Cycles Are Hard To Break: Disability and Domestic Violence
According to a 1997 study which I see cited in a lot of places but can’t actually find a copy of, unfortunately, 85% of women with disabilities in the United States have experienced domestic violence. Other studies pinpoint the rate at lower levels, but seem to generally agree that women with disabilities are at least twice as likely as able women to experience domestic violence and intimate partner abuse.
For women with disabilities, domestic violence is a very serious issue which is complicated by disability. It can take many forms, including insidious ones which outsiders would not necessarily recognize as domestic violence, and intervention becomes complex when you realize that many crisis and counseling centers are inaccessible. The limited resources available to able women are even more limited for disabled women.
When I worked for a domestic violence and sexual assault hotline/crisis center several years ago, one of the questions I was most commonly asked by outsiders was: “well, why don’t women just leave?” Many people are aware that the answer to this question for able women is: “it’s a complicated situation.” Take that to the power of 12 for a woman with disabilities: How can you “just walk out the door and don’t look back” when you’re a wheelchair user being kept on the inaccessible second floor and you’re dependent on your abusive partner to get out the door?
For women with disabilities, leaving an abusive relationship may mean losing a carer. It may mean losing children, because the courts are often reluctant to award custody to women with disabilities. It may mean being deprived of autonomy by people who think that people with disabilities cannot make their own decisions. It may mean institutionalization. It may also end with being forced back into that abusive relationship.
Women with disabilities who experience domestic violence can be made financially and physically dependent by their partners. Patterns of abuse can include depriving women of medication and routine care. They can include total isolation from friends and family members. They can include sexual abuse, ranging from rape to forced sterilization. They almost always involve total control and the use of coercion and threats; physical violence does not have to be present for a relationship to be abusive. They often involve deprivation from financial and social independence, including economic abuse in the form of confiscating funds which belong by rights to the disabled partner.
People with disabilities often literally lack access to domestic violence resources in their communities. They may not be aware of domestic violence services and may be unable to label what they are experiencing as domestic violence. If they attempt to report abuse, they may face disbelief, even from people like members of law enforcement who are supposed to take such reports seriously. Indeed, women with disabilities may encounter social attitudes that suggest that they actually deserve to be abused; “caregiver fatigue,” people say. “It looks abusive but it’s really not,” they also say. The abusive partner may in fact be praised by members of the community, and viewed with sympathy by people who view the disabled partner as a burden and who are not seeing the dynamic at home.
Help is increasingly available for able women in domestic violence situations. The same is not true for women with disabilities. There needs to be a greater push for accessibility in shelters. A greater push for intervention services specifically targeted at women with disabilities, including training for counselors and advocates which includes discussions of the unique axes of oppression experienced by disabled women. There needs to be a greater awareness of the fact that trans women are even more likely to experience intimate partner violence in their relationships, and that abusers often target disabled trans women. There needs to be a recognition of the fact that, for abusers, disabled women make a particularly appealing target.
Is your local domestic violence center accessible? Is it trans-inclusive? Does it focus on heterosexual relationships, or does it recognize that abuse can occur in a broad spectrum of relationships? Does it specifically offer disability services? Does it respect neurodiversity? Do representatives of disability services in your community know how to look for the signs of domestic violence and receive training in intervention? What is your community doing for disabled women experiencing domestic violence?
The feminist community at large has made domestic violence an important issue, but what is it doing for disabled women?