‘You Should Just Feel Lucky’: How Women With Disability Are Gaslighted In The Workplace

·5-min read

During her many years advocating for disability rights, Elly Desmarchelier has rarely come across a disabled woman who hasn’t faced sexual harassment in the workplace.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a woman with an intellectual disability, a physical disability, psychosocial disability,” the 29-year-old told Refinery29 Australia. “There hasn’t been a single woman with disabilities that I’ve reached out to, to talk about this issue, that hasn’t had an experience or a story.”

Sexual harassment is unfortunately common in Australian workplaces. The most recent survey from the Australian Human Rights Commission (2018) revealed that almost two in five women in Australia (39%) had experienced sexual harassment at work in the past five years. People with a disability were identified as one of several groups having greater exposure to workplace sexual harassment.

According to Our Watch – which specialises in the primary prevention of violence against women and children – women with disabilities in Australia are around two times more likely than women without disabilities to have experienced sexual violence and intimate partner violence.”

“This is not a tiny minority number,” said Desmarchelier, who was born with cerebral palsy and has battled chronic illnesses over the years. She explained disabled women often face sexism and harassment the moment they enter a workplace. They’re then forced to think it’s a “compliment”.

“The number of times I get told that, “You’re the only disabled person I’ve ever thought about as possibly hitting on,” she recalled.

“It’s that idea that disabled people, particularly disabled women, are asexual, don’t have any sexual desires, don’t have any sexual requirements, and that it [having sex] is not something we can even do.”

She said these misconceptions enable perpetrators to tell victims they’re “lucky” to get this unwarranted attention.

“It means that sexualised comments, particularly even in the workplace, are seen as, ‘Well, you wouldn’t even get this, so you’re going to take this as such a compliment. Or I’m giving you something that no one else has given you before and you should just feel lucky that the disabled girl is getting hit on.'”

It’s this sort of gaslighting that often deters disabled women from reporting sexual harassment and makes them second guess the severity of the behaviour.

“When someone does make a comment like that, it is a bit of a take-back, and you’re like, ‘Oh, are they just being nice and telling me I’m really pretty?'” admitted Desmarchelier.

She said it also impacts disabled women’s positions at work, undermining their ability to make arguments, have debates and get promoted. While these sexist remarks could be viewed as “small comments”, Desmarchelier argued, “it’s that same attitude that makes someone think that they can assault a woman in a sexual way in a segregated workplace, because that’s the only action she’ll ever get.”

“It’s that idea that disabled people, particularly disabled women, are asexual, don’t have any sexual desires, don’t have any sexual requirements, and that it [having sex] is not something we can even do.”

elly Desmarchelier

Speaking of segregated workplaces, Desmarchelier said the limited data about workplace sexual harassment faced by disabled women could be “due to the fact that many women with disabilities work in segregated workplaces, which means that they only work with other people with disabilities.”

Segregated from the rest of the community and being only around a small number of people can make it harder to report sexual harassment, especially if the perpetrator is also involved in their personal life.

“They often work for the same people that look after the houses they live in,” she explained.

“So, it’s very hard to get them to tell their stories, because it’s not just complaining about your boss, it’s also complaining about the person that runs your house, and the person that takes you to your physio appointments, and maybe even the person that showers you or puts you to bed.”

Speaking more about her personal experiences which haven’t been in segregated workplaces, Desmarchelier recalled the sexism and harassment she faced while working as a ministerial staffer in Parliament House some years back. She observed the harmful behaviour being “so prevalent” in the “short amount of time” she worked in Canberra, and that because of this the Brittany Higgins allegations were “shocking” but “absolutely not surprising”.

“I can tell you, having worked in politics, that I have had elected MPs come up to me and say, ‘Wow. You’re way too good looking to be in a wheelchair. I bet all the disabled men can’t keep themselves off you’,” she said.

When asked if she had formally reported any harassment she experienced while working in that environment, she said, “absolutely not”. When she confided in a female boss, she asked for no formal complaints to be made as she didn’t want to be viewed as a troublemaker.

“I just remember saying, ‘Please, please don’t. It’s hard enough being here as the only person in a wheelchair, that’s what I’m already known for. I don’t want to be known for being the girl in the wheelchair that made this report to the ethics committee. I just want to be known for my work.’

“I remember I kept saying to her, ‘I’m good at my job. I just want to be known for that. I don’t want to be known for this.”

But with time, Desmarchelier has realised more people need to speak up if they can. “If we don’t call out what happens to me, that’s the kind of attitudes and systemic problems that lead to women in segregated places that are experiencing violence, and they’re the same attitudes really,” she said.

“I know I could so easily be that woman with an intellectual disability earning $6 (£4.35) an hour, who’s being sexually harassed, not just by their boss, but the same provider that cares for their house and takes them on community participation.”

The Northern Territory Working Women’s Centre — a community-based non-profit organisation that supports women through gender discrimination, sexual harassment and assault in the workplace — is at risk of closure. Sign the petition to demand federal funding — it only takes 2 minutes! To read more about Refinery29 Australia’s long-term initiative to dismantle sexual harassment in the workplace, visit the #FiredUp hub.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

If you or anyone you know has experienced sexual or domestic violence and is in need of support, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), the National Sexual Assault Domestic Family Violence Service

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247.
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.

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