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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.