Women with Disabilities and Domestic Violence: WWDA’s Response

A paper written and delivered by Karin Swift (B. Soc. Sci. Grad. Dip. Hum. Ser.) on behalf of Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) at the New South Wales Women’s Refuge Movement Conference, Furama Hotel Central, Sydney, 24 July, 1998. Copyright WWDA 1998.


All people with disabilities are at risk of disadvantage and discrimination. However, women with disabilities experience a “double disadvantage” because of both their disability and gender. Many have special needs arising from their disabilities. They may require assistance such as interpreters, aids, personal care or other forms of support to perform activities of daily living. All of these factors and societal attitudes towards women with disabilities combine to erect barriers to their full participation in society.

Chenoweth (1992) asserts that the devaluation and marginalisation of women with disabilities is such that it amounts to a “concentration or pile up of discrimination which is more exponential than merely cumulative”. These factors act as barriers which also restrict their access to the support which is becoming increasingly available to women who experience domestic violence (Buchmueller, 1996).

Issues for women with disabilities who experience domestic violence are a high priority for Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA). This paper aims to disseminate some information about WWDA the organisation. It also aims to discuss some pertinent issues concerning violence against women with disabilities. This paper will then examine projects that WWDA conducted in 1997 to assist women’s refuges to develop Model Disability Discrimination Act Action Plans.

In keeping with the theme of the conference, this paper will conclude by suggesting some practical strategies that workers in the field can use to reorient their services to more accessible ones for women with disabilities.

WWDA – The Organisation

WWDA is a federating body of individuals and networks in each State and Territory in Australia and is made up of women with disabilities and associated organisations. The national secretariat is located in Canberra, the capital city of Australia. WWDA is run by women with disabilities, for women with disabilities. It is the only organisation of its kind in Australia and one of only a very small number internationally (WWDA, 1998).

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 for them to identify and discuss issues of common concern (WWDA, 1998).

WWDA works in partnership with other disability organisations and women’s organisations and generates and disseminates information to women with disabilities, their families, carers, service providers, government and the media. WWDA is inclusive and does not discriminate against any disability (WWDA, 1998).

The objectives of WWDA are:

  • to develop a network of women with disabilities throughout Australia to work together for their mutual benefit;
  • to advocate for every woman with a disability to have the opportunity for true involvement in all levels of society;
  • to develop leadership and the sharing of responsibilities to enable women with disabilities to take their place in whatever section of society they choose;
  • to change social attitudes, practices and power relationships which discriminate against women with disabilities;
  • to lobby for the implementation of procedures and enactment of legislation which will advance and benefit all women with disabilities and combat sexism; and
  • to inform and educate the public with a view to advancing the opportunities for women in the political, creative, civil and social fields. (WWDA, 1998, p. 2).

WWDA has a comprehensive understanding of issues for people with disabilities, particularly women. WWDA has a commitment to providing employment and training opportunities for women with disabilities (WWDA, 1998).

This means that where possible, WWDA employs women with disabilities to conduct projects and undertake consultations. Women with disabilities manage WWDA projects and programs and provide consultancy services to the organisation as required (WWDA, 1998).

WWDA’s philosophy asserts that women with disabilities be equitably remunerated for their work and expertise, including for their input into consultative and review processes, management and advisory committees, and reference and working groups. WWDA is managed by a National Executive committee, which is elected each year at the Annual General Meeting. There are twelve members on the Committee, including at least one representative from each State and Territory branch. All members are women with disabilities (WWDA, 1998).

The National Secretariat is managed on a day to day basis by an Executive Director, who reports directly to the National Executive Committee. There is a branch of WWDA in each State and Territory of Australia, including a regional WWDA Group in Newcastle. All the State and Territory branches operate on a voluntary level. The national WWDA office employs two staff – one full time Executive Officer and one part-time bookkeeper. The national WWDA office also provides opportunities for women with disabilities on Job Start and Disability Employment Programs (WWDA, 1998).

The total membership of WWDA is currently, approximately fourteen hundred. Around two hundred and sixty four organisations are associate members of WWDA. There are no organisational members at this stage, because one of the criteria for organisational membership of WWDA is that a majority of the members of the organisation must be women with disabilities (WWDA, 1998).

Most organisations opt to join WWDA as associate members. The current individual membership of WWDA is made up largely of women with disabilities. WWDA membership is contained in a large data base with searchable fields which include: name; address; organisation; contact details; state/territory (WWDA, 1998).

WWDA has affiliations with around two hundred and sixty four organisations which are associate members. WWDA has and continues to, establish partnerships and alliances with a range of organisations in order to better meet the needs of women with disabilities in Australia. WWDA has established links with a number of relevant international organisations and now has a recognised international presence. WWDA is committed to developing strategic alliances with organisations and fostering collaborative approaches to projects and activities (WWDA, 1998).

Major Issues Surrounding Violence Against Women With Disabilities

Considering what is needed to ensure that women with disabilities have access to protection orders and to domestic violence services, information is seen to be a key issue. According to Cattalini (1993, p. 23), “Women with disabilities believe that they have often been deprived of the knowledge they require to deal with their experiences of violence”.

Cattalini (1993, p.23) goes on to argue: “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.

The communication differences of women with disabilities is a related issue. Of the communication differences, the most prominent mentioned in the literature were those caused by impaired sensory, manual or speaking skills (Aiello & Capkin, 1984). Societal intolerance and impatience with these differences compound the communication difficulties of persons affected by those impairments (Buchmueller, 1996).

Isolation, both social and physical, is another factor contributing to the difficulties faced by women with disabilities in knowing about domestic violence laws and services and the means of accessing them. In many cases this isolation is heightened by the absence of family, social support and a lack of other women with whom to network. This isolation can be even more extreme for rural women with disabilities. Such isolation compounds their vulnerability. The combination of lack of information, isolation and the requirement to appear at court are powerful deterrents for women with disabilities experiencing domestic violence (Buchmueller, 1996).

Knowledge of women’s rights is another area of concern. Cattalini (1993, p. 23) states: “Many [women with disabilities] are not aware that women consider violence to be unacceptable behaviour. Those who have experienced violence over a period of time have often considered it to be “normal” behaviour or have at least believed that as no one else was concerned, it was futile to try to deal with it.”

Following on from the issue of rights comes actually recognising the violence. McPherson (1991) expresses the view that women with disabilities are beginning to recognise violence because they are gradually becoming a more visible part of society as a result of increasing de-institutionalisation. While this may be so, it is important to acknowledge that many women with disabilities may remain in institutions and it is crucial that there are safeguards in legislation to protect them from abuse in those settings (Buchmueller, 1996).

Cultural values and religious beliefs can also mitigate against recognition of violence. If the beliefs and practices of a cultural or religious group devalue women and confine them to stereotyped and subservient roles, they can be made more vulnerable to domestic violence and accept it as an inevitable aspect of being a woman (Buchmueller, 1996).

Another important issue for women with disabilities regarding domestic violence is their perceived lack of credibilityby society. This is seen to arise from certain myths and assumptions identified by Chenoweth (1992, p. 10). The common myths are:

  • women with disabilities are asexual – they have no sexuality;
  • women with intellectual and psychiatric disabilities are promiscuous;
  • women with disabilities should not have children as they are not fit mothers;
  • women with disabilities who have been sexually abused do not suffer the same trauma as other women when similarly abused;
  • women with disabilities should be grateful for any sexual advance made towards them because they are so unattractive;
  • women with disabilities are just like children;
  • women with disabilities do not need to be taken seriously;
  • sterilising women with disabilities will protect them from rape; and
  • women with disabilities who do speak out or make complaints are trouble makers, crazy or led by irrational advocacy groups.

Because of these inappropriate perceptions Chenoweth (1992, p. 10) goes on to argue that the following ramifications result:

  • Many women with intellectual disability miss out on sex education so that when abuse occurs they know something is wrong but are not sure what it is;
  • Women with disabilities often have a learned passivity which is especially reinforced in institutional and residential settings;
  • The degree of physical dependency and fragility of support may prevent a woman from reporting abuse by a caregiver. When a woman is dependent upon her abuser for basic personal care, making a complaint may render her even more helpless;
  • Many women with disabilities have to live in institutional or residential settings away from public scrutiny and with little or no access to police or support services, lawyers or advocates. More abuse occurs “behind closed doors”;
  • Women in service settings may be exposed to large numbers of personal assistants or support workers;
  • Motivated by a need for power and control, offenders may choose victims who are unlikely to resist or report.
  • Even when women with disabilities do reach out for help or justice, services such as shelters, domestic violence support services, legal services are often inaccessible or do not know how to respond to women with disabilities.

Physical, financial and/or emotional dependence on the perpetrator is perhaps one of the most important issues when considering the circumstances of women with disabilities. A lack of finance and income support to move out of their domestic circumstances and the additional costs associated with having a disability are seen as compounding factors for women with disabilities affected by domestic violence. The major source of financial support for most women with disabilities is that provided by Centrelink. This is barely enough to cover the basic costs of living and the costs associated with disability (ie. Wheelchairs), let alone the increased costs involved with leaving a violent relationship (Buchmueller, 1996). McPherson (1991, p. 49) argues; “Women with disabilities are most likely to be assaulted by those closest to them – relatives, caregivers and friends – in most cases men”.

She goes on to suggest; “What makes it even more difficult for a women with disabilities to leave a violent situation is that she is often dependant on the very person abusing her for support care and financial support” (McPherson, 1991, p. 49).

Accessible, appropriate and reliable transport is an unmet need for most people with disabilities. This issue can be further compounded in situations where the perpetrator may be the provider of the woman’s only form of transport. She may even be prevented from using a telephone for assistance, or may be unable to do so (Buchmueller, 1996).

Domestic violence services not catering for the special needs of women with disabilities is another issue of concern for those seeking access to refuges. McPherson (1991, p. 49) provides an example:

  • A woman who uses a wheelchair finally summoned up the courage to leave an abusive relationship. She went to a woman’s shelter – and spent the next month in bed. We’re not as likely to slam the door in her face anymore – but God help her if she needs accommodation to deal with her disability.

The level of funding to domestic violence services limits the capacity for them to provide both the requisite training for workers and appropriate levels of support and care for women with disabilities. Another aspect of the ways in which shelters do not meet the needs of women with disabilities include their physical design and internal arrangement. Wheelchair access is not provided to all shelters.

Among those which are wheelchair accessible often only one or two bedrooms and bathrooms are wheelchair accessible but other rooms such as kitchens and living areas may not be accessible (Buchmueller, 1996). On surveying the evidence presented thus far in this paper, it is apparent that there are currently few options within domestic violence services for women with disabilities experiencing violence or abuse. For the few who gain access to a shelter, this lack of options continues when it is time for them to leave. This overall situation is to the detriment of women with disabilities as it forces them to continue living in situations where they are in grave danger. At worst, such danger could lead to their death (McPherson, 1991).

WWDA Projects Addressing Women With Disabilities and Domestic Violence

The issue of violence against women with disabilities has been identified by WWDA members as a major issue for them. WWDA has responded to the expressed needs of women with disabilities in relation to violence issues by undertaking a range of innovative projects, as well as lobbying government to effect policy and legislative change to protect women who experience violence, in all its forms (WWDA, 1998).

In 1997 WWDA conducted two projects, funded by the Office of the Status of Women, to assist government funded women’s refuges and services around Australia to eliminate discrimination against women with disabilities by implementing DDA Action Plans. As defined by the report, an action plan is:

  • a “plan of action” which identifies barriers which may result in discrimination against women with disabilities or children with disabilities who need to or are using a refuge. The Action Plan recommends strategies to eliminate barriers and devise ways for monitoring and evaluating the plan’s implementation (Strahan, 1997a, p. 23).

Both of these projects were exciting for WWDA as they were the first of their kind that dealt with women with disabilities’ access to women’s refuges and violence services. The “More Than Just A Ramp” report is the Model Process which is a step by step guide services, especially women’s shelters, can use to help them develop DDA Action Plans. The report outlines in great detail the steps to writing an action plan.

The “Woorarra Refuge Action Plan” report is the result of a pilot WWDA undertook with a women’s refuge in Victoria to develop an Action Plan for the service. In the course of the Project the women’s refuge involved, Woorarra, has undergone a vigorous access audit, as well as an examination of its policies and procedures. Perfect independent physical accessibility from the street into the refuge is impossible, short of lowering the mountain. The Action Plan recommends strategies to eliminate these barriers and mechanisms for monitoring and evaluation. (Strahan, 1997b).

Woorarra will need to approach the Department of Homelessness and Family Violence within the Department of Human Services and the Department of Housing to discuss responsibilities, resources and finances, as the resources for major physical changes cannot come from Woorarra’s existing budget. Staff and management at Woorarra see the potential for the refuge to become a positive model for refuges, domestic violence services and relevant government departments alike, throughout Victoria and perhaps Australia as a very exciting opportunity. The DDA Action Plan will be implemented within the context of other significant changes in the Victorian domestic violence sector such as the restructure of refuges and the implementation of any revisions of the Action Plan of the Federal Department of Family Services as it relates to SAAP services (Strahan, 1997b).

Practical Strategies Addressing Violence Against Women With Disabilities

In this section of the paper strategies are proposed, from both a service viewpoint and a broader societal context, for responding to the issues of women with disabilities in relation to domestic violence.

The formulation of a DDA Action Plan is a pertinent strategy refuges can use to address violence against women with disabilities. The steps in formulating an action plan are from the “More Than Just A Ramp” report:

  • Develop a good working group.
  • Familiarise yourself with the barriers in your service.
  • Consult and involve women with disabilities.
  • Educate your organisation about the DDA.
  • Ensure that you are well supported.
  • Develop strategies.
  • Resource the Action Plan.
  • Negotiate with relevant government departments.
  • Determine responsibility.
  • Evaluate. (Strahan, 1997a, p. 28).

It is apparent that both domestic violence services and disability services also need to develop collaborative approaches in working out how to support women with disabilities who wish to leave situations of domestic violence. Another aspect of providing supportive environments for women with disabilities requires the co-ordination in the provision of links between shelters and community nursing and other services, to meet the special needs of women with disabilities. These needs could be for personal care, medication for psychiatric illnesses, interpreter services and so on (Buchmueller, 1996).

Purpose built shelters designed and constructed to provide wheelchair accessible and secure environments are advocated. A preferable long term solution is to provide purpose built structures which ensure that all shelters and crisis accommodation is fully accessible throughout.

Among the specific strategies that are necessary are the training and professional development of domestic violence workers to be sensitive to the needs of women with disabilities and to give workers the knowledge and skills to respond appropriately. Aiello and Capkin (1984, p. 15) make the following point:

  • 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.

It would be necessary also to ensure that training programs for domestic violence workers, residential care workers and other service providers 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.

Provision of information is another matter of high priority. To address this issue “user friendly” information about domestic violence services is seen to be necessary at places where women with disabilities could have ready access (Buchmueller, 1996).

Such information needs to be presented in clear and concise language that is easily understood. Written material that uses large visual media is particularly appropriate for women with intellectual disabilities (Buchmueller, 1996).

Doctors surgeries, hospitals, disability organisations, respite services, special schools and at venues for social groups are appropriate places for such information to be available. The need for that information to be in several forms – braille, on audio tape and in simple, accessible language is important (Buchmueller, 1996).

A related concern is the need for measures to address the communication differences of women with disabilities. Face to face communication in seminar format, for example is proposed as an effective means of informing women about issues associated with domestic violence, their rights and other important issues. Appropriate support also in the form of interpreters and advocates to assist women with communication and to represent their needs in seeking either redress or treatments for the effects of domestic violence are essential (Buchmueller, 1996).

Knowledge of women with disabilities’ rights, the ability to recognise domestic violence and to manage issues associated with physical and emotional dependence on partners and carers are issues which can be addressed by education.

Public education programs would also be required to debunk the prevailing myths which deprive women with disabilities of their full status as members of society and to create the public awareness necessary for the creation of inclusive and supportive communities.

Broadly based education programs are viewed as a key strategy in changing the circumstances of women with disabilities. Such education needs to focus on the situations of women with disabilities wherever they live and in whatever residential settings they reside – whether in family homes, group living situations, or in institutions. This information would provide the basis for essential education programs for services and within the community, and thus, improve the standard of service provision to women with disabilities (Buchmueller, 1996).

Isolation – both physical and social is identified as a key issue for women with disabilities who experience domestic violence. To reduce this isolation their inclusion in the total range of organisations and activities available to women generally in the community is proposed as a necessary strategy (Buchmueller, 1996).

Inclusive policies and practices at all levels of society is seen as being important, as is the involvement in women’s networks such as WWDA that are supportive and sensitive to the needs of women with disabilities who experience domestic violence. Similarly, the need to link those women to existing groups for women is advocated. Outreach to domestic violence services to include them is seen also to be a desirable strategy to reduce their isolation (Buchmueller, 1996).

If the needs of women with disabilities are to be recognised, it is paramount that they be provided with protective legislation which is accessible to them. A possible option in this context is the amendment of legislation so that the definition of a “domestic relationship” is extended to include family members, carers, fellow residents and partners. This amendment would extend the protection of the Act to many of the circumstances in which women with disabilities live (Buchmueller, 1996).


Violence against women with disabilities is a serious issue. Many women with disabilities share common issues with other women who experience domestic violence. Their disabilities can increase their vulnerability to violence because of their level of dependence on relatives, friends and carers. They are most likely to be placed in situations they cannot leave – or worse still, do not recognise or acknowledge the violence perpetrated against them and may be unaware of the options available to them (Buchmueller, 1996).

This paper has provided background information about the issues women with disabilities face concerning domestic violence. This paper also examined the role and function of WWDA and looked at projects they undertook in 1997 to address the serious issue of women with disabilities and domestic violence.

Practical information and strategies were included for service providers so that they could utilise them to make their services more accessible, equitable and responsive to women with disabilities. The necessity to implement practical strategies on a service level and a societal level was acknowledged.

Above all, proactive and inclusive legislation was seen as being a key strategy in addressing the issue of women with disabilities in relation to domestic violence.

Putting in place all of these discussed safeguards will protect women with disabilities from any further violence and violations of their human rights and will acknowledge their right to take a valued and recognised place in society (Buchmueller, 1996).


Aiello, D. & Capkin, L. (1984). ‘Services for Disabled Victims’; Response. Fall pp. 14-16.

Buchmueller, K. (1996). Women With Disabilities and Domestic Violence: Issues and strategies. Brisbane: Queensland Women’s Consultative Council.

Cattalini, H. (1993). Access to Services for Women With Disabilities who are Subjected to Violence. Canberra: Australian Government Printing Service.

Chenoweth, L. (1992). Invisible Acts: Violence against women with disabilities. Brisbane: QUT School of Social Science.

McPherson, C. (1991). “Violence Against Women With Disabilities: Out of sight, out of mind”, Canadian Woman Studies. Vol. 11. No. 1.

Strahan, F. (1997a). More Than Just a Ramp: A guide for women’s refuges to develop Disability Discrimination Act action plans. Canberra: WWDA.

Strahan, F. (1997b). Woorarra Women’s Refuge Disability Action Plan. Canberra: WWDA & Woorarra Women’s Refuge.

“Women With Disabilities Australia. (1998). About Women With Disabilities Australia. Canberra.