Sanctuary for the Abused
Wednesday, May 19, 2021
Disabled Women & Domestic Violence
Domestic Violence & Disabled Women
By Holly A. Devine MSW, Program Director,
and Carol Briggs, Outreach Coordinator, Barrier Free Living Domestic Violence Program
Domestic Violence is a societal problem that affects women and children of all races, cultures, and ethnicities. However, the problem has been increasingly noted among the disabled population as well. According to the Colorado Department of Health, upwards of 85% of women with disabilities are victims of domestic violence. There are approximately 223,000 in New York City alone.
In spite of the prevalence of domestic violence within the disabled community, there is little awareness of the problem, and there are not enough services in place to work with this population. A majority of people working in domestic violence services are either poorly informed about the problem, or have little experience working with women with disabilities.
Women with disabilities stay in dangerous conditions significantly longer than their able-bodied counterparts, 11.3 years vs. 7.1 years in situations of physical abuse, 8.3 years vs. 4.1 years in situations of sexual abuse, according to a study done by Baylor University. This is due to a number of factors; there is a lack of recognition of the problem, a lack of services available to disabled victims of domestic violence, and high levels of dependence that can cause a woman with a disability to be controlled by their partner or caregiver.
Women with disabilities may view themselves as “damaged goods.” This coupled with abuse serves to decrease one’s self-esteem. Women with disabilities are often dependent upon the abuser to meet their daily needs. Their partners may also be their caregivers. This contributes to the victimization in many ways, an abuser may be able to exert control by withholding of SSI checks, restricting access to transportation, withholding of TTY’s (telecommunications device for the deaf), withholding of wheelchairs and medications, refusal to assist with personal needs and restricting access to family and friends. As a result, a woman with a disability may be forced to stay in an abusive relationship for many years before she reaches out for help. Many women with disabilities accept this behavior due to a different set of dynamics than their able-bodied counterparts.
A deaf women may be forced to use the abuser as her sign language interpreter, due to unavailability of interpreter services. She may fear that her children will be taken away if the abuse is reported. A study done by Barrier Free Living showed that children were removed from deaf victims at a significantly higher rate than from hearing victims. This was due solely on the basis of deafness; legal, mental health, and child welfare systems operating in the city often make assumption about a woman’s ability to be a good parent based on their disability. For example, if a woman has an infant child the court would say the mother was unable to hear the baby cry and therefore unable to care for the child’s needs.
In cases where the abused is wheelchair bound, reporting is uncommon. The victim very often is totally dependent on the abuser to care for their daily needs, this may include personal hygiene, food and clothing. The victim may stay in the relationship out of fear of what will become of her once the abuser is no longer in the household to provide care for her needs. This becomes a major reason for why a disabled victim may find it more difficult to leave an abusive relationship.
Women who were born disabled often come from controlling, overprotective families. They may view controlling behavior by their partners as normal.
A woman who has been abused in her family of origin has come to see abuse as normal and expect it in a relationship.In the deaf community women will seek out an able-bodied hearing male as a partner because this is viewed as a form of status in the deaf community. In addition, able-bodied men often seek disabled women as partners. These men are looking for an imbalance of power in a relationship, that is the hallmark for abuse. Women with disabilities view their exploitive partners as better than nothing, thereby allowing for a denial of the problem.
Clearly, there is a need for services for disabled victims of domestic violence. Currently there are no domestic violence shelters in place for disabled victims and only one non-residential program that provides services to this population. There is, however, a need for shelters specifically designed and dedicated to disabled victims of domestic violence.
A woman in a wheelchair will need accommodation. For example, doorways that are wide enough, a ramp to gain access to and from the building, hallways that are wide enough, a wheelchair will need to get within three feet of the toilet in the bathroom. A blind individual will need Braille throughout the facility, possibly an accommodation for a seeing eye dog. An individual who is deaf will need staff culturally sensitive to deaf issues. Deaf people may not view themselves as disabled, this is a culture; they have their own community. A deaf individual will also need a sign language interpreter. It is not always acceptable for a family member or friend to interpret for a deaf victim of domestic violence. This may lead to an inaccurate account of the issues. Police officers and service providers need to be trained to assist disabled victims of domestic violence in meeting their needs.
Domestic violence has a powerful impact on women with disabilities, not only physically, both mentally and emotionally as well. Symptoms may include: Depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, self-destructive behavior or self mutilation and low self image. If service providers become adequately trained on the issue of domestic violence and disability, they will be better able to empower disabled victims of domestic violence to take control of their lives, and break the cycle of power and control.