My aunt and her husband lived in a duplex atop a very steep hill. When we would visit I would lay at the top of the hill and roll all the way down, a vortex of sun and soft grass. When the sky stopped its slow pinwheel of blue and white I would race to the top to do it again. I liked the hill and I liked visiting my aunt. Her husband was quiet but on occasion he would play with me. “Big time rasslin!” he would shout imitating the announcer from whatever form televised wresting took in the late seventies. He would proceed to toss me about and chase me. It was fun.
I have a clear memory of one of those days, although I could not have been more than four. My grass stained corduroy pants, my uncle alone, television blaring. “Big Time Rasslin!” as he leapt from his chair. I was squealing, was it glee or fear? Being pinned. Being in pain. Being released to return to my hillside, rolling down. I was an easy target for him, parents out of the picture, living with relatives who had problems of their own. Quiet and isolated, I existed as inconsequentially as grey background noise.
Years passed before I had the language or capacity to describe what happened to me or what it meant. Many more years before I grasped that certain family members needed me to be unreliable, calling me a liar, even about the most insignificant things. After all, someday I might tell.
NPR’s current series“Abused and Betrayed” on the sexual assault of adults with disabilities sheds some light on the magnitude of the problem within that population. To look at my own children who bear this diagnoses, and know that the staggering odds of them being sexually assaulted is unacceptable. In addition to training and education, we must view these people as valuable and worth protecting.
Let’s go beyond not only being willing to act on signs of abuse, to being active in creating a social safety net that provides connection, relationship, and a sense of worthiness for people. Isolation is the enemy. Open your eyes to the people you know, adults and children, who are vulnerable. You can actively reduce that person’s chance of victimization by taking steps to help them develop friendships and connections that foster their own sense of self-worth and teach them what healthy relationships should look like. Changing the climate that has allowed abuse to propagate is an overwhelming task, but we have an opportunity to start with our own neighbors.