While I know those people mean well, what I want to say to them is: “Seriously? You’d have me not live the same life as everyone else because some people choose to be violent?”

It’s my belief we should be working to change those people, not people like me.

Life is full of risks. My life contains a particular set of risks because I’m disabled. I fall over a lot, often with comic results. I run into stuff. I get lost. I go out with stains on my clothes sometimes, also with comic results. To me, those consequences are as everyday and as acceptable as having a minor prang in a car must be for able bodied people. I do my best to avoid them, but living is a risky business and to embrace life is to embrace some level of risk.

For me, walking down a street at night falls into the same category. I could choose not to do it, but that would be choosing not to live my life the way I want to. It would mean being disabled by fear, prejudice and scumbags, not by a lack of sight and hearing. It would also mean setting some hard-line rules for things which I think should be up to my judgement in any given situation. If I’m a ten minute tram ride and a half-block walk from home and I’m mildly tipsy it might be okay to go it alone, but when I’m drunk enough to be singing Celine Dion off-key at the top of my voice? Nothing about that situation is okay, and I’m going to call one of Melbourne’s finest taxis and hope they take the guide dog because I’d really like to get home safely right about now, thanks.

For people like me, there is a risk of not living a full and challenging life. The other risk is that we – people, and particularly women, with disability – become less visible across society. It’s already known that women with disability experience much higher rates of abuse, though this epidemic is largely invisible because most domestic violence services aren’t accessible, and police don’t always take complaints seriously. But the solution isn’t to remove us all from the streets at night time, shove us into taxis or the waiting and helpful arms of friends or do-gooders, so nobody has to think about that problem.

I should be able to walk down any street late at night unmolested. I should be able to make my life choices based on that ideal. I’d like to think I can live my life unconstrained by fear, prejudice and scumbags. The sad reality is that I can’t: acts of violence like the one perpetrated against Jill leave me torn between jumping at shadows and feeling defiant for what should be my basic right to safety.

In the end what I return to is hope. I hope people keep looking out for me. I hope that the next time I end up singing Celine Dion off-key I have a fully functioning phone and a taxi driver who takes the dog. Most of all, I hope those of us who feel vulnerable on the streets at night – people with disabilities and without, men and women – can all feel safe and not go invisibly into that good night.

Leah Hobson
ABC Ramp Up
Monday 8th October, 2012

Related Posts