Information about domestic violence and the experience of women with disabilities

Women with disabilities are more likely to experience violence and for more extended periods of time than women without disabilities¹. Some of the many reasons for this include:

  • Social myths – people with disabilities are often dismissed as passive, helpless, child-like, non-sexual and burdensome. These prejudices tend to make people with disabilities less visible to society and suggest that abuse, especially sexual abuse, is unlikely.
  • Learned helplessness – people with disabilities, particularly people with cognitive disabilities or those who have been living in institutions for a long time, are encouraged to be compliant and cooperative. This life history can make it harder for a woman to defend herself against abuse.
  • Lack of sex education – there is a tendency to deny sex education to people with intellectual disabilities. If a woman with no knowledge of sex is sexually abused, it is harder for her to seek help because she may not understand exactly what is happening to her.
  • Dependence – the woman may be dependent on her abuser for care because her disability limits her economic and environmental independence.
  • Misdiagnosis – authorities may misinterpret a cry for help; for example, a woman’s behaviour might be diagnosed as anxiety rather than signs of abuse. In other situations, workers may not be aware that domestic violence also includes financial or emotional abuse, or may not be sensitive to the signs.
  • The abuser takes control – if the woman seeks help, follow-up may be difficult because the abuser isolates her and prevents her from using the phone or leaving the house.

Barriers to women with disabilities getting help

Some of the reasons why women with disabilities may not get help include:

  • Disability policies tend to rely on family members taking care of the person, which is disastrous if the carer is also the abuser.
  • Since the abuser is often the caregiver, the woman is denied information and access to help services.
  • The wide range of disabilities means there is no distinct ‘group’, so there is no ‘one size fits all’ policy to adopt nor any easy way to access all of the women who need help.
  • Domestic violence workers may not be educated about the issues facing women with disabilities, and disability workers may not be educated about domestic violence.
  • The various agencies that help people with disabilities aren’t cross-referenced as thoroughly as they could be, which creates service gaps. For example, a woman might be referred back and forth between two agencies, such as sexual assault services and disability services, without receiving help from either because she falls outside the guidelines of both agencies.
  • Studies and statistics on women with disabilities and domestic violence are few and far between, so agencies may not be aware of service gaps.

Content reproduced from the Better Health Channel website

Footnotes
  1. Domestic violence and women with disabilities, Better Health Channel website
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