My Disabled Daughter Will Face New Struggles With the End of Roe v. Wade

Black and disabled people, like my daughter, are at the highest risk for sexual assault. Without the legal right to an abortion, I fear what will happen if she is assaulted and experiences an unwanted pregnancy someday.

Woman pushing disabled daughter in wheelchair
Photo: Getty Images

My daughter, the beautiful and effervescent Miss E, turned 13 years old in May. I wasn't home for her birthday this year, but we were able to Facetime. I studied her sweet face and bright smile through my phone screen and marveled at how much she'd grown and how fast the time had gone by.

In 13 short years, she went from the child doctors weren't sure would ever talk to the teenager saying "right there!" in the most sarcastic teenage way when I'm looking for my sunglasses.

E has cerebral palsy and bilateral schizencephaly. And though her speech can be a bit garbled and her voice deep and raspy, she always gets her point across. I understand her. Many do not and attempt to make decisions for her.

This, in particular, is why the overturning of Roe v Wade has brought a new kind of fear to my mothering journey with this beautiful, Black, disabled girl-child of mine.

The Risks of Sexual Assault When Black and Disabled

My daughter, sweet E, is Black and disabled. The two things outside her control have automatically thrust her into the highest risk category for sexual assault. Like any mother, I pray that this never comes to pass. But if it does and she becomes pregnant, I fear she will be forced to carry her pregnancy to term—even if she doesn't want to.

According to the National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community, 1 in 4 Black girls will be sexually assaulted before age eighteen. Among students, 11% of Black girls in a national high school sample reported having been raped. Pair those numbers with the nauseating and heartbreaking statistics on sexual violence against disabled people.

"Disability and Risk of Recent Sexual Violence in the United States," a 2016 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, found nearly 40 percent of female rape victims have a disability at the time they are raped. They also found disabled men and women have higher risks of sexual coercion and noncontact unwanted sexual experiences, like being made to participate in or view sexual material. Lastly, The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that rapes or sexual assaults against persons with disabilities were nearly half as likely to report to the police as non-disabled people.

Encouraging Voice When the World Doesn't Listen

Roe v. Wade has left the most vulnerable among us in the most unforgiving and uncompromising position.

I still have not fully wrapped my head around what all the possible ramifications of overturning Roe v Wade could be for my daughter. Still, I know this opens the door to states prohibiting access to contraceptive care. For my daughter, this means losing access to Nexplanon—the birth control we use to keep her hormone levels in check.

When her hormone levels rise—like when she gets her period—it alters the electricity in her brain, and she gets cluster seizures. When she gets cluster seizures, she stops breathing. The only way to stop the seizure is to administer a rescue medication, which makes her sleep for the next five to seven hours. For two days out of every month, this was our nightmare before beginning Nexplanon. However, with the use of this critical contraceptive, she has not had a single seizure. I don't think I need to explain how much weight access to this contraceptive holds in our family.

In addition to worrying about her access to much-needed contraceptive care, I've also been preoccupied with making her practice saying NO as loud as she can. This is difficult for a semi-verbal child who weighs fifty-two pounds and struggles with breath planning for communication. I've been preoccupied with making her practice pushing my encroaching hand away as fast and hard as she can. This is difficult for a child with one fully functioning arm and gross motor/motor planning difficulties. I've also been somewhat preoccupied with studying the buttons in the "sexuality" section of her communication device. I do this to make sure it has all the phrases she would need to not only tell someone to leave her alone but also to tell someone if she was assaulted.

Because according to the Justice Department, people with disabilities are sexually assaulted at a rate of seven times higher than a person with no disabilities. The Justice Department also suggests police and prosecutors are reluctant to take sexual assault cases involving a person with a disability because they are harder to win in court. But I think Nancy Thaler, deputy secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Human Services, who runs the state's developmental disability programs said it best in her 2018 interview with Joseph Shapiro of NPR that addresses why offenders might view individuals with disabilities as the "perfect victims."

"They are people who often cannot speak, or their speech is not well-developed. They are generally taught from childhood up to be compliant, to obey, to go along with people," she says in the interview. Thaler continues, saying even when intellectually disabled people express what's happening to them, they're less likely to be believed or deemed credible. "And so for all these reasons, a perpetrator sees an opportunity, a safe opportunity to victimize people."

Because she is semi-verbal, uses a wheelchair for mobility, and sometimes uses her augmentative device for communication, people often assume she is cognitively or intellectually disabled. For a would-be perpetrator, she is an easy target. The overturning of Roe has made it clear that under Arizona state law, she would have to live with the possible ramifications like pregnancy of her abuser's actions.

An Already Precarious Financial Situation

And these are just the ramifications of Roe v. Wade as it pertains to abortion, disability, contraception, and sexual assault. I have yet to see financial care for pregnant, disabled individuals and their children brought to the table. Congress has enacted the ABLE savings plan, which allows disabled individuals to have up to $16,000 in a savings account per year and up to $300,000 to $500,000 in their lifetime. Still, it is beyond the pale to think that the average parent(s) caring for a disabled child or adult has enough money left over at the end of every month to also set aside $16,000 per year for one child.

The American Academy of Pediatrics found on average, families caring for a disabled child either scale back work hours or leave work altogether, costing the family approximately $18,000 in lost earnings per year. That alone puts the average family $2,000 behind when it comes to contributing to an ABLE account. And so, I wonder, as the parent of a young Black, disabled girl—who lives in a state that has already made abortions illegal—if anyone has thought about what this would mean for the disabled person being forced into birth. Or the child being born into a family that is already stretched too thin. And this country's foster care system that is ready to buckle at the slightest wind.

I doubt those making decisions about women's reproductive health and our right to safe abortions have considered any of the things that I have been forced to think about. I am the parent of one of the most at-risk segments of people in this country. And like many Black parents, I am once again tasked with teaching my child how to save her own life when the government refuses to acknowledge her existence and the dangers that come with it.

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