Content warning: this post is about physical and emotional harm done to people (especially children) with disabilities by (mostly) female therapists. Proceed with caution.
This is a hard post to write. It’s about abuse. It’s about a kind of abuse I haven’t seen described much. I think abuse is the right word, even though a lot of abusers probably genuinely think they’re doing the right thing.
Anyway, here goes:
Many, many people with disabilities I know have been harmed or even outright abused by Nice Lady Therapists. (Usual caveat: not all therapists are abusive, and this post is not opposition to childhood therapy. I’m saying that therapists need to stop hurting kids and other vulnerable people, not that therapy is evil. Pointing out that therapy is often important and that many therapists are good is not an answer to what I am describing.)
Nice Lady Therapists tell us that, whatever they do to us is by definition nice, and good for us. And that we like it, and that they love us, and that they are rescuing us, and that we are grateful.
They have a brightly-decorated therapy room full of toys, and assure every adult they come across that ~their kids~ love therapy. They use a lot of praise and enthusiastic affect, and maybe positive reinforcement with stickers and prizes. They might call the things they have kids do games. Some of them really do play games.
And every interaction with them is degrading in a way that’s hard to pinpoint, and hard to recover from. They do all kinds of things to kids with disabilities that typically developing kids would never be expected to tolerate. And they do it with a smile, and expect the kids they’re doing it to to smile back.
Sometimes it hurts physically, sometimes it hurts emotionally. Sometimes it’s a matter of being 12 years old and expected to trace a picture for toddlers for the zillionth time. And being told “This is fun! I used to do this all the time when I was a kid!”.
Sometimes it’s a matter of being forced to do a frightening or physically painful exercise, and being forbidden to express pain or fear. It hurts their feelings if a kid is upset. Don’t we know how much she cares? Don’t we know that she’d never do anything to hurt us? Don’t we want to learn and grow up to be independent?
Sometimes it’s a matter of being expected to accept intensely bad advice as though it’s insight. For instance, getting sent to therapy because you’re not making friends. And being told “We are all friends in this school! You have to give the other kids a chance.” And, if you try to explain otherwise, she patiently and lovingly explains to you why your thinking is distorted and you’ll have lots of friends if you just let yourself try.
Sometimes it’s – crossing a physical line. Touching in a way they have no good reason to be touching. Or touching over the objections of the kid in a way that is in no way justified by therapy goals. Sometimes sexually, sometimes not. Sometimes in ways that are against ethical standards of practice, sometimes not. But intimately, invasively. And if you say no, she patiently, lovingly, explains that you have nothing to be afraid of and that everything is ok. And that if you just trust her, you will have fun and get better. And when her profession has professional training about boundaries and appropriate touch, she thinks or even says “women don’t do that.”
Some male therapists do many of these things too, but there’s a gendered version of it that usually comes from women. And that can cause a problem for people with disabilities who are recovering from this. Most things about trauma and abuse of power are about misogyny in some way. They’re about men hurting women, and taking advantage of power dynamics that favor men to do so. Those descriptions are important because that pattern is common. But it is not the only abuse pattern, and it is not the only gendered abuse pattern.
Female therapists are subjected to misogyny and the power of men just as much as any other women. But they also have tremendous power over people with disabilities, many of whom are deeply dehumanized. The assumption that women have neither the power nor the ability to hurt anyone gets really dangerous really quickly for children with disabilities receiving therapy.
And it also means that people with disabilities often have a different relationship to gender than most nondisabled people. If you’ve been harmed by women over and over and assured that you liked it, it complicates things. If you’re a girl, it can make it hard to see a group of women as a Safe Space, especially if they think the thing making it safe is keeping the men out. If you’re a boy who has been repeatedly harmed by women who believed they were powerless, it can be hard to understand that the gender hierarchies that feminists and others talk about actually do exist. And it complicates things in any number of other ways.
But if you have been hurt by Nice Lady Therapists, you are not alone. If it has affected your relationship to gender, you are not alone. If it has left scars that others say you shouldn’t have because she was nice and meant well, you are not alone.
You don’t have to think someone is nice because she says she is. It’s ok to think that someone is hurting you even if that upsets them. You don’t have to think someone is safe or loving just because they are a woman or a therapist or smiling. Women can be abusive too. In human services, it is common. You are not alone, and it was wrong to treat you that way. The harm done to you was not because of your disability, and it’s not something that you could have fixed by being more cooperative or working harder or having a better attitude. It’s not your fault, and it’s not because of anything wrong with you. And it’s not your fault if it still hurts.