Opinion: Disabled people are excluded by unmasked protesting
Activists must start by making their movements survivable
Editor’s Note: This story contains references to sexual assault.
I was excited about the protest against sexual assault on Nov. 10. I was so happy there was something planned to bring people together to support survivors. But after reading the promotional infographics and seeing the photos everyone posted, no one even mentioned masks. A protest in honor of survivors was unsafe for the most impacted group: disabled women.
The disabled womens’ community has the highest rate of sexual assault out of any other group at 83 percent, according to a study by Thomas Weiss in Disabled World. Disabled people also make up a significant portion of COVID-19 deaths, up to 95 percent in parts of the U.S., according to Axios. The most conservative estimate shows that disabled people are 1.5 times more likely to die from COVID-19, and that’s only with one preexisting condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No matter the methodology, disabled people are at the highest risk for both COVID-19 and sexual assault. I thought that in a protest full of people claiming to support survivors, the most impacted community would be uplifted or, at the very least, safe. But in a sea of people wearing red in solidarity with survivors, only a handful wore masks.
Optional masks are a segregationist policy, dictating what bodies are safely allowed in a space. In a protest setting, that means excluding the most impacted from fighting for their own rights.
According to the CDC, D.C. still has a substantial COVID transmission level. The Omicron variant makes up 99.8 percent of U.S. cases, according to GISAID. American University attests that the vaccine requirement makes unmasking safe, but the vaccine AU requires is only 50 percent effective against Omicron, according to the New England Journal of Medicine, and the efficacy wanes as more time passes. In other words, masking is how we can keep AU safe.
The choice to not wear a mask communicates to me, as an immunocompromised individual, that I am not welcome at AU, let alone in a space for survivors nor in the space of support. My mask protects me briefly if I stand 10 feet from the protest, but that means I either have to look over my shoulder to make sure no one is coming too close or not attend at all. My unmasked peers have communicated that my safety is my responsibility, and they will do nothing to help others be safe. That sounds just like the sexual violence policy they’re advocating against. This is how I know that little real support or radical change can be found with most protest attendees.
It was clear to me as a disabled woman that most of the attendees’ support only goes so far as not to inconvenience themselves. They ask AU for bare-minimum precautions for survivors and safe, educational integration for women, but won’t provide either within the movement.
“Women on campus are in a state of fear,” said one of the protest’s speakers, according to a Twitter thread by AU student Isabelle Kravis. I agree. I am in a state of fear. I am well aware of the insufficiencies of AU’s Title IX Office. At least able-bodied women know that they can lean on their peers for support. My fear is of my peers, and I fear knowing that even the people doing the most work to uplift survivors and protect other students will not protect me.
“I felt unsafe and excluded [at the protest],” Gretchen Venema, a disabled sexual assault survivor and senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told me. “Seeing friends not wear masks is really harmful to me because I know that they do not value disabled people and disabled lives. It's isolating and hurtful.”
At AU’s protest, it seemed like the unmasked supporters were saying they weren’t okay with our sexual assault, but they were okay with our segregation or death. “Disability integration means an expectation of accommodations everywhere,” said Venema. “A movement that excludes disabled people is not as progressive as it thinks it is. [It shows] intersectionality is not important to them.”
“We deeply wish we had made an announcement early into the walkout asking folks to wear masks,” said protest organizer and School of Public Affairs senior Lillian Frame, in an interview with me. “This was a failing of ours and something we’re working to better in the future.”
Frame and I are planning to work together to make future action accessible. Still, the fact that most protest attendees would have to be reminded speaks volumes about ableism within social movements.
Protesting without protecting the most impacted and vulnerable is performative at best and eugenist at worst. If any social change advocates want true justice, they must start by making their movements as survivable as possible.
Greta Mauch is a senior in the School of Communication.