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Domestic Violence & Disabled Women – The Silent Epidemic within Our Community

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Kendall could tell by the slam of the door that Mark was in a foul mood.  She was sitting on the couch in the living room of their small apartment reading her book, with her wheelchair positioned beside her.  She looked up, and saw the expression on his face that signified that this evening wasn’t going to be a peaceful one.

“Did you make dinner yet?,” he said curtly.

“No.  I was just about to get up and do so,” she uttered in a meek voice.

“Damn it, woman.  I work this hell of a job all day.  At least you can have a hot meal waiting for me when I get home!!,” he yelled while leaning forward to get in her face.

Kendall let out a small whimper while Mark glared at her as he proceeded to walk towards her wheelchair.  He shoved it across the room, and gave her a sadistic smirk.

“How are you going to go make dinner now without your precious damn wheelchair?!?!,” he barked in a condescending tone.

“Please Mark, just give me my chair back.  I’m sorry,” Kendall sobbed as Mark continued to tower over her, making her feel inferior for the 1,000th time.

“You’ll learn one goddamn day to do what’s right!  You do this on purpose to make me angry!,” Mark shouted as he raised his hand in the position to hit her, but the threat of being smacked alone was enough abuse for him to inflict on Kendall that day.  Seeing how small she felt, he jerked the chair back toward the couch, and stomped off.

Why do I keep putting up with this? Kendall thought to herself.  I feel so trapped by being here; I have no friends, no job, or money to support myself – how much longer do I have to endure this?  With shaky nerves, she locked the brakes on her wheelchair, transferred herself into it, and wheeled to the kitchen to make dinner, all while tears streamed from her eyes.

Domestic Violence Observance Ribbon

This fictitious narrative is sadly the situation many disabled women endure from their significant others every day in America, and across the world.  October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and I thought that this would be the opportune time to spotlight the silent epidemic that is killing and destroying the lives of the disabled women we love, work with, and who bring incredible joy to our lives.

Disabled Women & Domestic Violence – The Pervasive Issue We Fail to Discuss

I must be frank and disclose that I was not very versed on the prevalence of domestic violence disabled women experienced.  Being that I aim to focus on the gender and racially specific issues we endure, I was alarmed to learn how many of my disabled sisters live in states of constant fear, isolation, inferiority, and suffer severe abuse by those who claim to love them.  Domestic violence is a topic we shy away from in our society for a number of reasons:  we believe that those we know could not possibly be victims of such brutal attacks; what happens in someone’s home is “their business” and not ours; women who stay in such situations must “like it,” and would have left a long time ago if they did not; she must have “done something” to cause him to go into a fit of rage; and a host of other erroneously, downright ignorant false truths we tell ourselves to abstain from addressing this horrible problem.

Let me make a few points explicitly clear before I go any further in this article:  NO ONE SHOULD BE ABUSED IN ANY WAY, SHAPE, OR FORM.  Love DOES NOT and should NEVER HURT!  Domestic violence is NOT FINE; it is NOT something that someone “deserves” to happen to them.  NO ONE should live in CONSTANT FEAR for their lives each and every day.   NO ONE should walk or roll on eggshells because they do not want to anger their partner or significant other.  Most importantly, domestic violence IS OUR BUSINESS – it does not just affect the woman being abused; it affects how that she interacts with her environment, from her relationships with friends and family; her ability (or inability) to obtain and retain work, or go to school; her emotional, mental, and physical health statuses; and her ability to socialize and live her life without restrictions.

Startling Statistics Surrounding Domestic Violence & Disabled Women:  

The number one issue of women with disabilities in America is domestic violence.  In order to address this epidemic, we must understand what is taking place in the lives of the 19.4 million, or 12.3%, disabled American women in our country:

  • Women with disabilities are at particular risk for severe violence.
  • Women with disabilities had a 40% greater risk of violence than women without disabilities.
  • The most common perpetrators of violence against women with disabilities are their male partners.
  • An estimated 80% of disabled women have been sexually assaulted.
  • Women with disabilities are three times more likely to be sexually assaulted than women without disabilities.
  • 47% of sexually abused women with disabilities reported assaults on more than ten occasions.
  • Approximately 5 million vulnerable adults annually become crime victims.

As you can see from the information provided, disabled women have high rates of experiencing both domestic violence and sexual abuse.  This is due to the perceived “vulnerability” disabled women possess because of their disability status(es).  Perpetrators view disabled women as “easy” targets to victimized repeatedly, and consider them to be less likely to report such incidences.  As a disabled woman, I am not only disturbed by these numbers – it puts me on high alert about encountering individuals who view me as weak, meek, and readily available to use for their own twisted need for dominance and control.

How Domestic Violence for Disabled Women Differs from what Able-Bodied Women Endure:  

It goes without saying that violence is violence, but for disabled women, there are terrors we endure that able-bodied women do not.  Let’s use Kendall’s story to highlight those differences.  Kendall’s partner, Mark, may not have hit her in the case scenario, but he terrorized her in ways that were just as devastating as physically assaulting her.

Intimidation – Mark Pushing Kendall’s Wheelchair Out of Her Reach

Wheelchair in Empty Hallway 1The most blatant offense was him pushing her wheelchair out of reach.  This is an intimidation tactic that disabled women who utilize assistive devices such as wheelchairs, canes, crutches, etc., experience in abusive situations.  Positioning Kendall’s wheelchair away from her made her immobile – she could not move about freely without her wheelchair, or have the chance to escape Mark’s vicious, verbal attack.  Mark used his able-bodied status to place Kendall in a vulnerable state where she was forced to suffer whatever ills he felt that he had a right to deliver to her at that moment.  This is a prime example of how disabled women endure violence that may not leave marks or bruises, but instead, leave them helplessly at the mercy of their abuser.

Isolation – Kendall’s Lack of Support System

Two other prevalent tactics seen is the isolation and financial dependence Kendall has towards Mark.

Being isolated, whether by choice or force, in an abusive relationship means that the disabled woman does not have the support system in place to discuss what is going on in the home, and/or be able to receive assistance to escape her abuser and the abuse.  Abusers aim to destroy the relationships their partners have with others so that she will not disclose the evilness of what is taking place.  Abusers want to appear “loving,” charismatic, the “ideal” mate to outsiders; they will do anything and everything to ensure that those false perceptions about their character are not altered.  If the disabled woman has no one to confide in, then the abuse will last for however long, with death of the woman being the most likely outcome for the abusive relationship to end.  In the case example, Kendall felt terribly alone in her situation, with no one to confide in or come to her rescue.

Financial Dependence & Exploitation – Kendall Not Having Money to Escape

Financial dependence and exploitation are situations that both disabled and able-bodied women face in abusive relationships, but such circumstances are exacerbated for disabled women due to the low numbers of employment and high numbers of unemployment rates of disabled persons in America.  Not having control of one’s money, and/or being reliant on receiving money from a partner places disabled women in a critical state of powerlessness.  In order to successfully escape a volatile relationship, it will take money to do so, whether the woman plans to call a cab service to pick her up and drive her to a hotel, or her being able to attain full independence once she have completed a survivors of domestic violence program.  Kendall felt helpless in this sense because Mark was the breadwinner in their relationship; she did not have the money to leave him confidently, which made her escaping impossible, financially.

Abusers use the lure of money to trap abused disabled women in several ways.  Abusers may tell their partners that she will never be able live fully on her own without his financial support.  Abusers can also hinder disabled women from acquiring work, as they know that if she has her own money, she will be able to make plans to leave once she is tired of being sick and tired.  Even if the disabled woman is employed, the abuser can still take control of her earnings by forcing her to hand over her paychecks to him each pay period.  All of these financial dependence and exploits schemes aim to keep a firm grip of control in the relationship, and coerce her to stay.

The Barriers Disabled Women Face in Reporting Abuse & Seeking Assistance:  

There are many factors that negatively impact disabled women’s ability to report and escape abusive relationships.  Here is a brief rundown of challenges disabled women have to hurdle over, as reported by Lean on Us:

Systematic & Personal Barriers Disabled Persons of Domestic Abuse Struggle to Conquer:  

  • People with disabilities often lack accessible services due to limited resources; lack of transportation, particularly so in rural communities; or structural limitations of service facilities (that is, being able to fully enter into or adequately access facilities that support abused persons and families).
  • Some disabled people lack the skills or abilities necessary to act independently to seek help.
  • Many disabled persons of abuse may lack knowledge about services.  Public information and awareness education are generally not distributed in Braille, large print, or audio tape and do not define domestic violence in ways that people with disabilities can relate to.  This lack of inclusion is not only discriminatory – it is deadly to those who need this pertinent information.
  • Disabled persons of violence may be heavily dependent on their abusive primary partners (or caretakers) and run the risk of losing their caretaker support if they report the abuse.  Adding to this, disabled persons may experience an increased risk of being institutionalized or losing their basic decision-making rights if they are viewed as unable to take care of themselves without the help of their abuser.
  • Disabled persons may be at greater risk for losing child custody if they are viewed as being unable to care for children independently from an abusive primary partner (or caretaker).  Disabled parents are heavily discriminated against within the family court system; fearful of losing one’s parental rights is a valid concern in our community.

The Dire Need for More Disability Training to Exist within Victim Service Organizations:

As a helping professional, it is imperative for social workers, case managers, shelter facilitators and staff, and others involved in protecting and advocating for domestic violence survivors to be knowledgeable about the unique circumstances disabled women have, as well as how to effectively empower and protect them once they are in their care.  It astounded me at the lack of awareness and accessibility of these entities, and the troubling views employees within them have toward disabled women and domestic violence.  Here are a few key points I want to highlight about this aspect of inexperience and ineffectiveness, taken from Lean on Us:

  • Only 35% of shelters have disability awareness training for their staff, and only 16% have a dedicated staff person to deliver services to women with disabilities.
  • Service providers often lack the training and sensitivity necessary to serve women with disabilities.
  • Some individuals, including professionals, view people with disabilities as less credible than non-disabled victims.
  • Some individuals think abusive treatment is necessary to manage people with disabilities or blame disabled victims for the abuse they suffer, and because they hold these beliefs they consider domestic violence against people with disabilities to be justified.

The last two points gravely disturbed me because they are ableist ideologies that need to be extinguished.  When a disabled woman states that she has been, or is currently being, abused, her statements should ALWAYS be taken seriously by whomever she shares her story with.  To discredit or dismiss a woman’s claims of abuse simply because she is disabled is not only grotesque, it is stone-hearted.  It takes tremendous courage for someone to disclose such a troubling reality in their lives to you; viewing them as less than because they are disabled is NOT the way to go about assisting them.  If you blame the disabled woman or engage in other victim-shaming tactics, you are re-victimizing her.  Re-victimization is extremely detrimental to her ability and confidence to escaping the abuse because she is looking to you for the unconditional support, protection, and assistance she failed to receive from her partner.

Stern Advice from One Helping Professional to Another

If you take any of these routes when working with disabled women of domestic violence, you need to leave this line of work immediately, and never look back.  What you are doing is anything BUT empowering; and the helping profession and service organizations do NOT need your hard-hearted kind within in.  This line of work is intensely challenging as it is; insensitive, uncompassionate, non-empathizing individuals feigning support and advocacy for disabled women are not welcomed.

Key Federal Mandate Sought to Empower Disabled Women Experiencing Domestic Violence:

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is an imperative piece of legislation that aims to ensure that modes of support are made available to women with disabilities who experience domestic violence.  When VAWA was first ratified in 1994, it did not allocate funding to programs and organizations to assist disabled women.  However, the 2000 reauthorization of VAWA closed this funding gap by establishing a grant program that focused on providing education, technical assistance, and support to service providers and organizations to better meet the needs of disabled women who seek their resources and support.

In 2005, the expansion of coverage for disabled women who experience domestic violence took place in the reauthorization of the legislation.  Here are some of the key provisions enacted:

  • Expanded education, training, and services grant programs.
  • Added construction and personnel costs for shelters that serve disabled persons of domestic violence.
  • Focused on the development of collaborative relationships between victim service organizations and organizations that serve those with disabilities.
  • Provided funding for the development of model programs that implement advocacy and intervention services within organizations servicing those with disabilities.

What You Can Do to Advocate & Stand in Solidarity for Disabled Women of Domestic Violence:

There are two steps I would encourage my readers to do:

  1. Be a listening ear, and an alert eye to the disabled women in your lives, and
  2. Support victim service organizations who are properly trained, equipped, accessible, and inclusive to disabled women of domestic violence.

Be the Support & Strength She Needs

If you suspect something is amiss with the disabled woman you know, reach out and talk with her (in a safe setting – never inquire while her abuser is present, or in listening distance).  If you notice she is isolating herself from you and those she love, quit engaging in activities that once brought her joy after she began her relationship, and/or has undergo drastic personality changes (for example:  she used to be bubbly and full of life, but now she is melancholy and quiet) – ALL OF THESE ARE SIGNS that needs to be on your radar.  Such abrupt changes in one’s behavior, personality, actions, interests, or interactions should NOT take place simply because she is in a relationship.  These changes signify that something is extremely is not kosher, and needs to be addressed to find out the root of these changes.  If what she discloses confirms your suspicions, be there for her in the best way possible so that she can leave that situation before it turns deadly.  Blaming her for not recognizing the signs of an abuser, staying with her abuser, or being fearful of leaving are NOT HELPFUL to getting her out of that relationship, and into safety.

Support Victim Service Organizations who Empower Disabled Women

When it comes to victim service organizations, make sure that these entities are prepared to serve disabled persons of domestic violence.  Most of these institutions are non-profit organizations, which mean that they are supposed to be inclusive facilities for all walks of life who can utilize the services and resources they provide.  A great number of these organizations depend upon charitable giving to sustain their missions; I urge each of you to donate to organizations who are inclusive and accessible to those with disabilities because such organizations are not plentiful as they should be in our communities.  Basically, put your money and volunteerism into institutions that allows everyone to have a fair and safe chance to heal and restart their lives on their own terms.

Final Thoughts:

Though discussing sensitive subjects like domestic violence is uncomfortable for some, it is the silence that perpetuates the existence of this deadly, destructive societal problem.  The unique challenges disabled women endure has to not only be on our radar, but we have to establish the safe and open space for them to divulge that they are being harmed, and ensure that they receive the help and support they deserve.  I am my sister’s keeper, and I will stand by all of my disabled sisters in solidarity.  Will you stand up for those who have been broken by domestic violence?

Speak Out about Domestic Violence!

If you are a survivor of domestic violence, I would love to hear your story.  You are not a victim – you are a survivor of something heinous that is not your fault.  Your story will empower other disabled women to come forward, and leave the abuse they suffer each day.  We are a strong, powerful group of women – we have to not only believe that; we have to LIVE it.  Our strength together will uplift our sisters who have been beaten, belittled, and dehumanized; we can overcome this problem as a united front of support and love for one another.

(Featured headlining images:  Courtesy of Don’t Just Go Pink! on Tumblr, & Examiner.)

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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