#MarchingTogether: Seeking accountability in the blind community

CW/TW: Discussion of sexual misconduct/harassment, gaslighting and details of rape.

We cannot escape the obvious fact that sexual misconduct is rampant in the blind community. Since December, story after story has released from survivors detailing their experiences and the widespread cover-ups training centers and blindness organizations have attempted. Public apologies, task forces and organizational partnerships are deflection tactics, but the stark reality is that this culture of sexual misconduct and abuse has been on-going for decades, and it’s not been a secret.

I did not lose my vision until my early 20s. And I did not participate in any capacity in the blind community until my late 20s. As a woman, I’m well acquainted with misogyny and the harassment inflicted on women frequently. I’m a survivor of sexual assault myself. When the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement happened, I cheered alongside millions of women, ready for this pervasive behavior to be exposed and confronted head-on.

Several years ago, I started to discover the dark corners of the blind community. Private conversations in-person and online revealed this despicable behavior had a foot-hold in a community I actively was involved in.

Stories were shared involving everything from public gropings to rape. Incensed, I reached out to leaders of a particular blindness organization, sure they were not aware. Naively, I could not imagine people could be aware of this and do nothing.

What has become obvious to me is that the public reputation of an organization is vitally more important than helping survivors. Refusing to root out a systemic problem will impact an organization far more than exposing and dealing with the problem.

The leaders I reached out to were cagey and defensive. I was told I had no idea what I was alleging. I was essentially gaslit. One leader, a man, said I had no right to accuse him of anything, which I did not. I simply thought I was bringing him information. He told me that he had daughters and would never allow such behavior to happen.

Since December, this leader has been named in covering up harassment after harassment. Several survivors say they reported to this leader and others with zero results, and in many cases, the victims were blamed, allowing this culture to permeate. There’s now a rotten stench spreading in this community.

It’s well documented that it can be incredibly difficult for victims to report abuse and harassment. It’s even more difficult for disabled people to come forward. Often, it’s a care giver or person close to the victim, and the report is doubted. Disabled people are frequently not taken seriously, including when harassment reports are made. Some may lack an education on sex and consent. Regardless the reason, not reporting abuse and harassment is common among disabled people.

It’s estimated 83% of disabled women will be sexually harassed in their lives, but only half will report it. This is a staggering number. It enrages me that in 2021, victims are still doubted at best and vilified at worst.

Green digital numbers on the VCR blink at me. The short, beige carpet scratches my back. My body is stiff, rigid, limbs unmoving. My eyes drift from the swirling white circles on the ceiling and back to the green numbers standing still on the clock. His weight pounds into me. Thin legs spread, pressure pushed inside, but I’m disconnected from my body. I lift up, hovering just above it all, waiting to breathe. I focus on the clock, counting the numbers as they trudge through time.

This will be my sharpest memory– the clock. The VCR encased in a black protective cover. The green digital numbers burned into my mind. 3:53 stands in contrast to the darkness in my memory.

Sixteen and a boy I trusted decided this was the day to claim me. Sixteen and I didn’t have the voice to scream, to shout. Sixteen and I will spend years wondering what I did to make this happen. Sixteen and I will learn all I have to offer is my body.

Last December, I was triggered as we learned how pervasive this culture is in the blind community. #MarchingTogether is not about scorching the earth. It’s about accountability. Survivors were brave as they publicly spoke out, many sharing details of their assault. Inundated with stories, it was difficult for me to escape my own rotted memories. But I also know exactly how it feels to live through this. I know exactly how it feels to be blamed, not believed.

Some want to move forward. But without accountability, this is difficult for survivors. Apologies and promises do not confront the issue or help survivors. With no justice, no therapy, no accountability, it’s difficult for many survivors to truly move forward. Providing leaders with training is great and necessary, but it does nothing to help survivors.

Continuing to turn away from the horrors of the past will not bring the systemic change crucial for true growth. Continuing to sweep this under the rug will not bring about forward movement. In an organization that was already stagnate, trying to close the door on this issue will bring operations to a halt. #MarchingTogether does not threaten this organization, the refusal to admit wrong-doing and provide survivors with true help is what threatens this organization.

I’m sluffing off this organization. For me, I can no longer participate in a community that has allowed decades of abuses. Leaders have been aware of this culture and done nothing until survivors collectively shared their stories. Many perpetrators still hold positions or are allowed to participate. In a few small instances where perpetrators have been banned, they are still spoken of with acclaim and provided with glowing recommendations in other organizations and with other employers. I’ve witnessed this.

This is not change.

The steps taken since December are an evasion, an illusion. As a survivor of sexual assault myself, I can’t be silent, and I can’t be a member of an organization that cares more about its reputation than survivors.

By Imperfection

Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter is a mom and writer from Omaha, Nebraska but recently relocated to Urbandale, IA. When she’s not chasing children, picking up messes or reorganizing the house, she enjoys yoga or reading to relax. In her spare time (A.K.A. her dreams) she’s a Broadway star. Kuenning-Pollpeter is a freelance marketer during the day, a creative writer at night. Her work has appeared in the Brevity blog, The Omaha World Herald, 13th Floor, Misbehaving Nebraskans, Hippocampus, Emerging Nebraska Writers and Random Sample Review. She has her BFA and MFA in writing from the University of Nebraska Omaha. Her essay “The Body” was a McKenna Fellowship finalist, and her essay “Imperfection” was a 2020 Best of the Net Nominee. She is blind and writes frequently about disability. She’s working on a memoir about the disabled feminine experience. With the kids though, expect it in stores in about a decade.

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