Family Violence Against Women with DisAbilities
Family violence, in this context, refers to physical, psychological or sexual maltreatment, abuse or neglect of a woman with disabilities by a relative or caregiver. It is a violation of trust and an abuse of power in a relationship where a woman should have the right to absolute safety. In many cases, it is also a crime.
Violence against women is acknowledged as a pervasive and serious problem in today's society. Women are abused simply because they are women. Statistics for the general population indicate the following:
In both the disabled and non-disabled communities, most abuse is inflicted by a person known to the victim. In both communities, 95% of victims of spousal assault are women,6 and at least 89% of abusers are men.7 More disabled men are abused than are non-disabled men. The incidence of abuse is 20% or higher in the developmentally disabled and deaf community.8
Probably the single biggest factor affecting the incidence of family violence against women with disabilities is the extent of these women's "families". Women with disabilities must often depend on a variety of people to provide them with assistance in carrying out their everyday lives. For this reason, their "family" is understood to include not only parents, husbands, boyfriends and other relatives, but also friends, neighbours and caregivers.
Caregivers can include attendants, interpreters, homemakers, drivers, doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, psychiatrists, therapists, counsellors, and workers in hospitals and other institutions. This large number of people and the intimate physical and emotional contact involved in the care they provide, greatly increase the risk of abuse to persons with disabilities.
Women who live in institutional settings, and women who are multiply or profoundly disabled, are most vulnerable to abuse because they are more dependent upon even larger numbers of people, and less able to get away. It is estimated that women with disabilities are 1.5 to 10 times as likely to be abused as non-disabled women, depending on whether they live in the community or in institutions. 9
While a disability can make it more difficult for a woman to escape or report abuse, social attitudes towards persons with disabilities are probably a bigger factor in her increased vulnerability to violence. The way in which society views persons with disabilities handicaps these women in many ways:
Women with disabilities are vulnerable at all stages of their lives because they are women and because they have a disability. Growing old increases the likelihood of becoming disabled, which can increase the likelihood of abuse.11
It should be noted that abuse can result in disability. Physical abuse can cause permanent physical damage. "Disciplining" babies by shaking them is a major cause of brain injury and death in infants.12 Women have cited violence by husbands as causing loss of vision, and loss of mobility.13 All forms of abuse are emotionally traumatic and can leave psychological scars from which a victim never recovers.
It is extremely difficult for any abused woman to leave a situation of abuse. "A woman is hit by a husband or partner an average of 35 times before she calls the police."19 Battering undermines self-esteem and can make a woman feel she is somehow responsible for her own abuse. For a woman with a disability, this situation is even more difficult.
She may be dependent on her abuser for affection, communication and financial, physical and medical support. If she reports the abuse, she may risk poverty and loss of housing. She may fear she will not be heard or believed if she speaks out. She may face further violence, institutionalization, or loss of her children if she seeks help. She may not have access to information about existing support services for victims of violence.
Even if she has this information, many sources of support are not be accessible. She may not be able to contact the police or women's shelters because they do not have communication devices such as Telecommunication Devices for the Deaf (TDDs). She may not be able to physically leave her situation because of a lack of accessible transportation.
Her lack of options may leave her feeling so powerless and despairing that suicide seems the only viable choice. And if she seeks help in dealing with suicidal thoughts or attempts, she is unlikely to find counselling which takes account of her own reality. And so she is left isolated and possibly suicidal.
Violence against women with disabilities can take many forms, which can occur at the same time. It occurs not only as deliberate maltreatment and abuse, but also in the more passive form of neglect:
The abuser occupies and violates a position of power with respect to the victim. The abuser may:
HOW WE CAN WORK TOWARDS ELIMINATING ABUSE
Violence against vulnerable individuals and groups is a systemic problem. Preventing family violence will require fundamental changes in societal attitudes. People need to learn to appreciate differences, to value other people as equals, and become responsible partners in our common community.
There are many changes needed to improve the present situation for women with disabilities who are victims of violence:
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP
WHERE TO GO TO GET HELP
you are a woman with a disability and you are being abused in any way, or if you
know of a woman you is being abused, you can call the Assaulted
Women's Helpline (AWHL). AWHL provides 24-hour, 7-day-a-week crisis
counselling, emotional support, information and referrals to women in up to 154
You can also get in touch with a women's transition house, battered women's support group, or rape crisis centre in your community. Another option is to contact a consumer group for persons with disabilities. In addition, there are Independent Living Centres across Canada that may be of assistance. Call a legal clinic, a lawyer, or the police.
Ask for help, and make sure you get it.
Violent Acts Against Disabled Women. Joanne Doucette. Toronto: DAWN Canada, 1986.
Meeting Our Needs: Access Manual for Transition Houses. Shirley Masauda and Jillian Ridington. Vancouver: DAWN Canada, 1990.
Responding to the Abuse of People with Disabilities. Advocacy Resource Centre for the Handicapped (ARCH). Toronto, 1990.
"Tackling Violence Against Women with Disabilities." In Canadian Women Studies. Cathy MacPherson. Downsview, Ontario: York University, Fall 1991, pp.63-65.
Beating the "Odds": Violence and Women With Disabilities. Jillian Ridington. Vancouver: DAWN Canada, 1989.
"Sexual Abuse of Disabled Persons and Policy Alternatives." In Bullard, D.G. and Knight, S.E. (eds). Sexuality and Physical Disability: Personal Perspectives. E. Ryerson. St. Louis: C.V. Mosby, 1981.
Vulnerable: Sexual Abuse and People with an Intellectual Handicap. Charlene Y. Senn. Prepared by The G. Allan Roeher Institute, Toronto, 1988.
"Sexual Offenses and Disabled Victims: Research and Practical Implications". Dick Sobsey. In Vis-A-Vis, 6:4 (Winter, 1988). Ottawa: Canadian Council on Social Development, 1988.
"Factors in the Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of People with Mental Retardation". Paper presented at the Young Adult Institute Conference: Employment, Integration and Community Competence, New York, April 27-29, 1988.
Sexual Abuse of Children with Disabilities & Sexual Assault of Adults with Disabilities: Prevention Strategies. Sheila Mansell and Don Wells, University of Alberta, Sexual Abuse & Disability Project. A report submitted to the Family Violence Prevention Division, National Health Research and Development Program, Health and Welfare Canada, March 31, 1991.
Assault in Canada: A Factsheet, by Support Services for Assaulted Women.
Toronto: P.O. Box 245, Station K, Toronto, Ont. M4P 2G5, (undated).
5. Secretary of State, Statistics on Persons with Disabilities in Canada, a summary of the original document, "An Economic Profile of Persons with Disabilities in Canada (1986 statistics)", 1990, p.4.
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