“Rolf Harris spread his hands over a blind, disabled woman like an octopus in an attack where she was ‘completely and utterly trapped’, a court has heard."
Very rarely, a headline sends a shiver down my spine. I felt that this morning. It’s emerged that Harris – already serving a sentence for multiple indecent assaults against women and currently being tried for a series of sexual crimes – is accused of groping a blind woman at a hospital in London in 1977. At the time, as well as having no vision, the alleged victim had to use walking sticks (a subsequent accident has left her completely unable to walk). Harris denies any wrongdoing, and the trial is continuing.
“What annoyed me was that I just could not escape and, being blind, I couldn’t always tell where he was,” she told the court. “I was completely and utterly trapped.”
“The way he took advantage of someone who was totally blind, virtually stuck in terms of mobility … it’s absolutely appalling,” she added. “In my opinion, it’s as degrading as it gets. I felt absolutely invaded by this man.”
Power and control are common features in abuse, but when a victim is disabled, this can provide disturbing added opportunities. To put it bluntly, abusers have the chance to exploit a person’s disability
Many of us – those who didn’t even endure the alleged abuse – will read that and feel sick to the stomach. It is sickening that any man could use his power to force himself on to a woman who was literally physically unable to move or see it. But, as sickening as this is, it isn’t rare. The reality is that disabled women are twice as likely to be assaulted or raped as non-disabled women, according to Women’s Aid. We’re also twice as likely to be the victims of domestic abuse – whether that’s at the hands of partners, family members or carers. As one in four women experiences domestic violence, that means a staggering one in two disabled women will be the victim of domestic abuse in their lifetime.
Power and control are common features in abuse, but when a victim is disabled, this can provide disturbing added opportunities. To put it bluntly, abusers have the chance to exploit a person’s disability. Sometimes, the abuser is also the person being relied upon for care. Other times, they are simply able to utilise the fact they are physically stronger or – as Harris is alleged to have done – the fact that they can see or hear or move when their victim cannot. I’ve spoken to disabled women – physically unable to prepare a meal for themselves – who were denied food as a form of abuse. I’ve heard domestic-abuse support workers describe instances when wheelchairs have been removed as victims try and sit down, or hearing aids were thrown across the room.
Though there is huge work to do, as a crime there’s thankfully now increasing awareness around the abuse of women. Yet, when it comes to the abuse of disabled women is, too often it is practically unheard of. Due to the cultural perceptions of disability – as well as abuse – many of us find it hard to see disabled women as adults or sexual beings, let alone as assault victims. Many see the men around disabled women as “saintlike” – kind entertainers, like Harris, or selfless husbands or boyfriends who “stay with” disabled or ill women. Often, society is simply set up in ways that makes disabled people vulnerable.
There are human consequences. Disabled women who are abused are likely to have to endure their abuse for longer than non-disabled women. If you rely on your abuser to help you out of the house, there is little way to escape. It's often even more difficult to find privacy to disclose abuse (it’s normal for a disabled person to have someone with them during a GP visit, for instance). And refuges – despite some exceptions – are often inaccessible, be it through steps or a lack of hearing loops. I’ve been told of a disabled woman who left an abuser only to have to go back because she couldn’t get in the shelter.
We need to start talking about this. The fame of men like Harris – that jovial family entertainer – can not only help bolster any abuse but, in their downfall, at long last brings publicity to their crimes. I am in awe of Harris’ alleged victim for coming forward and speaking out. But, as we look in horror at today’s headlines, I hope we start to talk about the many cases that don’t make the papers – that we think about all the other disabled women in this country going through their own ordeals. Their abusers may not be famous – perhaps a teacher or a football coach or the dad who chats at the school gates – but they deserve our attention all the same. And the truth is, as things stand, they are simply not getting it.