Oh, Your Shelter Isn’t Accessible? – And Other Reasons Women with Disabilities Experiencing Violence Cannot or Do Not Seek Help.

This article was written by attorney and advocate Stephanie Woodward. It was originally posted on her blog Ms. Wheelchair Florida 2014 on July 23, 2014. It has been reposted here with her permission.

 


In my last post I wrote about how society’s treatment of women and girls with disabilities can contribute to the domestic violence we experience. Essentially, when you treat us like we’re a burden or like we’re worth less than other women, we start to believe it ourselves. I wrote about this to raise awareness about not only domestic violence against women with disabilities, but also to raise awareness of how society views and treats women with disabilities.

Many women and men with disabilities lauded my post and thanked me for finally talking about this issue. Many women and men without disabilities thanked me for bringing this issue to their attention and truly reflected on their actions and how they could help make a change in how society treats women with disabilities. Unfortunately, some people took this as an opportunity to question and challenge both the domestic violence women with disabilities experience and the societal treatment of women with disabilities. They demanded evidence of the domestic violence rates for women with disabilities and proclaimed that it’s not just women with disabilities that experience such violence.

Well, duh. Obviously others experience this violence, but the point is that women with disabilities experience it at much higher rates. If you want evidence, go to google. The statistics and facts I give you are not from secret sources. They’re from the DOJ, they’re from national and international organizations that spend large parts of their budgets doing research on this issue, and they’re from real women who experience the abuse.

The point is women with disabilities experience much higher rates of violence (Want proof? Check out the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics that show in 2011 women with disabilities were THREE TIMES as likely to be victims of violent crimes than women without disabilities).

There are many reasons that women with disabilities who experience violence don’t seek help. Sometimes there are physical or systematic barriers that prevent a person from seeking help. Sometimes it’s societal issues, like the self-esteem issue I wrote about last time.

I chose to write about the self-esteem problem last time because that is what I know best. I feel that before articulating stories about other women I needed to share my own, after all, my story is mine to tell. The experiences that other women have gone through are not my own, therefore they are not my stories to tell. However, in order to end violence against women with disabilities, society needs to learn about the problem. We can’t stop a problem that we don’t know exists.

For this reason I am providing you a list of why some women with different disabilities cannot or do not seek help. This list is by no means comprehensive. The examples I have included are real examples from real women who experienced real abuse. I have not included their names or any other identifying information.

Poverty

Many women with disabilities have fewer economic resources, thereby increasing their inability to seek help. Poverty is a factor that prevents many people without disabilities from seeking help. For women with disabilities, it’s a bit different.

Imagine you are a woman living in poverty and you are being abused.  You may not seek help because you fear that you will not be able to afford your own home, food, transportation, and other living expenses without your abusers financial assistance. You may have kids too. How will you be able to support them as well? These are real concerns that people with and without disabilities face.

With disability it goes a step further. Imagine you are a wheelchair user. You live in a rural area with no bus stop in your area. No paratransit either. You certainly don’t have a wheelchair accessible van because those things are ridiculously expensive and you can barely afford to pay your rent. How will you get out of your house to go to a shelter or any other place to seek help? Accessible taxi? Ha. They’re still fighting like hell to get accessible taxis in NYC, they certainly don’t have them in your neighborhood.

Fear

All people who experience abuse struggle to leave because of fear. Every person is different and fears different things, but people with disabilities have fears that people without disabilities don’t usually even think of.

Fear of losing assistance or being institutionalized

Say you’re a person with a disability that requires assistance from a personal care attendant, but your attendant is abusing you. Your attendant started off fine, helped you shower and get dressed, but eventually she became controlling. She started becoming more aggressive when helping you shower and dress. Then she started hitting you when you took too long to put your pants on. A few times when she got really angry she would put her cigarettes out on your legs. You want the abuse to stop, but if you report your attendant then you won’t have anyone to help you shower and get dressed every day. How will you get out of bed in the morning? If you go without an attendant for too long, insurance will deem that it is “unsafe” for you to live in the community without support so you will be sent to an institution. An institution where you lay in bed all day, eat whatever gross food they put in front of you, never go outside, and possibly experience more abuse. What do you do?

Fear that you will get in trouble

Now let’s say you’re a person with an intellectual disability. You live in a group home and one of the employees is sexually abusing you. You know what is happening is wrong, but when the employee touches you sometimes it feels good to you. You’re afraid to tell because you know what is happening is wrong, but you think you might get in trouble because it felt good to you. So you don’t tell because you don’t want to get in trouble.

Fear of Not being Believed

What if you’re a woman with a mental health disability? Maybe you have anxiety or depression or a personality disorder or maybe PTSD. You are being abused by your partner or your parent or someone else close to you. You want to tell someone about the abuse, but you fear no one will believe you because everything thinks you’re “crazy” already.

Fear of Further Abuse

You’re a woman with a disability that lives in the community and your attendant is abusing you. She hits you occasionally when she gets angry, she leaves you sitting in the same position for hours which causes you to get bedsores that become infected, and sometimes she thinks it’s funny to refuse to help you with your toileting needs and you end up sitting in your own feces for hours. If you tell someone, maybe your attendant will find out and make things even worse on you. Right now she only hits you sometimes and neglects you, but if you tell she might start hitting you more or worse. Maybe it’s better if you just suck it up and don’t tell anyone so things don’t get worse.

Inaccessibility

Physical Inaccessibility of Shelters

You use a wheelchair and your husband is beating the crap out of you all the time. You’re fed up. You know you shouldn’t have to take this. You find a way to get to your local women’s shelter to seek help when your husband is out of town for the weekend. You get to the front door of the shelter and you only see stairs. You can’t get in. So you call the shelter while you sit outside, staring at the steps that are preventing you from seeking help. They come out and agree to carry you and your chair inside. It’s humiliating, but you take it because it’s your only way to get away from the abuse. Once you’re inside you try to go into an office to talk to an employee, but the doorway is too small and you can’t get in. They come out and you meet in another area and then show you around the shelter. You try to get in the bathroom, but it’s completely inaccessible. The bed is so low that you can’t independently transfer yourself from your chair to the bed. So you can’t sleep there or go to the bathroom there or even get in and out of the door without others carrying you, how could you possibly stay?

Programatic/Systematic Inaccessibility of Shelters

You have multiple sclerosis. It’s hard for you to walk, but you make it to the shelter and decide you want to stay there to get away from your abusive partner. The shelter says you can stay but has a no narcotics rule. You take prescribed narcotics to treat the extreme pain you experience from your MS. They refuse to make a reasonable modification to their rules for you. So you can get away from abusive partner or you can treat your MS, but not both.

Inaccessible information

You’re blind and your boyfriend is verbally and physically abusive as well as completely controlling. He does not let you have a phone and sometimes he doesn’t even let you go to class. On a day he does allow you to go to school, you talk about domestic violence in one of your classes and different options victims have to seek help but you can’t read any of the handouts. You want to seek help from a shelter, so you skip your next class to go to the school library to google your local shelter before your boyfriend comes to pick you up. Unfortunately the website isn’t accessible so the screen reader can’t read any of the information. You don’t exactly want to ask the librarian to read the information to you either. Why is it so hard for you to seek help?

Communication Barriers

You’re Deaf and you use TTY to call your local shelter. When the person at the shelter answers, they don’t want to deal with TTY communication, so they hang up. You’re upset because you feel rejected when it took you so much courage to finally seek help, but you won’t give up. The next day you go to the shelter for help, but they refuse to get an interpreter so you can communicate with them. You demand an interpreter because you know your rights. You tell them the ADA requires them to provide an interpreter as an accommodation. They finally agree to provide an interpreter during meetings and therapy, but for the other 22 hours of the day you have no access to communication with others. No one else in the shelter knows sign language. You feel so isolated and alone. Maybe it’s better to go back to your partner. After all, he knows sign language. He communicates with you. And he doesn’t always hurt you. Maybe if you go back things will get better? At least you know you won’t be so alone.

Or maybe you have a speech disability. Your speech is difficult for others to understand and often people need to ask you to repeat yourself multiple times in order to get what you’re saying. You don’t mind repeating yourself but most people don’t have the patience to listen to you. Your attendant understands your speech, but your attendant is the one who abuses you. You try to tell others when your attendant is around, but everyone just smiles and nods, pretending to understand you. Will anyone ever listen?

Of course, what if you’re completely nonverbal?

Lack of Understanding

You Don’t Understand That You’re Experiencing Abuse

You have an intellectual disability. Your mom hugs you and kisses and feeds you, but she also yells at you, hits you, and controls everything you do. You know your mom loves you and you don’t like when she hits you and yells at you, but she tells you that she has to yell at you and hit you because you’re a bad girl and she needs to teach you a lesson. You don’t understand that she is being abusive, so you never seek help.

You Don’t Realize Specific Actions Are Abusive

Your husband loves you and he would never hit you. He’s never laid a hand on you. But, sometimes when he’s mad he refuses to let you have your wheelchair. He takes it away from you so you can’t reach it. You end up lying in bed for days sometimes – laying in your own urine because you can’t get to the bathroom. Sometimes you get bed sores from laying so much and twice the bedsores have gotten infected causing you to be hospitalized for days. But that’s not really abuse, right? He loves you. He’s usually very good to you, he just gets frustrated sometimes. It seems like an insult to women who experience real abuse to say that this is abuse. It’s fine.

 


For additional information, please see our article Domestic Violence Support For Women with Disabilities.

#yesallwomen Includes Women with Disabilities

 

This article was written by attorney and advocate Stephanie Woodward. It was originally posted on her blog Ms. Wheelchair Florida 2014 on May 29, 2014. It has been reposted here with her permission.


 

Domestic violence, sexual assault, and rape culture have been getting a lot of attention lately, especially with the #yesallwomen hashtag that has gained some serious momentum. I’m glad that this is on society’s radar right now, because as an advocate for ending domestic violence and rape culture, this is something that is on my mind every day.

Also, as a woman this is something that is on my mind every day. Every day I take steps to protect myself from sexual assault that most men never even think of. Every day I deal with statements and actions that perpetuate rape culture.

So yes, as a woman and an advocate I am glad.

But as a woman with a disability and an advocate for ending domestic violence against women with disabilities, I am disappointed.

I’m disappointed because these conversations about ending the violence, stopping the assaults, empowering women, and all that jazz never include women with disabilities.

This is a huge problem.

Why?

Well, for many reasons, but here’s just a few:

  • Women with disabilities are at least twice as likely to be victims of domestic violence and sexual assault than women without disabilities.
  • Women with disabilities experience abuse that lasts longer and is more intense than women without disabilities.
  • Women with disabilities are less likely to report domestic violence or sexual assault. Approximately 70% – 85% of abuse against people with disabilities goes unreported.
  • Studies estimate that 80% of women with disabilities have been sexually assaulted.
  • One study showed that 47% of sexually abused women with disabilities reported assaults on more than ten occasions.
  • Another study found that only 5% of reported crimes against people with disabilities were prosecuted, compared to 70% for serious crimes committed against people with no disabilities.
  • Women with disabilities are often perceived to be weak, unwanted or asexual, making us more vulnerable to sexual violence.
  • Some attackers have stated that they considered it a “favor” to rape and/or sexually assault women and girls with disabilities because they thought no one else would have sex with us, that we could not have sex otherwise, or they didn’t even view us as human beings.
  • Abuse has a more severe negative effect on the self-esteem of women with physical disabilities than those without disabilities.
  • Many women with disabilities have fewer economic resources, thereby increasing the risk of abuse.
  • Women with disabilities face limited options for escaping abusive situations and accessing battered women’s programs.
  • Women with disabilities are women too. Our voices, our thoughts, our bodies, and our lives matter.

I could keep continuing to list facts for you, but I’d be here all night. No, I’d be here for years. The point is that women with disabilities are women. We are human. We are sexual beings. And we are experiencing domestic violence and sexual assault and we’re experiencing it at much higher rates than any other population.

But nobody is talking about us. Nobody is talking with us.

Problems don’t get fixed if nobody knows the problem exists. By not taking a stand against the violence that women with disabilities face, we are essentially ignoring it.

No, we’re doing more than ignoring it. We are endorsing it.

When women without disabilities don’t step up to talk about and try to stop the abuse that women with disabilities face, they are endorsing that abuse. Just like when men don’t step up to talk about and try to stop rape culture, they are endorsing rape culture.

Just like rape and domestic violence isn’t a women’s problem, rape and domestic violence against women with disabilities isn’t just a problem for women with disabilities. These are both societal problems. Society needs to fix them. Men and women – with and without disabilities – need to work together on these issues.

So let’s start talking about domestic violence and sexual assault against women with disabilities because #yesallwomen includes women with disabilities.

Happy Holidays!

 

There have been a lot of big changes behind the scenes at GimpGirl in 2013, but the people who make up our amazing community – you – are still as wonderful as ever. We make connections, we educate, we share stories and successes and failures, and we grow what we are capable of together. As women with disabilities, all the things that we do together to create community benefits us all, and we are all endlessly grateful for it.

A screenshot of GimpGirl Community's new Second Life parcel(GimpGirl Community’s new Second Life space. (2013). Jennifer Cole.)

We were unable to do a holiday party this year due to technical issues, which we hope to have sorted out by our 16th anniversary in February. Stay tuned!

2013 In Review

We have posted many amazing articles this year, including Domestic Violence Support for Women with Disabilities, Hiring Aides, and When to Say Goodbye to an Aide.

We have also updated our blog roll of amazing blogs by women with disabilities, which you should definitely check out if you haven’t already!

One of our volunteers, Kaitlin Thompson, represented us at the Dare to Dream Conference (see video from her presentation).

We started working collaboratively with Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Research on Women with Disabilities, and resumed our weekly meetings after a brief hiatus over the summer.

… And there is much more to come in 2014!

 

Have a great holiday, and remember we are still active on Facebook and Twitter even though we are taking a break from weekly meetings until after the new year!

Do you have any favorite stories to share from 2013? Feel free to comment below!

Domestic Violence Support for Women with Disabilities

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!

Bibliography

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.