UMCOR

United Methodist Committee on Relief

April

Women with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to abuse and assault.
Conference participants express themselves through art.
Courtesy of the women of EDAN

By Julia Kayser*

April 11, 2013—Do you know someone with a developmental disability? That person, if she is a woman, has an 83 percent chance of being sexually assaulted during her lifetime. The US Department of Justice also reports that women with physical disabilities have a 40 percent chance of being sexually assaulted.

The Ecumenical Disabilities Advocacy Network (EDAN) is working to reverse these statistics. Kathy Reeves was there at the World Council of Churches meeting in 1998 when this advocacy network was formed. Ever since, she’s been the coordinator of its work in North America.

“Women and children with disabilities are among the most vulnerable people in our entire global community,” Reeves says. Too often, this makes them easy targets for sexual abuse. On its website, EDAN’s stated goal is to “advocate for the inclusion, participation, and active involvement of persons with disabilities.”

In February, Reeves, with support from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), traveled to South Africa to attend EDAN’s most recent conference. The theme was “God of life, Lead us to Justice and Peace: A reflection on violence against women with disabilities.” The conference created a safe space for voicing what people have experienced.

One conference participant shared a story about a teenage girl in her community with developmental disabilities. She had been repeatedly taken out of class and sexually assaulted by her school’s janitor. When this was discovered, the community’s response was that she should just be thankful that someone was interested in her sexually. They refused to prosecute her assailant.

Galvanized by stories like this one, participants at the conference in South Africa worked to develop a strategic plan for advocacy and change. One of their projects is to compile a book on the concerns of women with disabilities, and launch that book at the 2013 World Council of Churches Assembly in Bussan, Korea. 

It’s not easy to get this issue on people’s radars. “We very rarely hear any specific information regarding people with disabilities,” Reeves admits. People with disabilities are often excluded from scientific studies because their condition is seen as a confounding variable. Even the US government doesn’t count people who are on federal disability in their unemployment statistics. People with disabilities are too often voiceless and invisible.

To make matters more difficult, they are often assumed to be non-sexual beings. This assumption limits their range of human expression. It’s a form of ableism. Because many people are unwilling to accept the fact that people with disabilities have sexual desires and can be objects of desire, it’s hard to have a conversation about the intersection of disabilities and sexual violence.

“As far as the church is concerned,” says Reeves, “we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard.”

The trend in mainline denominations has seen disability ministries dwindle, whereas the needs of the community have increased. The United Methodist Church is no exception: although dedicated individuals have created a vibrant disabilities ministry program, it receives very little funding and has only one quarter-time staff position. UMCOR Global Health Executive Secretary Patricia Magyar lends support to the program, among her other duties.

“The church should be a safe space,” Reeves says. “It should also be a place where strategies are developed… for ongoing ways to combat violence.” She also sees potential for the church to provide education, reconnection, and empowerment.

“It’s my dream that we’ll be able to create a consciousness of compassion and consideration that will make it possible for people to find productive ways to live in society,” Reeves says.

You can support United Methodist Disabilities Ministries with a donation to Advance #3021054.

*Julia Kayser is a writer and a regular contributor to www.umcor.org.

You can support United Methodist Disabilities Ministries with a donation to Advance #3021054.

Candles are lit to commemorate the struggles of women and children with disabilities.
Candles are lit to commemorate the struggles of women and children with disabilities.

Kathy Reeves (back row, 4th from the right) gathers with other conference participants. Kathy Reeves (back row, 4th from the right) gathers with other conference participants.
Photos Courtesy of the women of EDAN