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Disabled Women And Domestic Violence

April 12, 2010

I recently read something in the latest (April 2010) issue of Disability Now magazine that, being a disabled woman myself, and having a general interest in issues related to women’s rights, particularly domestic violence, I strongly feel is worth looking into, since I don’t think it usually gets enough attention.

Disability Now reporter Cathy Reay has written an article in which she highlights the cases of four disabled women, who have all experienced domestic violence. The article mentions a research report, published by Women’s Aid in late 2008, which examined the issue of disabled women and domestic violence. The study reported now seems slightly old, but I’m going to cover some of its main findings here.

The research takes into consideration violence carried out against disabled women by their partners and ex partners, in same sex as well as heterosexual relationships. It also considers violence carried out by others who have close relationships with disabled women, such as their family members, carers and personal assistants. These are both strengths of the research. A weakness, however, is that abuse experienced by disabled women in institutions was not considered, although the researchers say in the report that they recognise that violence is carried out in such places.

The researchers focused particularly on the experiences of disabled women who had experienced abuse in same sex relationships, disabled female refugees who had experienced abuse, and disabled women from ethnic minorities, particularly South Asian or Afro-Caribbean disabled women, who had experienced abuse. They focused specifically on the experiences of women with physical and sensory disabilities.

A strength of the study was that it was carried out over two and a half years, a long period of time, and in two stages. Another strength was that an advisory group of disabled female consultants worked with the researchers throughout the study.

In the first stage of the study the researchers carried out national surveys of Women’s Aid branches and other domestic violence organisations and disabled people’s organisations.

In the second stage they carried out interviews and case studies with disabled women who had experienced abuse.

The first stage of the study found that domestic violence organisations recognise that they need to make their services more accessible to disabled women. Interviewees working at such organisations identified the need for:

  • More accessible refuge accommodation and other safe housing for disabled women so that abused, disabled women know there is somewhere to escape to.
  • More outreach services
  • Better publicity and advertising to improve the information available.
  • More awareness of disabled women’s needs in domestic violence services across the board, and the development of a deeper understanding of the impact of abuse on disabled women’s lives.
  • Clear and fully developed disability policies.
  • Better partnership with disability organisations.
  • Increased and high quality disability equality training across the board.

This part of the study also found that very few disability organisations cover the issue of domestic violence. However, the few disability organisations that responded to this part of the study identified the need for:

  • More information available to disabled women about sources of help and advice in relation to domestic violence. Lack of information leaves disabled women vulnerable to abuse.
  • Attention to abuse perpetrated by PAs, other carers and family members, issues which have been widely neglected.
  • Many more accessible refuges, taking accessibility in its widest sense. The lack of such refuge spaces severely limits the options available for abused disabled women and was a specifically stated concern for most of the disability organisations concerned.

Fear of the loss of care packages and of the work involved in setting up a new one was identified as a reason why disabled women may not want to leave an area to escape domestic violence.

So, say the researchers, disabled women experiencing domestic violence are left in a distressing, desperate and possibly life-threatening situation because of a lack of appropriate services, information and escape routes.

The second stage of the study, in which researchers interviewed 30 disabled women, found that 25 of these women had experienced domestic violence in heterosexual relationships and two of them had experienced domestic violence in same sex relationships. Three women reported experiencing domestic violence from their personal assistants and five reported experiencing domestic violence from extended family members, including, shockingly, their children. Some women had had more than one violent partner.

The women interviewed had experienced abuse for periods of time ranging from one to 22 years. The periods of time were longer for severely disabled women who were dependent on their abusers.

The interviewees reported experiencing several different kinds of abuse- physical, sexual, emotional and financial.

In particular, this part of the study found that disabled women are likely to experience:

  • Higher levels of sexual abuse than non-disabled women.
  • Higher levels of degrading emotional abuse, particularly related to being disabled.

Every one of the women interviewed stated that being disabled affected the abuse and made it worse, and that the experience of domestic violence is different for disabled women.

Several of the women interviewed had never asked for help, either formal or informal, for the domestic violence they experienced. Some of these women blamed themselves for the abuse, others were known in their local areas for disability related campaigning and felt they couldn’t speak out about their personal problems.

The refugees and women from ethnic minorities feared racism or thought they would not be understood. The two women who had been in abusive same sex relatonships thought they would not be taken seriously if they asked for help.

Personally, while going through these findings I have noticed that some of the reasons given by the women interviewed for not seeking help for the abuse they experienced are worryingly similar to reasons given by both male and female victims of disability hate crimes in general for not reporting such incidents to the police.

Also at Pickled Politics.

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