Women With Disabilities and Violence

This is a transcript of a speech written and given by Kali Wilde at the launch of WWDA’s 1997 report entitled: ‘More Than Just A Ramp’ – A Guide for Women’s Refuges to Develop Disability Discrimination Act Action Plans. The report was launched at the Women’s Emergency Services Network (WESNET) National Conference in December 1997. Copyright 1997.

Hello and welcome to this launch – I am Kali Wilde. This is an exciting moment for both myself and the members of WWDA. It is not only the end of a very successful project, but it is an outcome of many years of lobbying and activism that I, along with many women with disabilities, have been carrying out.

As a woman with a disability, I know about the high levels of violence that women with disabilities experience. Having worked in refuges and medium term accommodation programs, I am also aware of the barriers which prevent women with disabilities from accessing women’s services, both as service users and workers.

I have been agitating for change for women with disabilities since the early 1980’s by addressing conferences such as this one, working with advocacy groups, forming unholy alliances between diverse groups to get them to work together on the issue, stimulating organisations such as WWDA to take it up, talking informally with Women With Disabilities Australia and women’s services, and encouraging other women with a disability to take the issue up. I am also a member of WWDA’s Violence Reference Group and was on the Steering Committee for this project. This project is an exciting step for women with disabilities who have been fighting, especially over the past 20 years, to have their voices heard.

WWDA itself is a revolutionary act. Defying the medical and pathologising labels of disability, WWDA includes women with any type of disability – women with psychiatric disability, intellectual disability, physical disability, acquired brain injury, sensory disability, or chronic illness. WWDA is an embodiment of the social analysis of disability which people with a disability have developed and adopted over the past 20 or so years, recognising that disability is a construct of the way our society is organised to exclude. The invisibility of women with disabilities is a testament to this. Next time you think that disability access is not an issue for your services, because you don’t see women with disabilities in your service, consider that at least one in five women who experience domestic violence is a woman with a disability.

As Jenny Morris says: “in situating disability and gender it is common to find that our society thinks of certain characteristics as naturally a consequence of disability, primarily poverty, loneliness and stigma…..(I would add, experiencing violence and exclusion). However, the experience of disability is culturally diverse. In Western society, disability is largely determined by class, gender, race and the way in which economic relationships are defined and the accompanying ideology. All this has set women with disabilities at the margins of social and economic activities and institutions”.

Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of this project and of WWDA has been the collaboration of women with disabilities and the domestic violence sector. From the design, the Steering Committee, the working groups, the consultants and the focus groups, women with disabilities have worked, sometimes alone and sometimes in collaboration with domestic violence services and policy makers. As the Disability Council of New South Wales states: “nothing about us without us”. The success of WWDA’s project lies largely in the control that Women With Disabilities retained over it. They have not only the experience but the expertise to develop strategies and solutions for the elimination of discriminatory barriers.

Many women contributed to the project, and WWDA would like to acknowledge and thank the women with disabilities who contributed their experiences, expertise, time and energy to assist the process and make sure that at least one refuge would be inclusive. WWDA would also like to acknowledge the support of the Commonwealth Office of the Status of Women.

Responsibility for the outcomes and recommendations of this project, however, lie not just with women with disabilities. WWDA, individual services, State and Commonwealth Supported Accommodation Assistance Program offices, referral services and outreach services, the Offices of the Status of Women, and State women’s departments, all have an important role to play in realising the rights of women with disabilities to safety and refuge.

Women with disabilities who experience violence are often caught in a loop of services, being referred from women’s services to disability services and back again, as each looks at the woman as a client they can’t help. The report “More Than Just A Ramp” gives you a guide as to how to go about changing your services to be truly inclusive and to meet the legal requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act. The Disability Discrimination Act makes it unlawful to discriminate in the provision of goods, services and facilities on the basis of disability. Inclusiveness for women with disabilities is not only about abiding by the law – it means better services for all women. Better communication, better physical access, better relationships between women’s services and other sectors cannot do anything but improve the quality of service for everyone. This will involve, not only changing physical access, communication methods and attitudes, but also requires looking at policies which may be either directly or indirectly discriminatory.

The Woorarra Women’s Refuge Disability Action Plan details how one service, and many women with disabilities, worked together to identify barriers, and develop solutions to providing access for women with disabilities. It gives detailed timeframes, who is responsible for what, and will be a useful document for you to use as you work to make your own services accessible.

I would like to finish up with a message for this conference. One of the themes for the conference is ‘service provision models’. Does the current model really service the needs of all women? If your services find it difficult to include ALL women then the model may well be at fault.

These reports, and the women with disabilities who have come to this conference have valuable information and insights to assist you in designing new models of service provision, models which are based on the needs and experiences of ALL women. Use them.