WWDA Submission to the Consultations on the National Initiatives of the Partnerships Against Domestic Violence Strategy

The National Partnerships Against Domestic Violence Strategy was launched by the Prime Minister in late 1997. The first two national projects of the Strategy will be a Community Education/Awareness Strategy and the Development of National Endorsed Competency Standards for workers with family violence. In mid 1998, the National Partnerships Against Domestic Violence Taskforce undertook consultations to inform the development of these two projects. This is a copy of WWDA’s submission in response to these consultations. Copyright WWDA 1998.

Women with Disabilities Australia (WWDA)

Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) is an organisation of individuals and networks in each State and Territory made up of women with disabilities and associated organisations. WWDA is an organisation run by women with disabilities, for women with disabilities. WWDA seeks to ensure opportunities in all walks of life for all women with disabilities. In this it aims to increase awareness of, and address issues faced by, women with disabilities in the community. It links women with disabilities from around Australia, providing opportunities to identify and discuss issues of common concern. WWDA works in partnership with other disability organisations and women’s organisations, and generates and disseminates information to women with disabilities, their families and carers, service providers, government and the media. WWDA is inclusive and does not discriminate against any disability.

Violence Against Women With Disabilities – Background and Context

In Australia, approximately 18% of all women are disabled and more than 50% of people with disabilities are women (Mulder 1996). Women with disabilities are among the most economically and socially disadvantaged of all groups in society. Over 50% of women with disabilities in Australia live on less than $200 per week, they are more likely to be institutionalised, less likely to own their own home, less likely to be employed, less likely to have completed basic schooling, obtain a university qualification, or successfully move from a rehabilitation program into employment; and less likely to receive appropriate services than men with equivalent needs or other women (WWDA 1998).

There is no statistical information available in Australia on the rates of violence against women with disabilities, including domestic violence. However, anecdotal evidence from women with disabilities about the incidence and significance of violence has been accumulating, and it is now so compelling it cannot be ignored (Sceriha 1996).

Although there has been very little research in Australia to date on the issue of violence against women with disabilities, overseas studies have found that women with disabilities, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or class are assaulted, raped and abused at a rate of at least two times greater than non-disabled women (Sobsey, 1988, 1994; Cusitar,1994; Stimpson and Best,1991; DisAbled Women’s Network (DAWN), 1988). Sobsey (1988) suggested that 83% of women with disabilities will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime. Fifty percent of women with disabilities have been sexually abused as children, and 39%-68% of girls with developmental disabilities before the age of 18 will be assaulted (Roeher Institute, 1988). Researchers states that the more disabled a woman is, the greater the risk of her being assaulted (Sobsey, 1994; DAWN, 1988).

Women with disabilities, like women without disabilities, are wives, girlfriends, daughters, sisters, lovers, carers and mothers. This means that women with disabilities, like their non-disabled counterparts, experience violence in all its forms, including domestic violence. The research which does exist, along with anecdotal evidence suggests however, that violence against women with disabilities differs in significant ways to violence against other women. For instance, it seems that there are factors which make women with disabilities both more likely to be targets of violence, and at the same time less likely to receive assistance or services if they experience violence. For example:

  • Women who are dependent on carers may be more vulnerable to violence than women who don’t depend on carers. Many women with disabilities are in positions where they rely on a carer to provide a range of needs – from basic needs such as eating and dressing – to more complex ones such as transportation. The control the carer has on the lives of women with disabilities can be misused and often the women do not have a choice. This is particularly the case when the carer is a spouse/partner.
  • A woman who is unable to speak may be seen by a perpetrator as an ‘easier’ target for abuse.
  • Women with intellectual disabilities and women with mental health issues who are living in an institution are more vulnerable to violence because of the nature of institutional settings.
  • Similarly, many women with disabilities are not believed when they disclose their experiences of violence. People in positions of power such as doctors, police, carers, spouses and family may deny that the woman’s evidence is credible.

Women with disabilities are marginalised by their disability and further discriminated against through their gender. As Chenoweth ( 1993) states:

‘Deeply rooted in hatred towards people with disabilities and compounded by the cultural oppression of women, abuse and violence towards women with disabilities is easier to inflict’.

Strahan (1997) asserts that the factors that lead to an increased targeting and vulnerability of disabled women and girls to sexual and domestic violence include:

  • social isolation and segregation;
  • low rates of education and employment;
  • powerlessness;
  • poverty;
  • dependence on carers;
  • ignorance that violence is criminal;
  • discrimination;
  • exploitation;
  • not being believed;
  • not knowing about services available to help;
  • a social denial that women and girls with disabilities are targets of violence;
  • lack of accessible information about violence;
  • lack of accessible and inclusive violence services.

Several other authors have attempted to analyse what it is that makes women with disabilities more vulnerable to violence, particularly sexual violence. The factors they cite include:

  • the cultural devaluation of women with disabilities (Belsky 1980);
  • devaluation based on age (Kreigsman & Bregman 1985);
  • overprotection and internalised societal expectations (Nosek 1996);
  • the experience of women with disabilities as having fewer opportunities to learn sexual likes and dislikes and to set pleasing boundaries (Womendez & Schneiderman 1991);
  • lack of access to sexuality counselling and information (Yoshino & Uchida 1981; Beckmann et al 1989; White et al 1982);
  • the by-products of living in extremely over protected environments (particularly for women with developmental disabilities) (Muccigrosso 1991).

Disabled survivors of domestic violence often have a difficult time escaping from their assailants. They are often financially dependent on these individuals, and the physical means of fleeing assault, such as accessible transportation, are often unavailable on short notice. Even if a disabled woman does escape, very few women’s shelters are accessible. Facilities without ramps and lifts, TTY’s or attendant care are not an option for women with disabilities. A woman with quadriplegia, in such an instance, could expect to find herself referred to a hospital or institution. In addition, disabled women with children who flee abusive situations run the risk of losing custody of their children because authorities may question their ability to care for them alone.

Behaviour or conduct of the perpetrator which may not seem threatening to an objective observer can be extremely frightening to a woman with a disability who is in an abusive relationship. Many women with disabilities are acutely aware of their own powerlessness – they may be more likely to fear harm due to the impact of their disability, particularly any physical, psychological or emotional dependency.

Research into access to services for women with disabilities who are subjected to violence (National Committee on Violence Against Women 1993) suggests that support and legal services generally have failed to respond adequately to women with disabilities who are subject to violence. A lack of knowledge of disability in general, and the needs of women with disabilities in particular, often prevents service providers effectively supporting women with disabilities after they have been subjected to violence.

Despite the high rate of violence and sexual violence against women and girls with disabilities, only 20% of all adult rape cases are reported to social service agencies or the police (DAWN 1996). This is not surprising when one considers the barriers disabled women face generally, and also those they face in the judiciary system (such as lack of credibility). Women with psychiatric and developmental disabilities, as well as women who have difficulty communicating and use alternative devices, are almost never believed. This lack of credibility is further complicated by public perception. Some people believe that a disabled woman should be “grateful” for any attention she gets, since she probably would not have sex any other way. Others refuse to believe a disabled woman could be sexually assaulted at all. Well-meaning professionals sometimes demonstrate these attitudes when they encourage women with disabilities to stay in abusive relationships, suggesting they should not expect anything better.

A major issue for many women with disabilities when reporting acts of domestic violence and seeking protection orders is credibility. Very powerful myths suggest that women with disabilities should not be believed when they report any form of violence against them. It is also quite clear that in many instances service providers will focus on the disability rather than the abuse (New South Wales Department for Women 1996). This is borne out in anecdotal evidence from women with disabilities. For example – a woman interviewed as part of a research project in New South Wales in 1996 said that when the police arrived after she had been assaulted by her partner and left bleeding in the gutter, the first question they asked her was whether she had taken her medication (New South Wales Department for Women 1996).

A more recent study undertaken in Australia had similar findings. The study researched the experiences of women who had been sexually abused whilst in psychiatric facilities during the 1990’s (Davidson 1997). A rather startling finding of the study was the fact that the majority of the women were not believed when they disclosed the sexual abuse to staff, including management staff. Several of the women reported that they were told that they were suffering from ‘delusions’ and/or that it was a symptom of their mental illness.

Focusing on the disability rather than the abuse has far reaching implications for women with disabilities who have been subjected to violence. It can result in their disabilities being ‘blamed’ for the abuse, in appropriate service provision, and in not being believed. Lack of credibility only contributes to further vulnerability for women with disabilities.

Women with disabilities face a multitude of barriers when attempting to access refuges. The main barriers for women with disabilities in accessing refuges can be grouped into the following areas: communication; information; attitudes; physical environment; accessing/using a service; and skills of workers (For more detailed information relating to these areas, see the report enclosed with this paper – ‘More Than Just A Ramp’ produced by WWDA in December 1997).

The Partnerships Against Domestic Violence Strategy and Women With Disabilities – Comments and Strategies for Inclusion

General Comments

The two national projects proposed by the Partnerships Against Domestic Violence Strategy provide an excellent opportunity to develop projects which model best practice in the prevention of domestic violence in Australia. These projects should aim to be inclusive of women with disabilities, who are the group most vulnerable to violence (including domestic violence) in our society. WWDA believes that these two national projects provide an excellent opportunity for the Commonwealth to set the benchmark in best practice which the States and Territories can work towards in any of their future projects under the Strategy.

In order to be inclusive of women with disabilities, it is important that the Partnerships Against Domestic Violence Strategy (and any national projects) recognise and consider that domestic violence in relation to women with disabilities may take different forms than those which are included in traditional definitions of domestic violence. WWDA acknowledges that most incidents of domestic violence are perpetrated by men against women in traditional relationships, such as husbands/male partners against wives/female partners. However, other forms of domestic violence, which are equally important and often affect women with disabilities can include:

  • emotional and psychological abuse;
  • financial abuse;
  • stalking;
  • demeaning and humiliating behaviour;
  • threats against third parties (such as children, animals);
  • threats to withdraw services and or care.

It must be recognised that ‘domestic’ situations for many women with disabilities are broader than the traditional understandings of what constitutes ‘domestic’. There are many domestic situations in which women with disabilities live, such as community based group homes, residential institutions, boarding houses, transition houses, shelters etc. For example, a woman living in a group home or residential facility can experience domestic violence from other residents; carers; and/or service providers. WWDA recommends that provisions be made in any projects under the Partnerships Against Domestic Violence Strategy to cater for women with disabilities in all their various domestic situations.

Comments on the Community Education/Awareness Strategy

WWDA understands that the first stage of the Community Education/Awareness Strategy will involve research which will focus on three possible target groups: the broad community; people from non-English speaking backgrounds; and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities (Partnerships Against Domestic Violence National Initiatives Background Paper 1998). WWDA strongly recommends that women with disabilities are included as a separate target group in this research because:

  • It is clear that women with disabilities experience violence (including domestic violence) at significantly higher rates than their non-disabled counterparts.
  • It is clear that there is an urgent need for research into violence against women with disabilities in Australia.
  • It is clear that women with disabilities face discrimination when trying to access violence services such as refuges.
  • It is clear that the needs of women with disabilities in Australia in relation to violence have essentially been ignored.

The Partnerships Against Domestic Violence Strategy must acknowledge these facts. It is imperative that the research stage of the Community Education/Awareness Strategy specifically targets women with disabilities. WWDA recommends that those undertaking this research work closely with Women With Disabilities Australia in all aspects of the research process.

Any Community Education/Awareness Strategy developed under the Partnerships Against Domestic Violence initiative must address issues of access for women with disabilities. WWDA notes that the Partnerships Taskforce is keen to ensure that materials are produced which are: relevant and accessible for all communities; able to provide reinforcing messages; adaptable and tailored to the needs of local communities; and responsive to the changing needs of communities. WWDA welcomes this commitment.

It will be important for those responsible for the development of the Community Education/Awareness Strategy to consult with WWDA regarding the development of accessible materials. As Cattalini (1993) states:

“Unless a special link has been made with a disability group it is unlikely that service providers which provide for such special populations would consider it necessary to include women with disabilities. Among the publicity material displayed [in services]…, material in braille or audio form, or in languages which could be understood by women with intellectual disabilities is rarely available”.

Accessible materials in this context of the Community Education/Awareness Strategy, will require the provision of materials in alternative formats, including: in braille; in large print format; by use of interpreters (Auslan and interpreters for non-English speaking background people); in Plain English; in Compic; in electronic format; and in any other way necessary to facilitate communication of the information.

Any Internet based material (such as information provided through a world wide web site) should be designed in accordance with the Website Accessibility Guidelines developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the AUS Standards for Web Design, both endorsed by the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Those responsible for the development of the Community Education/Awareness Strategy would also benefit from being familiar with the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992.

The Community Education/Awareness Strategy itself must include women with disabilities as an identifiable target group. The Strategy should include accessible information which:

  • informs women with disabilities about their rights;
  • informs the general public about violence against women with disabilities;
  • informs perpetrators that violence against women with disabilities is a crime;
  • informs women with disabilities about services available to help them escape violence.

Those responsible for the development of the Community Education/Awareness Strategy should also consult with WWDA on the most appropriate mechanisms for disseminating information developed through the Strategy. This will be particularly important in ensuring that the information developed reaches women with disabilities.

Comments on the Development of National Endorsed Competency Standards

WWDA welcomes the development of National Endorsed Competency Standards and believes that this initiative provides an excellent opportunity for setting the benchmark in best practice in the area of domestic violence sector training and workplace standards.

Research undertaken by WWDA has shown that there is an urgent need for training and professional development of workers in the domestic violence sector in relation to women with disabilities generally; and women with disabilities and violence specifically (for more detailed information refer to ‘More Than Just A Ramp’; WWDA 1997; and ‘Woorarra Action Plan’; WWDA 1997). As Aiello and Capkin (1984) point out:

“Victims of abuse and exploitation who are disabled need the same services as those who are not. Yet the misinformation and ignorance about disabled people that is common among the general public and many health and human service professionals make it difficult for agencies to provide the same quality services to their disabled clients. While it is not recommended that service providers develop new programs for their disabled clients, agencies must be prepared to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that those clients benefit equally from services. Such adjustments will include providing staff with training on disability, victimisation and their joint impact”.

Any training programs for domestic violence workers, residential care workers and other service providers must include awareness raising about the rights of women with disabilities to dignity, privacy, independence and to other rights which are often taken for granted by other members of the community.

WWDA believes that the National Endorsed Competency Standards (along with any other standards, protocols, and/or guidelines) developed under the Partnerships Against Domestic Violence Strategy should include standards that are disability focused. Skills and knowledge required of family violence workers, and reflected in the Standards, must include:

  • knowledge of disability issues; and issues facing women with disabilities;
  • knowledge of the Disability Discrimination Act (1992); Disability Action Plans; and other legal aspects of disability;
  • knowledge and skills in the area of client rights; disability rights; disability and other support services; referral and advocacy; attitudes to disability; social justice; access and equity;
  • knowledge of violence; disability and violence; the interaction of gender, disability and violence;
  • knowledge and skills in the area of dealing with women with disabilities who have experienced violence;

Attitudes, knowledge and skills required by domestic violence workers to meet the needs of women with disabilities need to be clearly articulated and embodied in service agreements and position descriptions.

WWDA recommends that the National Endorsed Competency Standards include the development of a Best Practice Standard for domestic violence workers working with disabled clients. Such a Standard should be developed in collaboration with women with disabilities and should be included in Service Agreements of relevant services (such as SAAP funded services).

In order for such Standards to be effective, WWDA recommends that they be supported by the development of a Women With Disabilities Training Module for domestic violence workers as a matter of urgency. This Module should be developed and conducted by women with disabilities, and funded through either the Partnerships Against Domestic Violence Strategy or the National Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (Commonwealth Department of Health & Family Services).

WWDA notes that a Project Management Group consisting of government and non-government expertise will be established to manage the National Endorsed Competency Standards (Partnerships Against Domestic Violence National Initiatives Background Paper 1998). WWDA strongly recommends that a representative of Women With Disabilities Australia be included as a member of this Project Management Group.