Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Sexual Assault and Disability: Medical Settings

Trigger/flashback warning, sexual assault and medical abuse discussion.

This piece written as a guest piece for E. S. Henry's Disability and Sexual Assault series at Feminist Sonar and is cross-posted at: http://feministsonar.com/2013/04/sexual-assault-disability-medical-settings/.

People with disabilities and chronic illness are particularly vulnerable to assault in medical settings, where there is plenty of privacy but not a lot of internal security.  Hospitals have done little to address this, seeing instances as isolated incidents.  Patients assault other patients, strangers and visitors walk in from the streets into hospital rooms and assault patients, medical professionals and technologists assault patients. After-the-fact justice is no substitute for prevention, measures that could ensure no patient be harmed.

Part of the problem is a lack of watchfulness.  Once as I waited in the ER with my husband, I saw how a recent sexual assault took place in another nearby ER.  Patients in adjoining rooms were left alone for long stretches of time--stretches of time that must have seemed short to busy nurses.  If there were security cameras, probably no one ever looked at them.  Another patient or a visitor could easily have access to vulnerable patients--many were left alone or family had not arrived yet--and could have easily gotten away it.  No one came into the hallway we were in for 30 minutes at a time, and a sexual assault or groping only takes minutes or less.

Such assaults happen regularly--google many variations of search terms and watch the news stories over time.  These are the ones we know about.  Most we don't.  They don't make it to the news, or like most assaults, they're not reported.  The privacy, lack of security, sedation or nonverbal status, the embarrassment of patients, shock / trauma, cultural assumptions that victims wants attention or money, one person's word against another--it all creates the perfect opportunity and the victim knows she may not be believed or cannot bring herself to speak.

One of my doctors has said it's medicine's dark secret, much as with the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts and Penn State.  Once I was told I shouldn't report, that it would destroy a whole hospital and people's careers and tear up families.  That's never been the case before.  And what about me, our family?  And all the others?

If you work in medicine, ask questions, develop real security policies--ones meant to protect patients from harm, not organizations from accusations or accountability.  Many of your chronic patients and disabled patients (there is some overlap) have been at least groped, if not sexually assaulted, some more than once.  Up to 80% of the disabled population has been sexually assaulted; 50% MORE THAN 10 TIMES (http://www.mecasa.org/joomla/index.php/special-projects/individuals-with-disabilities).  Even men with disabilities experience at least double the rate of sexual assault.  Disabled people are also assaulted by professional caregivers, spouses, friends and family who have access, and acquaintances who know their schedules and vulnerability.  Compassion and awareness are essential.

Ferret out your Sandusky's.  Expose them to the light of day.  Ask questions.  Don't look the other way.

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