In the wake of the recent Harvey Weinstein sex scandal there has been an outpouring of stories of sexual abuse and harassment from every walk of life.  The problem is not confined to the glamour industries of film and music.  At last many ordinary women are finding the confidence to share personal stories of crimes that seem to be endemic in society. However, the sexual abuse experienced by disabled people still goes largely unreported.

It’s happening everywhere.  Behind immaculate closed doors in middle class suburbia, on council estates in the midst of apparently normal families, in the private consulting rooms of dentists, therapists  and physicians,  behind the garish flowery curtains of hospital cubicles, in ambulances, in care homes and the private spaces of vulnerable disabled people who are dependent on others for their essential needs. There have been reports of abuse in some residential homes but they are still seen as an aberration not the norm. The Jimmy Saville sex scandal in England revealed his abuse of disabled children at Stoke Mandeville Rehabilitation Hospital and Leeds Infirmary during the 60s and 70s.  He was called a monster but there was little or no investigation into the health workers who turned blind eyes to Saville’s horrific crimes for many years.

Hospitals, ambulances and Care Homes are supposed to be safe spaces where vulnerable people will receive the help and respect they deserve.  The sad reality is that some health professionals are free to use these spaces to abuse their power and seek sexual gratification.  Rape is more an issue of power than lust.  Of course there are also medical staff who are genuinely kind and dedicated to their patients but the underlying culture within hospitals enables abuse.  The sick are objectified as if they were broken machines, just a collection of symptoms rather than whole human beings with emotions. You become just another case number the moment you enter a hospital. Patients are expected to be ‘patient’, that is passive recipients of ‘care’.

Disabled patients are viewed differently to the non-disabled.  There is an unspoken assumption that their lives do not matter as much.  Disability is a metaphorical slap in the face of health workers, an uncomfortable reminder that they often fail to cure people, that they are not omnipotent.  Disabled people are an embarrassment, a deviation from the narrow definition of what constitutes ‘normality’ within the medical world.  Many doctors secretly implement a Do Not Resuscitate policy when it comes to severely disabled patients.  They constantly judge whose lives are worth saving.

In 1930s Germany 200,000 mentally ill and physically disabled people were systematically exterminated by the Nazi regime.  Doctors co-operated with this policy of murder.  Many did not think what they were doing was a crime.  They told themselves they were merely putting sick people out of their misery, mercy killings.  Disabled people were called “useless eaters”.

In other cases of abuse non-disabled people are free to walk away from their abuser, simply get another job or partner,  move on or even fight back, but what can a vulnerable disabled person do while literally trapped and powerless in a hospital bed or care home.  Who will listen if they speak out?  Complaints against hospitals are investigated by the same hospital. What hope of justice there?  Who will they believe, the patient or the doctor/nurse?  How can someone prove what has just happened to them during that ambulance trip to their outpatients appointment? How can a victim be confident there will be no repercussions to speaking truth?

There seems to be a tendency to disbelieve disabled people. There’s an underlying assumption we are stupid and not to be taken seriously.  A disabled woman accusing a medical professional of sexual harassment is often thought to be attention seeking and delusional.  After all, the common offensive assumption is that disabled people are by definition sexually unattractive and inactive.  Who on earth would actually fancy one of them? They must be making it up, they say.  Disability and sex is one of the last remaining taboos in our culture.  Physical and mental perfection are deemed essential to an active sex life.  How wrong they are and how blinkered.


1 Self-portrait, part 1 by Lydia Popowich


I will not begin to recount the multiple cases of sexual and emotional abuse I endured both as a child and as an adult from the medical establishment.  I will not list the many terrible stories I heard in private from friends and acquaintances.  You will need to read my poem to understand a little of my experience.

These appalling sex crimes are still happening today and it’s time for disabled people to speak out and say, ‘our lives matter’ and yes, #MeToo.


Leeds, 1976

The ambulance man’s striking
green eyes stroked the inside
skin of her teenage arm as she lay
strapped (for her own safety) on the reeking
canvas of another NHS.
If you’re lucky you’ll meet Jimmy!

She thought he was, maybe
trying to be nice (those alien
fingers electric…) No comfort

blanket,  suspended in L35, skeletal
traction, legs akimbo and knicker
-less (for her own hygiene), a monster pain
-ted by Hieronymus Bosch. The male charge
nurse’s watery grey eyes brought gin
secrets in a Barr’s Cream Soda bottle, hot
take-away through her open
window of gritty night.

She thought he was, maybe
trying to be nice (gin made her sick,
she liked Babycham).

The glass half
-full on the sunny side.  Always
look on the bright, turn a blind
eye to the other.  Cheer up, might never,

said the porter’s lizard pink
eyes taking her down to a strip
-lit basement, down corridors
lined with secret conduits.
If you’re lucky you’ll meet Jimmy!


One thought on “#MeToo

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