‘Unjustified Hardship – Homelessness and Women with Disabilities’
A Paper by Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA). Copyright WWDA 2004.
Background – the position of women with disabilities in Australia
Women with disabilities in Australia are not only one of the most disadvantaged groups in society, but also clearly one of the most marginalised, neglected, excluded and isolated. Women with disabilities are ignored in Government legislation, policies and programs. Their issues and needs are neglected within services and programs across all sectors. They are excluded from social movements designed to advance the position of women, and the position of people with disabilities (Frohmader 2002).
There are 3.6 million people in Australia with a disability, making up 19 per cent of the total population. The proportion of males and females with a disability is similar (around 9.5 per cent each) although it varies across age groups. Women with disabilities are less likely to be in paid work than other women, men with disabilities or the population as a whole. Women with disabilities are less likely than men with disabilities to receive vocational rehabilitation or entry to labour market programs. Women with disabilities earn less than their male counter parts and are less likely to receive a senior secondary and/or tertiary education than men with disabilities. Women with disabilities are substantially over represented in public housing, and are less likely than other women without disabilities to receive appropriate health services, particularly breast and cervical cancer screening programs. Women with disabilities are more likely to be institutionalised than their male counterparts and are often forced to live in situations in which they are vulnerable to violence. Girls and women with disabilities are more likely to be unlawfully sterilised than their male counterparts and are assaulted, raped and abused at a rate of at least two times greater than non-disabled women (ABS 1990, 1993; Frohmader 2002; Mulder 1996; Roeher Institute 1990, 1991, 1995; Sobsey 1988, 1994).
Housing situations are precarious for many women with disabilities. A decline in the supply of low cost housing, an increase in unemployment and the level of poverty, and changes in the service delivery policies of specialist services, have increased the risk of homelessness for many Australians. The impact of these changes is even greater on the more vulnerable among the homeless, most notably, women with disabilities. There are a range of factors which make women with disabilities the most vulnerable group to homelessness or risk of homelessness in our society.
General issues that impact on the homelessness or risk of homelessness for women with disabilities
The following issues contribute directly to the homelessness of women with disabilities or construct an environment in which the risk of homelessness becomes an aspect of the daily life of many women with disabilities.
Additional costs of living with a disability
Women with disabilities carry the additional costs of their disability, which compound their lack of options in the housing market. Watson (1995) details a range of such costs, including those of modifying dwellings internally and externally to provide access as well as costs incurred by the need to purchase personal care and accommodation support services without which quality of life and level of independence would be severely restricted. In addition, health care costs are an enormous drain on the resources of many women with disabilities. These additional costs; which women with disabilities require to do the ordinary activities which human beings do, reduce the real value of incomes and can potentially lead to a situation of risk (Cooper 1993).
Women with disabilities face discrimination in accessing housing, in the private and public rental market. Security of tenure is a matter for concern, particularly in private rental accommodation. Anecdotal evidence collected by WWDA indicates women with disabilities have experienced substantial levels of discrimination against them by private landlords. Discrimination is rarely overt, but many women with disabilities who have been rejected as tenants feel that they are perceived to be incapable of caring for a rental property, and that landlords are unwilling to ‘risk’ their property (Anderson 1996; Currie 1996).
Safety is a concern for women with disabilities. Many dwellings have inadequate safe guards, such as security screens and doors, and lack smoke detectors. Access streets to homes are often poorly lit. Women with disabilities need access to support services in order to maintain their independent living style. The location of their accommodation needs to be close to transport and all other amenities. Access to such purpose-built dwellings is limited and often makes security of tenure a crucial issue for many women with disabilities. Without access to safe, accessible and secure housing the risk associated with potential homelessness is made greater (Currie 1996).
Deinstitutionalisation has been heralded as a breakthrough for women with disabilities to provide them with the opportunity to become part of the wider community, especially to those who are able, and who wish to, live by themselves or as autonomously as possible. The reality is that while institutions have been closing, the essential support services for women attempting to integrate into the community have not kept pace with their needs. Consequently, many live in inappropriate accommodation, where they are vulnerable to abuse. Alternatively, women live without adequate support in the community (Cooper 1993).
Women with disabilities experience considerable difficulties in obtaining relevant information about leaving an institution, finding accommodation elsewhere. The lack of supports available in the community is a major disincentive to women to leave institutions. Selection procedures for public housing are often identified as a source of frustration and discrimination by women with disabilities (Curie 1996).
Lack of accurate data
Women with disabilities are an immensely diverse group who consequently have diverse housing needs and wishes. While conducting research, WWDA found that one of the greatest difficulties in determining the needs and wishes of women with disabilities is the acute lack of available gender and disability specific data from within national data collection sets eg SAAP. Without such data effective needs analysis and program planning cannot occur. WWDA sees this issue as a systemic variable that contributes to the (potential) homelessness of many women with disabilities.
Specific issues with SAAP services that lead to homelessness or risk of homelessness for women with disabilities
The following issues, specific to SAAP services, have been identified by WWDA through its regular work with its constituency and through special projects such as the Domestic Violence Project. These issues mean that many women with disabilities cannot access the services specifically set up to assist with homelessness and risk of homelessness. WWDA considers as fundamental the rights of women with disabilities to have access to the same accommodation as non-disabled women. WWDA regards this lack of access to SAAP services as an equity and social justice issue.
There is very little information targeted to women with disabilities with regard to SAAP services. Many women with disabilities are unaware that services exist, how to reach them, or how accessible they are. Access does not only include physical access.
Existing information is often not available in a range of formats. For example printed information is ‘only paper’ to a visually impaired women. Information in PDF format sent via e-mail is unable to be accessed by many women with disabilities.
Because of the lack of Telephone Typewriter (TTY) services in domestic violence referral/outreach services, the only option for Deaf women would be to use the relay service. This is often inappropriate as it has an operator listening in who may know the person or leave the woman uncertain that her view of the situation is being appropriately relayed.
Once inside a refuge communicating refuge/service procedures and rules often do not take account of the particular needs of a woman. For example a woman with memory difficulties may be presented with everything in one main sitting.
There is very little training available to workers in SAAP services regarding women with disabilities. The common story through WWDA’s work is that disability services and non-government agencies tended not to have knowledge or expertise on domestic violence issues for women with a range of disabilities; and that domestic violence services more often than not did not have awareness or the skills to work with women with disabilities. There are always exceptions to this, with many workers being very well intentioned, however good intentions are not enough.
Physical environment/access to personal care
WWDA found that the term ‘purpose-built’ is a grandiose term and often gives a false impression. In reality, it means that there might be access via an often precarious ramp, through the rear entrance into the main part of the house, where a bathroom and toilet are (usually) accessible. No other facilities, like kitchen and laundry equipment, are generally accessible. This means that women with disabilities are rendered unable to manage daily personal tasks, like cooking and washing, and are forced to seek assistance. They are then not ‘self-managing’ – and they are ineligible for access to crisis accommodation.
The lack of personal care available in SAAP services can prevent women with disabilities from accessing them. This can be a result of services not knowing what support is available. It can also be due to a service’s policy requiring clients to be self managing or not allowing care agencies to provide services within services, such as refuges for security reasons.
WWDA maintains that since all people are dependent on others to some degree, women with disabilities simply have a higher level of need than women without disabilities: with appropriate accommodation assistance support and personal care services they are, in fact, ‘self managing’.
Referral agencies know that most refuges are physically inaccessible and will not accept women who require assistance in personal care; therefore, applicants with such needs are not even referred to a refuge.
Lack of access to aids and appliances can prevent women with disabilities from using a SAAP service. It may not be necessary for each service to carry all types of equipment. Equipment ‘pools’ should be developed so that services within geographic areas can share the resources. TTY telephones should be installed in all SAAP services and referral agencies for use by deaf and/or hearing impaired women.
The Disability Discrimination Act
All SAAP services in Australia have a legal obligation under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 to provide services for people with disabilities. The DDA makes it unlawful to discriminate in the provision of goods, services or facilities against people on the basis that they have, have had, or may have, a disability. The Act also makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person on the basis that one of her or his associates may have a disability. The Act requires that people with disabilities be given equal opportunity to participate in and contribute to a full range of social, political and cultural activities. Access for people with disabilities to goods, services and facilities provided by non-government organisations can no longer be an afterthought. The DDA promotes and protects equality of access for people with disabilities – including attitudinal, informational and physical access.
DDA Action Plans
WWDA encourages SAAP services to develop Disability Discrimination Act Action Plans to address the discrimination of women with disabilities who need to access SAAP services. The Disability Discrimination Act (1992) allows Commonwealth and State government departments, public authorities, educational institutions and anyone who provides goods or services to develop Action Plans. Action Plans are strategies which identify discriminatory practices and develop blueprints for bringing about changes to those practices. Action Plans place the onus to remove discriminatory practices on the organisation rather than on disadvantaged individuals.
About Women with Disabilities Australia (WWDA)
WWDA is the peak organisation for women with all types of disabilities in Australia. It is a federating body of individuals and networks in each state and territory. WWDA is run by women with disabilities, for women with disabilities. WWDA addresses disability within a social model, which identifies the barriers and restrictions facing women with disabilities as the focus of reform. The aim of WWDA is to be a national voice for the needs and rights of women with disabilities and a national force to improve the lives and life chances of women with disabilities. WWDA’s major roles, functions and activities include: provision of systemic advocacy; research and policy development; project development and implementation; education and information provision; and addressing the issue of empowerment and women with disabilities both individually and collectively.
WWDA’s policy priority areas for 2004-2009 include: Violence against women with disabilities (including unlawful sterilisation); Health (with a particular focus on cervical screening, breast screening and screening for osteoporosis); Housing and accommodation; Disability support; Employment and income support; Information and communication technologies; Education; and Women with disabilities at risk. Further information about WWDA can be accessed through their website http://www.wwda.org.au
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