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?

10 thoughts on “Cycles Are Hard To Break: Disability and Domestic Violence

  1. You’re welcome! I’m a research librarian who loves the challenge of tracking down studies and the like 🙂

  2. Great post. With your permission, I’m going to link to “Barriers to justice when rapists attack women with disabilities: Australian report” , which looks at some very similar issues in Australia. The barriers to women obtaining legal support seem almost completely insurmountable. Statistics on abuse of women and girls with disabilities are simply not collected. One small study showed that girls with intellectual disabilities were more likely to be abused, by a full order of magnitude – ten times! Surely that takes it to 100%?

    Five main barriers to disclosure/reporting were as follows:

    1. Ideas about WWD being particularly asexual, undesirable, dishonest, or promiscuous.

    2. Inability of victims to identify their experience as grooming and sexual assault, due to lack of protective-behaviour and sexual education. (Issues of sexual agency are also touched on in the report.)

    3. Punitive institutional responses to reports, including moving the victim rather than the assaulter, or locking victims in their rooms.

    4. Dependence on perpetrators can leave victims unable to disclose because their care needs will no longer be met.

    5. Communication difficulty, both practical and situational, related to disability or to physical and social isolation. Family carers or residential management act as gate-keepers and decision-makers, taking the power to report out of victims’ hands. Carers and workers lack training in appropriate responses to reporting.

  3. In my experience it can be just as hard for someone with known mental health concerns. During my tertiary studies one of my classmates was a married guy whose wife had learning and behavioural challenges, as well as depression. He proudly admitted on several occasions that he only married her because her challenges and depression made her easier to control and nobody would believe him about what he may do to her.

    This guy also had his own disability, but it was a very mild physical one that presented as a slight gait. Despite this, he had no qualm in exploiting the vulnerabilities of his wife, or emotionally abusing her to keep her vulnerable and dependent.

    It was heartbreaking to witness.

  4. I think many shelters don’t have the money to handle abused PWD, or abused trans* people effectively – they can barely handle “normal” abuse victims. It’s all about money, and abuse shelters don’t seem to be a high priority. (because they asked for it. they can just leave. and when they do leave, well, the family will help.)

    I wonder how this would be classified – I know that if my parents were still married when my thyroid problem developed, I would be worse off. My dad is very big on the whole “walk it off” school of thought – if he acknowledges a problem exists. My allergies were only addressed because they were visible. Most of my problems are “invisible” and “female.” He’s a grade-A sexist misogynist, and since he is my father, how would I leave? I’d have to wait for my mom to leave him, and hope she took us along. (All hypothetical since she did. Endlessly grateful.)

  5. @kaitlyn – isn’t it funny how money always seems to be allocated in order or privilege, with marginalized groups and people at the end of the line? and that shelters need “modified” or “special” procedures for PWD and trans people because they’re created with the assumption that being TAB/cis is the default, so it costs money to accommodate PWD instead of costing money to accommodate TABs in a shelter created with PWD in mind?

    or in other words, it will always cost more or be more trouble to accommodate the group that is being othered rather than the group that is being centered. i’m not sure why this is any more ok when the group being accommodated (TAB DV victims in this case, i’ve also dealt with a number of homeless shelters totally unable to accommodate PWD) is already marginalized and othered. these money arguments, to me, are just another way to state that PWDs are excluded because people simply don’t care as much.

  6. i have at least a small idea of what it’s like to work when you don’t have the money, you don’t have the staffing, and you don’t have the support to really serve the people your group/org/program is supposed to be serving.

    it is appropriate, when people ask why benefits are small, to respond with “our funding is so low.” it is not appropriate, when people criticize your org/program/etc for prioritizing certain types of people over others, to respond with “our funding is so low.”

    that is what this is about. not about the sufficiency of funding (because, surely, it is not sufficient), but about the priorities that go into deciding how that funding will be allocated, and how the staff’s time will be allocated. it is about determining who is first-line to take care of, and who is too much trouble.

    and there is a time when you do have to suck in your stomach and accept that a criticism is valid even if you can’t fix the problem being pointed out. even if it’s out of your control. even if you are doing everything you could possibly ever do. even if you are doing exceptionally well and helping a lot of people. and even if those people would be screwed without your help. you still have to accept some of these criticisms. you can’t back out of them. they will hurt. they will hurt like hell. and it will hurt that you cannot fix the problem, that no matter how hard you try it will still be an awful situation. but that does not make you immune from criticism, especially when it comes to reinforcing the same privilege structures and putting certain types of people in even more of a position of hardship because of your (un/sub)conscious devaluation of them.

    it’s especially bad when any sort of discussion about these sorts of programs that isn’t just heaps of praise gets an immediate response of: “these people are on the ground/doing really tough work/don’t have the funding/etc.” it just shuts down conversations that need, desperately, to be had.

  7. abby jean and amandaw, so much Word. When organisations and society make the lowest priority the people at the greatest risk, there’s something very badly wrong.

  8. I’ve witnessed a caregiver abusing disabled women, and it’s disgusting. It’s unfortunately too likely that impairment means women must choose between boundary violation and activities of daily living. (And trying to get a DA to understand why “not bringing someone dinner” can be abusive …)

    For what’s it’s worth, there’s been a national program in the U.S. for 8 years funding collaboration between disability rights advocates and battered women’s shelters.

    U.S. Department of Justice Violence against Women with Disability Funds

    Here in Wisconsin this money has been put to good use, particularly regarding mental health issues. Many shelters had been living the stigma, labeling some who sought shelter as “too crazy for us,” and this has changed. Our state’s public-interest legal advocates, Disability Rights Wisconsin, has produced documents which could be helpful to share with shelter advocates.

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