Women with Disabilities and Domestic Violence

Written by Madge Sceriha. Paper presented to the National Domestic Violence Forum, Parliament House, Canberra, September 1996, by Madge Sceriha for Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA). Copyright WWDA 1996.

There’s a sizeable population of women with disabilities in our society – 1.5 million it’s estimated which is about 16% of the female population (Mulder 1995:15). For this paper I was asked to address the specific issues for women with disabilities:

  • in accessing information about the resources available to us in domestic violence; and
  • in accessing the services themselves.

I could also have been asked what specific issues are there in accessing the information itself, for there is little disability specific data collected in Australia (or elsewhere incidentally) and even less that is both disability and gender specific. Anecdotal evidence from the stories of outspoken women, their families and friends who have spoken about the incidence and significance of violence against women with disabilities has been accumulating, however, and is now so compelling that it can no longer be ignored.

We do now have some visibility, we are here at this forum after all. But I wish I could be sure just what image was in your mind as I talk about women with disability. We would want it to be a true picture of us as women. Women with thoughts, feelings, passions and needs; a varied, lively, outspoken group overall. But it could be that what in your minds is the stereotypical image created around the many myths about women with disability. Myths that are often as contradictory as they are untrue. What I mean is that some myths create an image of childlike, passive helpless, somewhat sad beings who like to be with their own kind (O’Toole and Bergante, 1992) while others create an image of frightening, dangerous and certainly asexual creatures who are best avoided, who should preferably be shut away and most certainly never, never, be allowed to bear children who may be freaks like them (Chenoweth, 1993).

It could be that you have little image at all, That wouldn’t be surprising because it is argued that ‘women with disability have fallen through the gaps of definition, theory and consciousness [and that this process] has manufactured a silence around them and their experiences’ (Thomson cited in Chenoweth, in press).

Our experiences are very real though. Experiences of living in a society which itself could be described as having multiple disabilities in that:

  • It is blind and deaf to both what happens that shouldn’t and what doesn’t happen that should, and it seems to be paralysed when it comes to making the changes necessary for women with disability to achieve their rights to access, choice, safety , power, work, health family [and] home (NGO Forum, Beijing); and
  • ignorance, neglect, superstition and fear are social factors that throughout the history of disability have isolated persons with disabilities (United Nations 1994).

But that’s letting society off too easily though for, far from being disabled, our society is more appropriately described as ignorant, uncaring and in fact, disabling. Women with disability are among those most affected by this propensity. (Barton, 1994)

If you doubt this to be so, think about the value placed on the body beautiful, functioning perfectly, and the images of womanhood created around this ideal. Women soon ‘learn there is nothing about an imperfect body to celebrate, such a body is a cause for shame’ (Stone cited in Chenoweth 1996). Furthermore, individualising disability as personal tragedy, which happens all too often, shackles the individual up to emotional blocks which are cemented in place by pity and sentimentality. Women with disability are likely to experience these disabling influences from an early age and to gather along the way to adulthood the consequences of other oppressive influences rampant in our society like racism, homophobia, classism, and of course, sexism which cuts across all of these (Chenoweth, 1996).

The image of women with disability is no doubt distorted because of our position at the margins of society. Don’t forget that it is not long since many women with disability were well and truly hidden in institutions. Many of these institutions, euphemistically called ‘homes’, have been exposed as hothouses within which ‘cultures of violence’ have been able to flourish in symbiotic relationship with ‘cultures of silence’. (Chenoweth, 1996). When people are marginalised, they can be hidden, ignored, silenced and more easily targeted by perpetrators of violence. And the chilling conclusion that has been drawn from overseas and here, is that women with disability:

  • face higher risks of physical and sexual assault than women generally and that the abuse and violence against them is easier to inflict because it is deeply rooted in hatred towards people with disability and compounded by the cultural oppression of women. (Mulder, 1995;17)

While ever we have people and institutions in our lives fulfilling the roles that family members fill in other women’s lives women with disability are at a high risk of violence. The perpetrator may be a paid carer, advocate, volunteer, worker, taxi driver, partner or other family member – anyone in fact in a position to exercise power over our lives.

How is it that such high levels of abuse have gone unidentified for so long? Let’s name some possible reasons:

  • the women themselves may not know they have a right to protest;
  • nor may they know they have the right to protest about being kept ignorant of this and other rights;
  • the women may feel powerless to protest anyway especially if dependent on the abuser; and
  • the women may feel powerless to protest because the medical, legal and police professions are dominated by non-disabled males – we know that the process of reporting is traumatic for any woman and we need to know it is likely to be exacerbated for a woman with a disability confronted by the double jeopardy of ableism and sexism.

All too often stories have come out, but who has listened, believed and, most importantly, taken action to stop the violence?

These reasons highlight the powerlessness of the victim/survivors and the indifference of our society to their plight. Many women escaping violence in the home face further abuse through the systems from which they seek help. Women with a disability do too but often with some extra evidence of abuse of power that reflects prevailing negative attitudes towards us. One of the reasons these negative attitudes persist is because of the powerful influence of all those myths about us.

Myths and their consequences

It’s worth considering these myths in a little more detail here because they underpin problems women with disability encounter in accessing information about resources available to us in domestic violence and in accessing services themselves.

I’ve already mentioned myths about:

  • women with disability being perceived as asexual ie to have no sexuality yet
  • there’s another myth that says women with intellectual and psychiatric disability are promiscuous.

I’ve mentioned too the myth about:

  • women with disability being not fit to be mothers.

Add to this the myths that say:

  • women with disability do not need to be taken seriously, they are just like children; and the one about women with disabilities who do speak out or make complaints being trouble makers, crazy or led on by irrational advocacy groups.

If myths like these go unchallenged they are likely to perpetuate the beliefs that women with disabilities are unlikely to be in intimate, sexual relationships in the first place let alone to have children. Popular belief would have it indeed that, if women with disability are in such relationships, they are likely to have made up stories about anything to do with victimisation because after all a bloke must be some sort of a saint to have taken on such a partner, so he’s hardly likely to be an abuser is he!

There are few mothers with disability who will have escaped the cruel, judgemental scrutiny of them in their role as mothers, A woman has to have a strong sense of their own identity to withstand these sorts of messages even in the best of environments. If that mother is seeking refuge and support as a result of violence, she’s likely to bring her experience of societal disapproval of her as a mother with her and fear that her children will be taken away from her. Fear of being seen as a an unfit mother is not uncommon for non-disabled mothers at such a time of relationship breakdown but it is exacerbated for mothers with disability all too familiar with being under the critical eye of society. This fear may discourage seeking help.

Then there’s the myth about:

  • women with disability should be grateful for any sexual advances made to them because they are so unattractive and anyway sterilising them will protect them from rape.

And we have a convenient process for silencing victims. We have also a convenient defence for inaction and/or refusal of assistance by individuals and agencies. In effect this belief serves to hide the crime, silence the victim and let the perpetrator off the hook. Why isn’t it more widely known that it is estimated ‘.. that women with an intellectual disability are ten times as likely to be assaulted as other women?’. (Chenoweth, 1996)

Surely such findings should raise questions about connections that could be made between, on the one hand, the prevalence of the belief that women with intellectual and psychiatric disabilities are promiscuous and, on the other, the high incidence of violence against them. These beliefs are so easily taken advantage of by abusers who can then hide behind the implications of such a belief. It lets them off the hook by ‘blaming the victim’. Indeed these women are seen as ‘fair game’ and more easily targeted. Furthermore, because the perpetrator is considered innocent until proven guilty, the woman is often considered guilty until proven innocent. For women with disability this can mean that they do not receive the support or respite they may need, nor are they necessarily made safe from further attack. Reporting the abuse can seem like an exercise in futility – who’ll listen, believe and act to stop the violence?

I’ve used the word ‘targeted’ just now and elsewhere in this paper because this seems to be a more appropriate choice than ‘vulnerable’. Vulnerable emphasises the victim’s part in the violence when it is the violent act of the perpetrator who did the ‘targeting’ which should be emphasised.

These myths I’ve raised certainly target women with disability and exacerbate their experience of abuse by getting in the way of services providing for women with disability and in the way of women with disability knowing about their rights to such provision. Worse still, when women with disability internalise these beliefs they are not likely to have the necessary knowledge to identify the seriousness of the violence against them. All too often they believe they are to blame and may accept unquestioningly being discounted by those to whom an appeal is made for help.

Moats and drawbridges

What happens if the woman can’t make that appeal for help because she is dependent on specialised assistance to communicate her need and/or to be able to leave the abusive situation? When the person who customarily provides that specialised assistance is the abuser, the woman is trapped. The question ‘why doesn’t she leave’ so often asked of women in abusive situations, has a particularly poignant and very pragmatic explanation for these women. What is a more serious concern is that it is a question which may not even get to be asked of her.

Women who need specialised assistance have a right to access it as a service they can purchase as independent women and to be able to make the choice from a range of options. Such access has the potential to preclude any hint of dependence on a violent partner and provide fewer opportunities for any power differential in a relationship to be abused. A woman who does not seek refuge could have her personal attendant come to work with her there, provided security requirements were met. Alternatively a refuge could link with services providing such specialised assistance and, in partnership with the woman with disability, make appropriate arrangements.

We must move beyond the fact that it’s the disability which always seems to be the most significant and certainly the defining characteristic when women seek out refuge and support in emergency accommodation. This is so much so that many of these women are perceived to be the responsibility of the disability services and referred on. The experience of violence for these women is effectively minimised by such responses. The reasons given for the referral are usually not unrealistic but that does not mean they are to be accepted as inevitable.

Referring on is a soft option really, unless it is determined in conjunction with the woman concerned that this is the most appropriate choice for her. Making a referral to a disability service simply because the woman has a disability or to a hospital or other option that provides her with a bed is really irresponsible practice. We cannot make assumptions about the operation of such services, we most certainly cannot make assumptions about their expertise to support the women appropriately as victims/survivors of violence. Because we must also identify such violence as a gendered crime, referring on to a disability service with male workers may be most insensitive if not dangerous.

There has been excellent work done in developing an access manual for transition housing by DAWN, the Canadian DisAbled Women’s Network who identified the ‘… appalling … depth and severity of the abuse against women with disabilities … [and the lack of ] access to support services to deal with the problems’ in their country. (Masudya and Ridington, 1992:v)

Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) has been active in highlighting how women with disability are among the most disadvantaged in our society and this more easily targeted for violence. This disadvantage is reflected :

  • in their being denied educational and employment opportunities;
  • in their poverty (exacerbated by the hidden costs of disability);
  • in their lack of involvement in the design of services supposed to be for their benefit;
  • in their invisibility in national data collection; and
  • in the dearth of research about their lives.

We’ve just begun to work with groups of women with disability in developing awareness of rights, sexuality, violence, and all the issues which affect women with disability in our society.

Through this work, we have identified these areas for particular, immediate focus and despite our limited resource, we are making some progress:

  • promoting research and data collection which is disability and gender specific, in order to break the cycle of invisibility we find ourselves in;
  • promoting the education of agency workers and policy developers in disability rights and issues;
  • promoting the education of disability workers about violence and gender issues;
  • promoting the education of women with disability regarding their rights, their bodies and services available to them;
  • forming links between the stakeholders to ensure that women with disabilities can access the services they need. For instance, personal care or sign language interpreters for women entering refuges;
  • ensuring that crisis response services comply with the Disability Discrimination Act, including access issues and promotion of the employment of women with disabilities. (For instance, WWDA has proposed the development of Action Plans under the Act);
  • counteract the negative stereotypes of women with disability that promote them as targets of violence; and
  • there are integrated models being developed in response to violence in the home in some parts of Australia. Women with disability need to have a place in such models. That is because the integrated model is a co-ordinated approach and through such a process more of the barriers to understanding and inclusion might be broken down.

We need time, resources and the support of government and the community to unravel the complex issues around violence in the home not only as it affects women in spousal relationships, but also as if affects women with disability who live in group homes and/or who have intimate involvement with personal care attendants on a day-to-day basis.

As one commentator has said: “Disabled people mainly live in a world which consists of ‘Wait a minute,’ and so their lives go by ignored, continually abused by those with power and who exert control” (Anne Macfarlane, 1994)

Well, we are not waiting any longer!


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