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EastEnders – Frankie Lewis’s Attack Storyline Will Help Disabled Women Everywhere

September 20, 2022

EastEnders’ Frankie Lewis (Rose Ayling-Ellis) was terrified when she was accosted by a stranger while walking home after a night out – telling the story from the perspective of a Deaf woman is a critical piece of representation for often discounted disabled women.

In her words, we hear the echoes of the voices of generations of women, both disabled and non-disabled.

“I had the key in my hand the whole time. I walked the safe way. I even walked past this place just in case he was following me. I didn’t argue with him. I didn’t lead him on. I said no. I did every single thing that I am meant to do to stay safe.”

It’s a scene which is alarming, raw in its twisted ordinariness.

These teachings are carved into our consciousness: keep the key in your hand, walk the safe way, and don’t lead him on.

These are commonplace practices and everyday experiences. The perspectives, words and expressions differ, but all women know the fear that seeps in slowly on the walk home, fist twisted around a makeshift weapon — detailing an experience of violation in your living room.

Being disabled women doesn’t alter the experience of sexual assault – it dehumanises us, others us. It doesn’t protect us.

From the year ending March 2018 to the year ending March 2020, combined official statistics show that 2.8% of non-disabled women experienced sexual assault. Many believe that the actual number is far higher. But even that official figure almost doubles to 5% for disabled women. We can’t claim to know the full scope of the problem when so many remain unable or unwilling to report the crimes committed against them.

As Frankie’s experience unfolds and the human cost is reflected, remember: disabled women are almost twice as likely to experience sexual assault.

As Dr Kirsty Liddiard from the University of Sheffield explains, disabled and Deaf women can not only face “greater levels of sexual violence as marginalised communities, but their avenues for support, escape and protection, not to mention the criminal justice system, are often inaccessible and littered with forms of ableism and audism [the attitude that results in discrimination against the d/Deaf] that put women at further risk.”

Disabled women aren’t protected from reality – we’re told that it won’t happen to us even as it does.

We’re told not to discuss it – we live by the same rules: walk the safe way, don’t lead him on, but we’re told more forcefully that our instincts are wrong, that we shouldn’t shrink or flinch at unwanted contact or plan our method of escape because there is no need. We’re the bearers of open, invisible wounds.

For generations, disabled women have lived in quiet trauma and hushed distress. Finally, the next generation of disabled women will see Frankie’s experience, discuss it plainly, and feel its repercussions and reverberations. Its impact can’t be overstated.

After all, we’re still told that when we, as disabled women, experience it, it can’t be sexual assault.

When a stranger took control of my wheelchair, without my consent, as a cover to deliberately move my bra strap, I was told I had mistaken the action; it was innocent, harmless. The disbelief didn’t surprise me.

After all, perpetrators have long calculated these acts to lean into decades of stigma and ignorance: disabled women are not quite women; we must rely on others, and our consent is irrelevant.

“I did everything I was meant to do, and it didn’t matter.”

It illustrates a broader problem: if we complain, we’re told it didn’t happen. Disabled women are not at risk. Men are just trying to help.

As women and disabled women, we’re conditioned to accept these instructions and ordinary pieces of violence.

The question, ‘How did you know you had been sexually assaulted?’ is not unpredictable. We’re taught not to believe our senses, instincts and emotions at moments that leave us at our most exposed.

As Frankie remarks, “They don’t see me as a person. They see me as a… thing.”

Dr Liddiard continues, “it’s really important that EastEnders is making space for audiences to learn about the intersections of disability and Deaf communities and forms of violence, especially as it’s not common knowledge and is often seldom discussed, even in disability and Deaf communities.”

Disabled women in particular who have experienced so much unspoken violence need to see their experiences reflected on television and see that they are not alone. For generations, we’ve lived with the reality of Frankie’s disbelieving question: “You think the police are going to take me seriously?”

We don’t.

Frankie continues: “Do you want to know why the police won’t do anything about it? Because it’s happening to millions of us! Women and girls. The constant low-level sexual harassment, every single day! And it’s much easier to just dismiss us than to face it! Because that is half of the population!”

It’s happening to disabled women daily, in shadowy dark corners and complete daylight. The onus has always been on women, and disabled women, to live with the burden that sexual assault has become ordinary, and if we complain or protest it, we are in the wrong.

Frankie insists, “So no. I don’t want to HAVE to fight it! I don’t want to ‘do something about it!’ Because I am not the problem here, am I? AM I?” It’s not our fault: we’re fed up, worn down, exhausted.

Disabled women have been told to fight it quietly, without much fuss, for generations, or we’ve been taught to accept it as a normal part of life. We’re amongst the millions who live, represented in those statistics tarnished by those experiences.

As disabled women see their experiences reflected in Frankie’s words and her perspective, it may heal some of the harm done to us – we were never the problem. But, we’re not alone – all women will feel a collective tug of recognition.

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