Women with disabilities account for over 20% of the general population (Office on Disability Prevalence…, n.d.), and experience rates of abuse 1.5 to 10 times higher than women without disabilities (Sobsey, 1988). However, shelters are largely inadequate to support the needs of women with disabilities who want to escape violence. According to a study by Nosek, Howland and Young, 83% of shelters offered or made referrals to temporary wheelchair accessible housing, 47% provided interpreter services to deaf or hard of hearing individuals, and only 6% offered assistance with caregiver services (1997). Additionally, even if services are available, staff only receives disability awareness training in 36% of shelters (Nosek, Howland & Young, 1997). When a woman contacts a domestic violence service, she often ends up having to educate the staff about disability. She may even end up emotionally supporting the staff through the awkward exchange of dubious information. The dearth of services – combined with a profound lack of access to information — often leaves women with disabilities feeling like there is no escape.
The absence of support for such accommodations for women with disabilities is largely because the general population is unaware of the rates of abuse this demographic experiences. The dearth of information is simply an outcome of this severe lack of awareness. People have no idea that rates of violence can be up to 62% over a women’s lifetime, and much higher for women with severe learning disorders (Nosek, Howland & Young, 1997). Women with disabilities — from every demographic — experience higher rates of abuse than women without disabilities.
When a woman with a disability experiences domestic violence, the perpetrator is usually an intimate partner, family or caregiver (Nosek, Howland & Young, 1997). Economic constraints or lack of independent ability to leave a violent situation puts women with disabilities at a severe disadvantage. They can be completely at the mercy of those around them, and without a safety net of other family assistance or community services, women with disabilities have no way of escape. Unfortunately, shelter services are notoriously incapable of handling accommodations — such as wheelchair access, sign language interpreters, caregivers and other disability specific needs — required by domestic violence survivors with disabilities.
Violence is often a crime that takes the path of least resistance. Women with disabilities are easier to control economically, physically and emotionally due to a myriad of reasons, such as stereotypes, their potentially lowered ability to make money (due to practical or systemic constraints), and dependence on inherently problematic institutions and social services. They are often raised with heightened forms of infantilization and pedestalling. “Good” girls and women with disabilities are compliant, grateful, and constantly happy, while often simultaneously being treated like a burden to those around them. If disabled from birth, that may be all a woman with a disability will expect of herself. They are “easy” targets for perpetrators of violence, especially because of their limited ability to escape the situation.
In order for the deeper issue of awareness of violence against women with disabilities to change, people would have to face the facts behind violence against women in general, as well as deeply ingrained stereotypes about people with disabilities. “Good” people would never dream of perpetrating violence or rape against women with disabilities, predominately because they do not view women with disabilities as sexual or threatening. They do not understand that abuse and rape are not about who deserves it, mainstream stereotypes of sexual attractiveness, or the ability of the person being abused to defend themselves. It is about control, and vulnerability only makes control easier.
A woman who needs assistance may have no idea where to find support when she experiences domestic violence. It is the responsibility of shelter agencies to provide this basic information to women with disabilities, even if there are no services available. Women with disabilities are often put in the position of having to fight through a maze of bureaucracy to find out that there are no supports available – effectively revictimizing a woman already in crisis. Even knowing what is not available allows an individual to allocate precious energy to workable alternatives. This information is vital to someone seeking assistance, and the lack of information only adds to the profound silencing women with disabilities in this situation experience.
Women with disabilities face rates of abuse that are 1.5 to 10 times greater than women without disabilities in any demographic (Sobsey, 1988). Yet, they often do not receive the same supports that women without disabilities in domestic violence crisis receive. They face the same violence in profound isolation and silence, with less ability to protect themselves. When they do reach out to find a safer situation, women with disabilities are met with confusion and a severe lack of information on what little services are actually available. This should not be acceptable in the domestic violence support community – a community that was founded on feminist principles to assist women seeking safety and alleviate the silencing that often accompanies abuse.
s.e. smith also wrote about this issue on the This Ain’t Livin’ blog earlier this month: Access Denied: Crisis Centres and Disabled People. Check it out!
Nosek, M.A., Howland, C.A., Young, M.E. (1997). Abuse of Women with Disabilities: Policy Implications. Journal of Disabilities Policy Studies.
Office on Disability Prevalence and Impact Fact Sheet. (n.d.). U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Retrieved February 29, 2012, from http://www.hhs.gov/od/about/fact_sheets/prevalenceandimpact.html
US Department of Justice. (2002). Americans with Disabilities Act Questions and Answers. Retrieved March 9, 2013, from http://www.ada.gov/q%26aeng02.htm#Public
Sobsey, D. (1988). Sexual Offenses and Disabled Victims: Research and Practical Implications. Vis-A-Vis.