Intellectual Disability, Vulnerability, and Protective Barriers
[Note: This story references sexual assault and abuse among people with disabilities.]
Last month while I was across town, a story came on the radio where people with intellectual disabilities shared their experiences being sexually assaulted and abused; something that happens way more frequently than many people realize (they reported it as at least 7 times the rate of abuse of people without disabilities, but because many of the survivors may not communicate verbally/directly to report their experiences of assault/abuse, the actual numbers could be much higher). Needless to say, by the time I got to my destination I was a sobbing mess. That this happens to people who can't prevent it, and sometimes by people who are charged with protecting and caring for them, is so wrong and so heartbreaking it can be hard to take in.
While it was an incredibly painful piece to listen to, I was at the same time deeply grateful that people were finally talking about this in such a national, public way; because it has been the reality for a long time and only those of us who spent a lot of time with folks with intellectual disabilities knew the extent of it - as we heard stories, or noticed the lingering wounds and pain in our friends. If you haven't checked it out, you can find the series of stories on this topic here.
I heard this story while in the beginning stages of starting a new church - Beloved Everybody Church - that from its start is collaboratively formed and led by people with and without intellectual disabilities (more on that later). Anyway, after we made the decision to intentionally give space for people with intellectual disabilities to be co-leaders and full participants from the beginning, forming our practices and rituals to be fully accessible, then came the question - well, how will those with intellectual disabilities who are interested find out about this opportunity? How can we invite them? I have close friends at L'Arche in Orange County, and had good relationships with my students when I taught special education in Los Angeles, but Orange County was an hour away, and after I left teaching, I was no longer in touch with my students (most of whom don't have their own phone/email/facebook in order to contact them, anyway).
And I realized anew how separated people with and without intellectual disabilities often are from one another, and how many layers of permissions exist for people without intellectual disabilities to spend time with and befriend people with intellectual disabilities. (Example: I had to find a place and pay to get fingerprinted, fill out a form for a background check, and attend a day-long class to be CPR/First Aid certified in order to spend unsupervised time with my friends with intellectual disabilities. And I did all those things - because I was highly motivated; but some other folks might not be. Most of us don't have to take any tests or fill out any forms to hang out with our friends, so it can feel weird or overwhelming for some people.) Of course this is all done out of protection, and it is good that these barriers and checks exist, because this is a vulnerable community whose vulnerability has been exploited far too often; and putting things in place to lessen that is critical. I would never suggest these barriers be taken down.
At the same time, these protections also serve as barriers that keep people with intellectual disabilities from being able to freely move and interact in the world and join communities and make friends according to their own interests and preferences in ways that many other people get to. This doesn't mean we should remove those protections, but we do need to recognize that they exist and keep us separate, and then work extra hard find ways to share community and build real, safe friendships, for the good of everybody.
Because friendships with people with intellectual disabilities are awesome and worth it.