THE BLOG
09/25/2014 10:00 am ET Updated Nov 25, 2014

I Am Vulnerable Because I'm Disabled, Not Because I'm a Woman

Taxonomy is a fancy word for creating categories and grouping things in those categories. It's a way of separating in order to distinguish between "this" and "that." I grew up protected from many of those "this" and "that" segregations, but even as a kid, I had enough wits to know such lines existed.

I'm not sure if I knew about these lines because I'd coincidentally fallen victim to what I thought was segregation -- being in a wheelchair and having cerebral palsy -- or because I'd simply learned from observing how people and things co-existed, or eventually imploded as a result of not learning how to co-exist at all.

My knowledge may have been a combination of both, but I knew that there were people of all different races and colors in this world. I just hadn't seen how diverse people were culturally at a young age. Nor did I know or understand how deep the concept of culture ran -- or that gender played such an influential role in culture. I hadn't given any thought to how my cerebral palsy, or the fact that I'm Korean, might be perceived through the eyes of a foreigner or even an American.

By the same token, I didn't give much thought to the fact that I very well could be beaten or killed in countries such as India -- simply for being a woman with a disability. While I can't say I'm necessarily wiser as a result of what I now know as an adult, my eyes have indeed been opened. With that being said, think about the following two statements, as applied to sexual assault: "What do women expect when they dress that way?" "Well, you know, boys will be boys."

The ease with which we categorize violence around gender is both easily understandable and remarkably disturbing. We use gender to typecast violence to explain it, contain it, and ultimately blame the victim. "She was raped because she's a woman and let's face it, women get raped." Or, "He assaulted her because he's a man and let's face it, men are violent."

The underlying premise of categorizing violence in this way defines women as vulnerable and men as dangerous, doing an extreme disservice to both genders, not only by pigeonholing but also by framing female vulnerability and male dangerousness as inevitable and therefore acceptable. Conflict of all sorts is inevitable. But violence is neither inevitable nor acceptable. Violence is always a choice. As author, filmmaker, and educator Jackson Katz writes, "Calling gender violence a women's issue is part of the problem. It gives a lot of men an excuse not to pay attention."

Katz has long been considered a pioneer for human rights and violence issues. Founder of Mentors in Violence Prevention, a gender violence prevention program, Katz has shared his beliefs behind why this type of violence exists around the world. It can be argued, however, that his quote about the issue speaks to something larger than just the differences between men and women. I think his words speak to one of the main roots of violence -- our difficulty accepting differences and our decisions about who is weak and vulnerable -- and how easily we categorize and associate violence only with men, simultaneously excusing and condemning them.

Katz's quote is a clear reminder that it has not only become "old-fashioned" to always link violence against women directly to men, but doing so is also detrimental to both men and women.

Categorization only serves to confuse the issue of gender-related violence. If you view situations of gender-related violence through the lens of males always being the perpetrators in modern society, we can also argue that your beliefs limit your way of thinking. This lack of perspective can ultimately cloud your judgment if you ever find yourself as a victim. For women, the belief leads to self-blaming: "This happened because I'm a woman, and I brought it on myself."

For men who are victimized, the belief leads to denial: "This didn't happen to me, because this doesn't happen to men." It's ironic that categorization, which is supposed to make things clearer, only serves to confuse the issue of gender-related violence. Another group that gets categorized with the same harmful effects is people with disabilities. As such a person, I find myself reflecting both on how that categorization limits our opportunities and makes us more accepting of mistreatment, but also on how gender categorization of disabled people magnifies the stereotyping from which we already suffer. The Disabled Community and Vulnerability I believe the disabled community is -- and unfortunately always will be -- one that's targeted for a multitude of reasons.

As part of that demographic, it's not unreasonable to say that the estimated 80 million people worldwide with a disability face a shared threat and a condoned kind of violence from the outside world -- much as those who have been raped or beaten share a certain reality. We are vulnerable, because we can't physically defend ourselves the way able-bodied people can. To be victimized because of gender is, in itself, sick in the sickest of ways, but worrying about violence as a disabled person adds an extra layer of fear and insecurity that those 80 million people don't need on top of the emotional aspects of their disabilities. Katz's statement, by breaking down the gender-violence stereotype, is also freeing for disabled people. If I am victimized, I can say, I am vulnerable because I am disabled, not because I am a woman who happens to be disabled. This happened to me because someone took advantage of my vulnerability and chose violence. For me, that thought is liberating.

My range of physical movement may be limited, but my understanding of why people do what they do or what they say is not. Disability is a global issue. There's more than a world of truth in Katz's observation -- because like many other issues in society, such as racism, sexism, and homophobia, and the discrimination that accompanies them -- disability isn't just a men's or women's issue. Disability is a global issue. Yes, the simple fact of having a disability often gives way to being treated differently -- but the treatment doesn't matter if you're male or female. In fact, disabled men are just as likely to be targeted as victims of violence as disabled women. The sense of vulnerability we all share puts the gender issue in perspective.

Not only that, the sense of vulnerability also makes a bold statement about segregation. A decision to segregate a disabled African American is no more fair or justified, for example, than it is to segregate a Latino with HIV. If you start to categorize people as a result of human nature, you end up with a problem. The compulsion to categorize and segregate is what makes our country -- and the world -- head in an increasingly unfortunate direction. ...anyone can be -- and often is -- targeted as a victim.

Time and time again we see that violence knows no prejudice, especially in this day and age. Criminals, murderers, sex offenders, and their types lurk in all corners of the world -- and anyone can be -- and often is -- targeted as a victim. Victimization doesn't matter if you're a man, woman, or child, disabled or able-bodied. However, when gender does play a role in an act of violence, it's usually because a woman spoke out against someone in a position of power -- or because she married someone who's deemed as unacceptable or dangerous in her culture. "What if those ideas were reversed?" Society might have made making choices more difficult today, but people are becoming stronger and wiser because of that struggle. What if men were the ones being victimized and tortured for simply making those choices? The truth is, men are making those choices -- to provide for themselves and everyone around them. Women are still making those choices, too -- either for the same reasons men are, or because they want their voices to be heard. Society might have made making choices more difficult today, but people are becoming stronger and wiser because of that struggle -- especially those with disabilities.

If you strip everything else away, gender is a lesson in acceptance itself. This lesson is not one that can be taught from memory or even the pages of history. The lesson is one that can be taught and passed on by having a genuine sense of humanity and compassion for all.

Violence is violence, no matter how much we categorize, justify or classify it. When one's level of vulnerability plays a role in violence, however, it doesn't matter who you are, or whether you can stand or sit. Everyone is vulnerable -- and everyone has a responsibility to protect themselves.