Was your first thought a beauty treatment? Did a celebrity cross your mind—say Ashley Judd? Maybe some Ashley Judd outrage is a good idea, but it’s not what I’m talking about today. The Ashley Treatment actually consists of these steps: 1. Being given hormones at age six to stunt your growth so you will stay permanently small and easy to care for; 2. Have your breast buds and uterus removed so you can’t get pregnant or be sexually abused (How does this prevent sexual abuse??); 3. Have no say in this because you can’t give permission or even be asked if this is okay with you.
This is what happened to Ashley X and possibly 100 other children (so far). How can this happen? Because we view people with disabilities as less than human. People with disabilities rarely sit on ethics committees of hospitals. They rarely get to give input on whether to withhold, deny, or impose treatment on children and adults with disabilities. The hospital that performed the procedures on Ashley later admitted that her civil rights had been violated and agreed to make changes, including adding a person with a disability to their ethics committee and requiring a court order prior to doing this type of treatment.
What people with disabilities think about the Ashley Treatment
Disability Rights Washington and The National Disability Rights Network just released a report that uses the Ashley X decision as a case study. It asks how we can make medical decisions that “uphold the constitutional rights and inherent dignity of people with disabilities.” Everyone has the right to choose what will happen to their body—including people with disabilities, battered women, young women and men who want access to birth control. We have to believe that people are experts of their own lives and have the right to make their own decisions―even those who can’t speak for themselves.
What would our community look like if we all had the curiosity and willingness to listen to what has worked for people who’ve had experiences we haven’t had? How would things be different if people with disabilities had a leadership voice in our hospitals, schools, and communities?
My introduction to the domestic violence movement was as a volunteer in a battered women’s shelter. It was founded in 1976, just a few years after the first battered women’s shelter in the U.S. It was a product of its time. We were explicit about our feminist politics. We saw our work as part of a larger agenda for justice that took on patriarchal power, institutional racism and state violence, and all forms of oppression and domination.
The shelter itself was a hundred-year-old house, with every available nook and cranny made into space for another bunk bed or more towels or canned food. We were scrappy and resourceful. We didn’t turn anyone away.
On the other hand, it didn’t occur to me back then to think about how our physical space set up survivors to have very limited control over their lives day in and day out. Multiple stressed-out families sharing bedrooms, too few bathrooms, and one small kitchen inevitably led to conflict, and then rules intended to manage the conflict, and then conflict over the rules. Not exactly a recipe for liberation.
Advocates in Washington State have been thinking about how to change shelter for the better. The result? Building Dignity: Design Strategies for Domestic Violence Shelter, a web-based tool-kit for making shelter spaces that help support our mission.
For me, watching this work unfold was a kind of revelation. The kind where you hear an idea for the first time and it instantly seems completely obvious. Shelter is a life-saving refuge. But our hope and vision has always been that shelter is more than a place for women to flee from danger. It is also a launching pad into a life after abuse. A place to restore dignity, reclaim choices, and rebuild relationships that have been eroded by violence. Building Dignity is chock full of creative and practical ideas to make this happen.
In 1986 or ‘87, Ellen Pence came to Los Angeles, where I was working at the time, and did a training for advocates. I remember she asked us: “Are we trying to domesticate these women, or liberate them?” From there, she talked about how shelters should and could create space for women to claim their power, dignity, and visions for their own future.
That was the first time I met Ellen and it impacted me profoundly. I have always remembered that question and it has informed much of what I have done since then. The other gift Ellen gave was to always be so clear that if we wanted to know what would be helpful to battered women, we needed to ask battered women, not think it up in a separate room. So simple, so profound, and so right.
Over the years, I have seen Ellen speak at various conferences and gatherings. Each time, she led me to think deeply, and offered such substantial insight that it shifted and shaped my work. The humor, compassion and loving-kindness she brought to everything she did and said was completely disarming, breathtaking and delightful. Ellen’s life was a blessing for all of us who knew her, and had the privilege to learn from her. And it was a blessing for so many people across the world who don’t know her or of her, but whose lives are better because of all she did.
I am so, so, soooo sad she is gone; she has always been one of my heroes, ever since that first time I saw her speak.
These are the questions that run through my head when people tell me that battered women lie:
- What do you really need to know?
- Why do you need to know it?
- Why do you think you need ‘the whole truth’ in order to help her get what she needs?
- How does your judgment of her affect what you do?
Omission does not equal deception. And, lying does not mean that she doesn’t deserve our help. When we focus on her honesty or lack thereof, we’re saying that battered women are not credible and therefore are not worth our time, our compassion, our action.
Listen to what she is asking of you. Figure out what you can do and offer help. You don’t have to fix anything or anybody. Don’t underestimate the power of trying to connect with her and understand what she wants.
Believe that she’s telling you everything you need to know. Believe that you can’t choose for someone else. Believe that you can act.
It is hardest thing in the world to trust someone else – just ask a battered woman.