Domestic violence against disabled women is an issue “hidden” right in front of us. It has been absent from the news coverage surrounding Domestic Violence Awareness Month and from discussions among professionals who provide assistance and support to survivors. This omission is not only deadly, but fails to protect a demographic whose experience can often be tied to their disability identity. Domestic violence functions differently for disabled women. Consider these illustrations, which I’ve used in my own social work practice:
If I’m not in my wheelchair when a fight erupts, my partner will push my wheelchair out of my reach. This prevents me from being able to leave; I’m forced to listen to him berate me until he’s tired and feels like I “deserve” my chair back.
My girlfriend and I have been living together for six months. During this time, she has demanded that I quit my job, one that has given me the ability to live independently as a disabled person. I don’t want to risk being financially dependent on anyone, even though I love her. I have disabled friends who allowed their partners to be the sole breadwinner in the relationship, and I have witnessed them being financially abused—I don’t want that to be me.
Situations like these are all too common, as the statistics about abuse and violence for the largest minority group in the country show: Disabled people have a higher lifetime prevalence of experiencing abuse than non-disabled people, and half of disabled women will experience domestic violence during their lifetime, twice the likelihoodfor non-disabled women.
Among LGBTQ+ survivors of intimate partner violence, 27% identified as disabled, and survivors with disabilities were two times more likely to be isolated by their abusive partner. Importantly, however, the perpetrators of domestic violence are not just intimate partners; family members, caregivers, transportation providers, personal care assistants, and other service providers can also be abusers for disabled people.
The functionality of domestic violence can, and does in many incidences, have disability-specific methods, meaning that abusers manipulate a person’s disabilities and disability status to harm them or justify harm.
Acts of intimidation, such as pushing one’s wheelchair out of reach, are a tactic used to express power dominance. They evoke fear and vulnerability, and can leave the disabled woman at the mercy of her abuser. Though such tactics may not leave physical scars, the psychological scars are just as painful.
Other forms of disability-specific methods include isolation and financial dependence and exploitation. Being isolated, whether by choice or force, means that a disabled woman is prevented from having a support system that she can trust to share what is occurring in her relationship. Isolating her from those who could intervene is the goal; the abuser aims to destroy any connections that would interfere with their ability to control and harm.
Financial dependence and exploitation can show up as hindering a disabled woman’s ability to acquire and retain work, placing her in the predicament of relying on an abuser for money and support. This tactic can have a significant impact on disabled women due to the high proportion of unemployment and underemployment among disabled people, and disabled women specifically. Disabled women who receive disability benefits can also experience this form of abuse, as perpetrators may allege the woman is “incapable” of managing her funds and position themselves to be her representative payee to gain control and access. Stripping a disabled person of their financial power by forcing them to relinquish control of their money—whether they work or receive benefits—leaves them in a critical state of powerlessness.
Though domestic violence against disabled women is prevalent and the unique circumstances are profound, the issue flies under the radar within society and the systems that are supposed to serve, protect, and advocate with survivors.
Ableism is a major culprit for the lack of knowledge and support provided to this demographic. Some of the myths that contribute to the oversight declare that disabled people are non-sexual, childlike, and dependent, and are thus incapable of participating in relationships and controlling their sexuality. All of these misconceptions strip disabled people of their autonomy, right to self-determination, and expression. These myths have also played a role in the lack of sexual education provided to disabled people, which places them at a great risk of enduring violence and abuse that they may not have the ability to name. That lack of education also reduces their confidence and preparedness to report occurrences to the proper authorities and service providers.
In the same vein, authorities like the police are less likely to respond to violence reported by disabled people. Police only responded to 77% of reports regarding violence against disabled people, compared to 90% of reports regarding violence against non-disabled people. If the systems in place do not take the matters of violence against disabled people seriously, then how can disabled people, in this case disabled women, expect the system to do its job?
In addition to police inaction, there are also barriers to retaining appropriate and accessible services and supports. Information about domestic abuse warning signs and ways to get assistance if one is experiencing abuse and violence are less likely to be made available in Braille, large print, and other accessible translations. Furthermore, many resources do not explore the disability-specific ways violence and abuse are experienced by disabled women. This gap is undeniably endangering because some women may not recognize the abuse they’re enduring as being abuse at all—let alone worth reporting—if the example narratives they find are not relatable.
The lack of access is not just found within informative materials about domestic violence and abuse, but also in the actual services that are meant to support survivors. Some facilities, such as domestic violence shelters, may not be structurally accessible, so even entering the building to report or seek refuge will prove to be impossible. The American with Disabilities Act requires that public spaces be accessible, and domestic violence shelters fall within those parameters. As the National Domestic Violence Hotline noted, “under Title II, social services including domestic violence shelters must be made accessible for people with disabilities; Title III includes accessibility measures for public accommodations, which generally means spaces open to the public including counseling offices, legal services, doctor’s offices, translation services, and other shelters.” For service providers and their facilities to not be accessible to disabled people means that they are not adhering to the law, a mandate that has existed for 30 years. This inaccessibility impacts who can report and seek support for domestic violence and abuse, and disabled women are yet again overlooked.
Access barriers are not the only hurdles to bypass—systemic ones are just as harmful. If a disabled woman is experiencing abuse by her primary caretakers, which can include partners, family members, caregivers, personal care assistants, etc., she faces the dilemma of losing her caretaker support if she reports them. For some women, this increases the possibility of them becoming institutionalized if they are deemed unable of caring for themselves without the aid and care of their abuser. That also means disabled women who are parents may be deemed incapable of caring for their children without the assistance of the accused abuser, making such women less likely to report abuse for fear of losing custody of their children. Our system has a stark history of discriminating against disabled parents. This discrimination can place a disabled woman in the unfortunate predicament of enduring abuse in order to retain her parental rights, a choice no one should have to make.
Disabled women cannot be an afterthought in the conversations surrounding domestic violence. Their disability-specific challenges need to be considered, as well as the systemic and accessibility hurdles disabled women may encounter in reporting and finding support that is right for them, their needs, and situation. It is on us, especially those of us in positions to create policies, provide services, and lead activism, to be intentional in developing and establishing inclusive spaces for the voices and experiences that are most impacted and deserve to be centered.