‘He’d lean over looking for a kiss from his gypsy girl while having a grope’

'The fact that he spent much of his working life around disabled children made him less suspicious or accountable'

New ‘Irish Times’ columnist Rosaleen McDonagh. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

New ‘Irish Times’ columnist Rosaleen McDonagh. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

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The phrase “me too” was first used by civil rights activist Tarana Burke in an attempt to help other survivors of sexual assault, particularly those of colour, through understanding of their experiences.

A new weekly column by writers with a disability.
A new weekly column by writers with a disability.

“Empowerment through empathy” is her term for the idea.

In the context of the fall of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman, to name but a few, unsurprisingly many (though not all) of the women who have spoken courageously of their experiences have been white. The exceptions mainly include female actors whose talents and success are already beyond question. Black women actors simply don’t have the same leverage white women do in Hollywood.

The case of Harvey Weinstein has exposed Hollywood for the misogynistic industry that it is. Racism and misogyny can’t be placed in simplistic hierarchies, but in this context, ethnicity and race have particular connotations. There is a societal exoticisation of women from ethnic minorities, on and off screen.

Wheelchair clamped

The first time it happened was at the age of 10.

It was at his discretion when some of us attended certain appointments. This meant there were no other female staff or companions expected to accompany the service user wherever we had to go.

He would bring you up on the lift into the bus. Your wheelchair would be clamped.

Then, the bit that was most distressing, was the safety belt.

He’d lean over looking for a kiss from his gypsy girl while also having a grope.

As the years rolled on, the gropes extended themselves to other forms of dangerous behaviour. His manipulation and coercion felt like he was giving me special attention.

The law does distinguish between these offences, considering some minor and some serious. My own internalised shame allowed me to give the safety belt occurrences a very low mark in terms of harm.

Everybody loved this man. He sang, he whistled as he went about his work. Reliability and responsibility was his trademark. Charisma carried him. The fact that he spent much of his working life around disabled children made him less suspicious or accountable.

The film industry’s treatment of women and the commodification of women’s bodies makes us all complicit – albeit some unwittingly. We have often chosen, as a society, a beloved, charismatic man over a woman – any woman.

No doubt his behaviour extended to other women and girls in the same school.

But we never talked about it.

At 13, on holidays from school, my sisters found me in one of the bedrooms of our trailer. I had taken an overdose. That was my chance with the psychiatrist to talk or tell.

I didn’t, I couldn’t.

Part of me lived with the belief that this was normal. My female body would always be an object or a vessel at the disposal of male power. My life choices are always built around the questions, “am I safe?”, and “how many people are between me and the exit?”

When, where and which one to speak up about all depends on our position and status within society

The trauma of going on that bus has stayed with me.

The fear of having to use public transport is enormous.

My body on any given bus, train, plane or taxi journey is public property.

Anonymity when you are a wheelchair user is a luxury.

Like many powerful men, Weinstein saw and created a context to exercise male power, privilege and entitlement. The #metoo hashtag has been used effectively against criticism of women for “not speaking up sooner”.

This criticism is crass and cruel because, over the course of any given female lifetime, too many sexist events occur. When, where and which one to speak up about all depends on our position and status within society.

It was a joy to hear Gabriel Byrne, who received a lifetime achievement award from IFTA, speak on the Late Late Show recently. There is no hostility, defensiveness or misogyny from him towards the #metoo movement.

He affirmed and acknowledged the reality of women’s lives.

PLATFORM SERIES 1 (1-7)
1) Louise Bruton: Sexual health, if you are living with a disability, is not a level playing field
2) Aisling Glynn: Weren’t they very good to give you a job with the wheelchair
3) Rosaleen McDonagh: He’d lean over looking for a kiss from his gypsy girl while having a grope
4) Ferdia MacAonghusa: How would you feel if you were pushed around by a complete stranger?
5) Bobbie Hickey: How do you make a sandwich when you're blind?
6) John Cradden: I’m deaf, but also iPhone-compatible
7) Ellen Keane: The best and worst things about having one hand

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