Disability activists call for improved education on consent

Panelists and attendees urged organizations to bring consent to the forefront of disability justice movements.

Charlotte, a blind woman, crosses a street, going to meet her friend at a local café. Another pedestrian grabs her arm, pulling her the remaining distance.

“The first time, I was like ten, and I thought I was being abducted,” Charlotte, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, recalls. “I’m traumatized every time something like that happens, and I’m over 30, and it still happens. You wouldn’t do that to a ‘normal’ person, but I’m disabled, so suddenly it’s okay to assault me like that? I wish I had known that I could say no when I was younger… To this day, I’m traumatized… That’s why it’s so important to talk about consent.”

On Sept. 30, the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children held a virtual meeting discussing teaching consent to disabled youth. The NOPBC is a division of the National Federation of the Blind — America’s largest blindness advocacy organization. The NFB’s headquarters is in Baltimore, MD, but it is composed of national divisions (like the NOPBC), and state affiliates. This public consent conversation—like many even pre-pandemic events—was virtual, allowing members from all states to participate.

Three panelists — Lisamaria Martinez, a lifecoach and mother, Danielle Montour, a long-time consent advocate and assistive technology specialist, and Bobbi Pompey, a consent educator and rehabilitation teaching specialist—stressed that consent should be taught to disabled children from the youngest age possible.

“People with disabilities are five times more likely to be a victim of a crime. This is just one reason why the conversation around consent must be had,” Martinez wrote in an email afterward. “It is important to explicitly teach consent across the lifespan… often [disabled people] are treated as public property, their bodies being grabbed and tugged… This is just one egregious example of non-consent. But it is a powerful example, micro-aggression really, as to why creating a culture of consent is necessary.”

Each panelist shared instances of non-consent from their childhoods. One common theme was the normalization of nonconsensual physical manipulation of their bodies. Disabled people observe this throughout their lives, which the panelists said often stems from attempts by others to be helpful. Pompey noted afterward that this occurs frequently in medical situations, in which providers move patients’ limbs without asking or warning them first, “It’s just something that’s in our medical field, regardless of if you have a disability… But the more medically-based your disability is, the more often you’re facing it.”

Martinez, Montour, and Pompey agreed that the education for specialists in daily living and independence skills for the disabled should be reformed. Currently, special educators and independence skills teachers are taught to guide students by manipulating their bodies into positions that will help them complete tasks. A teacher might demonstrate holding a pencil by placing their hand over a student’s and moving their fingers into the proper position. This is called “hand-over-hand.” A travel instructor might grab someone to prevent them from falling. Generally, instructors are not taught to ask students for consent before touching them, and while there may not always be time to do so when students’ physical safety is in danger, instructors are not taught to pre-negotiate.

“The easiest would be for instructors to talk to their students beforehand to find out what works for them. A generalized approach is not always best where physical contact is concerned,” Michael said in an interview after the meeting.

Panelists and attendees urged organizations to bring consent to the forefront of disability justice movements. Parents were asked to seriously consider how they would empower their children with the knowledge of consent. Educators were asked to rethink their techniques, and to institute methods granting all students—not just the disabled—with the ability to express discomfort without being frowned upon. The NOPBC promised to continue sessions about consent for the disabled.

Note: Bobbi Pompey, one of the panelists, agreed to be interviewed. You can find an audio version here.

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