Audra was born with a spinal abnormality which left her paralysed from the waist down. When she was 12 her mother passed away and Audra’s father gained custody of her and her siblings.
For most of her childhood and adolescence, Audra lived in specialised facilities for children with disabilities. From the very first special school she attended she was sexually abused by her male peers, most of whom were slightly older than her. Because Audra used a wheelchair and was unable to run away, this occurred on a regular basis.
When Audra was in her early teens, the school’s maintenance man would deliberately damage her wheelchair in order to gain access to her.
‘He used to do odd jobs around the place and he did the chair maintenance … He used to pierce my tyres, he let down my tubes in my chair, anything to make me go to him on a daily basis for six months. It was so wrong but I had no one at the time I could speak to right from the word go. And it was just so hard.’
Over around six months this abuse escalated to the point it occurred up to three times a day. The maintenance man would tie Audra’s hands down and remove the plates from her wheelchair so she was unable to escape. He would also threaten to kill Audra and her family if she tried to disclose the abuse.
‘I couldn’t get away, I couldn’t scream because he had put his penis in my mouth … put his hand up my vagina several times … He threatened to kill me, he threatened to kill my family.’
At one stage the maintenance man gave Audra a bracelet. Audra took the bracelet to the school principal as evidence of what was happening and also told her father. However, her claims were not taken seriously.
‘The principal said to me (and this hurts so much) he said “Get out of my office, you slut. Because I’ve seen you with your top up with the boys”.
‘I told my father. My father called me a slut, and after that I didn’t know who to tell or what to tell. And over the period of time I just went silent.’
Eventually the abuse stopped when the maintenance man was fired for an unrelated reason. Not long after, Audra was medically examined by a GP. A serious infection in her vagina was diagnosed and she was told she would never be able to have children. Audra believes this was caused by physical damage resulting from the abuse.
Due to the specialised nature of the facilities she attended, the same boys who abused Audra at her first school also attended every subsequent school. Audra told the Commissioner that over 20 different boys abused her and they would refer to her as ‘the sex slave’.
‘Everything followed me for many years. All the boys, the whole experience, the whole nightmare, right up until I was 18. And even after that it kind of haunted me.’
After leaving school, Audra married, fell pregnant and miscarried. Her marriage was an unhappy one and it broke down. Audra has fallen pregnant since.
Audra believes that staff at the facilities were unaware of the abuse perpetrated by other students because it would not occur to them that people with disabilities could have sexual feelings. ‘It was like they had blinkers …
‘The boys who abused me, some of them couldn’t communicate … There was one guy, I can’t even remember how old I was or how old he was at the time. But he’d purposely drop pencils so he could look down my top. And he gets the thing “Oh he doesn’t know what he’s doing, he doesn’t know what he’s seeing” … Whether they’re deaf, blind, whether they had cerebral palsy, spina bifida, anything.’
At 21 years old, Audra sought help from a sexual assault counselling clinic but was turned away. Now, 30 years later she has had the courage to speak about her abuse again and has been receiving support from a counsellor. Audra also disclosed the abuse to her sister and current partner, both of whom have been very supportive.
In order to cope with the trauma of years of abuse, Audra legally changed her name and over the years has adopted different identities, including one who is a mythical being living in Europe. Audra chooses to not acknowledge she is living in Australia because ‘Australia hurt me’.
Currently in a happy relationship, Audra attributes her resilience to her unique coping mechanism as well as strong and supportive relationships.
‘The fact that I’ve changed my name. The fact that I’ve changed this from being Australia to [Europe]. I’ve got a good partner who’s been my friend for 30 years and listened to me for 30 years. And the only way I’ve been able to cope with anything, like I changed personalities even when I’ve been to different counsellors and everything, and besides [my current counsellor] they’ve all walked away from me at different stages, and I’ve had to cope with the way I cope now.
‘No person with a disability or non-disability needs to go through this kind of shit.’