When we are disabled, we often need to depend on perceived safety. I’m physically disabled and how I perceive the environment around me, affects my access to it. Whether the environment around me looks like a crowd full of people, a quiet road at night, or the bustling market outside during daytime, I ask myself three key questions before I go anywhere:
First, are there going to be stairs? Is it going to be physically inaccessible? Are there going to be cobbled paths? I despise cobbled paths, why do the able-bodied rich prefer aesthetic to accessibility?
Second, in case I get stuck, am I going to have help, should I take someone along?
Third, what if I have no one to take with me? Should I just go alone?
Thus, my access needs are affected not only as a result of a direct experience of harm but also as a result of a fear of harm. As a visibly disabled queer person in public, my perceived safety is affected even in places that able-bodied folks belonging to a similar social location as me might freely access without thinking or contemplating much about it.
Also read: ‘Giving Myself Space And Agency To Dream’: On Disability Affirmative Love
The concept of perceived safety is not easy to unpack. I admit: It can be transphobic, casteist and ableist. How did I end up dating abusive men even when I’m so cautious about my own personal safety? Who exactly do we find safe and who do we label as unsafe and criminal?
How do we unpack these words and how do we tell ourselves that people are safe, even though our conditioning tells us that people are not safe because they “look, move, talk” a certain way?
Were the men I dated perceived as “safe” by me because of certain casteist “characteristics” such as polished English speaking skills, ironed clothes, an affluent background, upper-caste, and “humor” that matched my own? Does choosing a “suitable” partner translate to choosing a partner that has a “similar background” to ourselves, understands our “lingo”, ways of speaking and of doing? How did these “well groomed” men turn out to be abusive anyway? What informs my perceptions of safety and security?
It has taken me several years of unlearning to ask myself this. My mind has gone through several contradicting and contrasting views, because as a visible minority, how do I, essentially, trust people and perceive them as safe? How do I consider factors of casteism and ableism involved in my perception: a very private thing, known only to me?
I’m hypervigilant in public spaces and I recoil at the remotest dismissive tone because I need to protect myself from hostility and from abuse. I need to conjure up a mind-map of the entire place and devise an escape route if a situation demands. I have to be armed with all my disabled armor, in case anything happens. We need to be on guard at all times everywhere because of the violent ableist world around us.
Not only do I have to contemplate a thousand times before I step out of my house, I also have to think twice as many times before engaging in casual intimacy.
I realise I need some sort of commitment and acceptance from the person. I need to know that I can depend on them if something goes wrong or if I flare up. Especially because I know I’m more susceptible to abuse because of my disability, it’s no secret.
I remember talking to a friend this week about the men I’ve dated and the friendships I’ve had. And I realised how I never truly felt safe and comfortable in any of these interactions: that I never really found my ideal friend group or the “love of my life”. I don’t think my access needs were ever thought about or considered. I’ve only ever dated able-bodied men, and I realised one of the biggest power dynamics in a relationship is that of ability: a fact that directly contributes to disabled abuse. Intimacy is often manipulated and taken control of by able-bodied men in order to sustain and maintain abuse in relationships with a disabled women, trans and non-binary folks. Mechanisms of caste and class protects men, it covers up their abuse. In the eyes of these men, then, I was never meant to be more than a “girlfriend” because I wouldn’t be able to fulfill duties of motherhood or a wife: In an ableist world which denies me the privilege of able-bodied and by extension, conventional femininity.
Logistics during intimacy has also always been seen to benefit the able-bodied man in my experience. The bodies of physically disabled women are thus seen as barren and infertile in an ableist world, we are perceived as easier targets for abuse, trans misogyny and hatred. A self-fulfilling prophecy thus comes into play: a violent world sees our bodies as destinations of abuse and we truly begin to believe that and justify the abuse we experience. As did I, including regularly defending the able-bodied men in my mind and to my therapist.
Also read: Disability Is Desirable Too
Be it a relationship, a friendship, an interaction, I’ve always settled for bare minimum. Access needs were then seen as a transaction — a transaction of emotional labor and of a favour — “If you pick me up because I tripped and fell, I’ll be forever indebted to you. You won’t have to return the money you owe me, and you’re absolved of all the ableist behavior you’ve shown me throughout our friendship.”
Disability justice expert Mia Mingus describes it more accurately when she discusses something called access intimacy. she describes it in the following sentences: “Access intimacy is that elusive, hard to describe feeling when someone else “gets” your access needs. The kind of eerie comfort that your disabled self feels with someone on a purely access level. Sometimes it can happen with complete strangers, disabled or not, or sometimes it can be built over years. It could also be the way your body relaxes and opens up with someone when all your access needs are being met.”
At the very end, I ask: How are we looking out for ourselves and our community? Are we only engaging in community joy and happiness, or equally partaking in grief? How exactly do we quantify emotional labour? Are we ready to ask ourselves if our idea of perceived safety itself is based on our inherent biases? Who do we truly feel safe with? Who do we let into our inner circle?
Featured image source: Alia Sinha