Disability and Domestic Violence Apologism

Content note: This post discusses a domestic violence case involving a woman with disabilities, and includes details on domestic violence apologism as well as threats made in the court room.

Disability and domestic violence are intersecting issues with very serious consequences. People with disabilities are more likely to experience domestic violence and we are also less likely to receive assistance. We may be afraid of reporting, we may not be believed when we do report, and when our cases do go to court, sometimes the attorneys supposedly prosecuting our abusers engage in domestic violence apologism.

A recent court case in England is a classic example of what often plays out when people with disabilities are abused and report it. Two pensioners were married for 37 years. In 2003, the wife1 experienced a stroke. Seven years later, her husband started abusing her, because he apparently decided that her disability was an ‘act.’

On May 9 at about 11am [she] was sitting at the lounge table doing some paperwork. Earlier she had put some logs on a woodburner. He came in and said was she trying to burn the house down and then hit her around the head three or four times. She grabbed the phone to call the police but he took it off her and threw it in the fire. She then left the house and tried to get in her car but he took the keys.

‘She got in anyway and locked herself inside. He then drove his car in front of hers to block it, not that she could get anywhere as she didn’t have any keys. She called the day centre and her daughter for help. After about half an hour her daughter and son arrived.’

The next day, she reported her abuse to social services, and it ended up in court. Here’s what the defense said about the husband’s actions:

‘He couldn’t get any help with her because where they live is so remote so they were stuck together and the frustrations built.’

This type of apologism comes up a lot. ‘She made me do it’ is a classic excuse used for domestic violence regardless of disability status, and with disability in particular, it’s very popular, evidently, to make claims that it was the disability that drove the abuser into becoming abusive. This naturally legitimises abuse, because while people condemn it on the surface, they secretly think things like ‘well, he was under lots of pressure’ or ‘I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a caregiver’ or ‘it must be so hard to have no help.’ Caregiver abuse becomes acceptable because, well, disability is just such a burden and it’s so hard and they didn’t get the services they needed.

Caregiver abuse doesn’t stop with cases like the one above. There have been a number of cases this year alone where caregivers have killed people and it’s reported in the media as a tragedy for the caregiver. Courts tend to return more lenient verdicts to abusers and murderers when disability is involved, because of ‘unusual circumstances.’ And people wonder why some people with disabilities are concerned about caregiver abuse. When abuse of people with disabilities is painted as something sad or hard for their families to deal with, instead of abuse of human beings, when caregivers are given lenient sentences because ‘the disability drove them to it,’ it normalises caregiver abuse.

It’s bad enough that the defense and, apparently, the court in this case thought that the husband was somehow justified in behaving abusively towards his wife because she was disabled. The prosecutor also had to join in:

That day when he told her off about the fire, she gave him cheek so he slapped her.

Where have I heard this before? Oh, only in every single reported case of domestic violence ever. Was it really necessary for the prosecutor to hop on the victim-blaming bandwagon too? When the media and defense attorneys constantly parrot lines like this, it reinforces the idea that some people just deserve domestic violence, and when the prosecution joins in, it, well, it makes me really angry.

Because, guess what? No one deserves domestic violence. No matter how much cheek or lip or sass or anything else is involved. No person deserves to be hit. No person deserves to be deprived of mobility. No person deserves to sit in court while the attorney supposedly acting in her interests suggests that, well, she kinda deserved it.

Oh, but this case gets worse.

The 68-year-old was ordered to pay £150 compensation to [her] but he told the court that, as they had a joint account, he would hand it over to her and she would simply put it back in the bank.

Economic abuse is extremely common in domestic violence situations, especially when they involve people with disabilities. The fact that this man openly admitted in court to the fact that he would do this shows me exactly how much contempt he had for the court, the law, and his own wife. And the fact that the court didn’t sit up and take notice is a sad but not surprising reminder of how often people turn their heads in the other direction in the face of domestic violence and abuse.

The victim has been relocated and, from what I understand from the article, is living independently with an aide. That’s the one bright spot here: Too often in cases like this, the victim is forced to return to the abuser.

  1. The news story names the individuals involved in this case, but I prefer not to.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

6 thoughts on “Disability and Domestic Violence Apologism

  1. Let people have paid aides. That will provide the violent partner with fewer excuses for his violence and give the victim a better chance to act against it. Last, but by no means least, it will kill the apologist argument that care-giving is so hard.

  2. Thanks for this post. I can’t believe this woman’s prosecutor betrayed her like that. “Cheek?” What is this, the 50’s? Ugh.

  3. Thanks for posting this. I’m trying to get better about equal rights issues and this post made me aware of another horrible ingrained belief I have.

  4. Eva, I agree- paid aides are huge part of the solution. Unfortunately, with the way many governmental systems are set up, those aides are likely to be poor women of color who are paid very little. Often, in my experience, caregivers themselves often become disabled because of the nature of care giving activities (lifting, for example, can have long-term health consequences). Technology and money are needed as well as aides. There are many technologies that can help PWD. And aides should be well-paid and well-trained on how to avoid injuries.

    As a PWD who has worked as a caregiver, I have to say, there are no easy solutions. Many caregivers where I live are immigrants (some are undocumented). Many are working under the table. Most are female. Most have not had the chance to go to college. For caregivers, there is little chance of advancement or of earning a higher wage. These inequalities also need to be addressed when we talk about care work.

  5. Thanks for writing this article. It’s a real eye opener and very sad.

    The narrative of how terribly hard it must be for the caregiver (while ignoring how hard it is for the person with disabilities) is a common one and I’d bet that most PWD have experienced it in a more watered down form. When I first became ill with my chronic medical conditions, I experienced certain attitudes from my own family – they became angry at me when I couldn’t do things, told me it was all in my mind, and frequently lamented how hard it was *for them* that I was ill. Fortunately once I moved out things got better, and now I have a decent relationship with them and a fantastic partner who I live with and who has always had a mature and compassionate attitude towards caring for me and my disabilities. Which is how it should be. But the fact that these attitudes clearly abound in many forms must influence how cases of caregiver abuse are handled.

    I think the carer narrative is somewhat gendered as well… in my experience people assume life must be harder for male carers than female carers. Someone once called my male partner ‘a saint’ and I felt like saying, no, he’s just behaving in the way human beings do when they love someone, and I’d do the same for him. But in our society, women are the carers – it is seen as normal and natural and by-the-way for a woman to give part or all of her life up to care for a man (disabled or not!), and a huge self-sacrifice that some struggle to understand when a man does the same for a woman. And of course it is understandable that a man finds it ‘hard’ – he’s not built for caring! He should be out driving motors and playing football and being the breadwinner! It’s ‘natural’ that he would get angry and lash out when he’s in such an unnatural situation! Or so our society would have us believe.

    But it’s not ‘natural’ for a man (or for a woman) to get angry and lash out at their disabled partner. It’s hateful and mean and abusive. Caring is not any easier or more ‘normal’ for female carers than it is for male carers, people who care for someone compassionately and maturely are not ‘saints’, and if someone is not beating up their disabled partner this doesn’t mean that they are not finding life hard. It’s because they’re not an abuser.

  6. Hey, thanks for bringing these cases to a wider audience..
    Some other problems in England for disabled women include the lack of access to mainstream refuges. Having social care services involved in wife battering cases means women fear be seen as unfit parents and have their children removed.
    Your post also points out a common problem; often, disabled women are moved miles out of their area or community because there is so little accessible housing if they have been attacked, where non-disabled women would not be penalised in this way.
    Several times, disabled women aren’t seen as credible witnesses by Police, so cases aren’t even resulting in arrest (just because the ‘officer’ can’t understand their speech or make questions accessible in the way they need).
    That the violence is natural because of pressure on carers is pervasive – it’s time ‘care’ and ‘justice’ services learned that disabled women deserve to be seen as at risk of battery because they are isolated and not inherently ‘vulnerable’ as we are located in state policy and practice. The assessment of ‘risk’ is another victory of the women’s movement that disabled women just don’t yet share.

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