Disabled Women’s Dark Reality

Guest post by Dr Kirsty Liddiard, Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield and Dr Katherine Runswick-Cole, Professor of Critical Disability Studies & Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University

Content note: this post includes descriptions of abuse and sexual violence experienced by disabled women.

According to the World Health Organisation, disabled people are 1.5 times more likely to experience violence and 4 times more likely if the person has a mental health condition. Markedly, disabled women experience sexual violence in greater numbers than both disabled men and non-disabled women.

Violence and its causes have social, cultural and economic underpinnings. By this, we mean that our likelihood as individuals of experiencing violence is rooted in society’s unequal power relations. Violence doesn’t take place in a vacuum, but is steeped in inequity.

When it comes to intimate partner violence – also known as domestic violence – disabled women (we include women with mental illness in this category) suffer in myriad ways. For many disabled women, intimate partner violence goes unnoticed because they are assumed to not be in intimate, sexual and loving relationships at all.

Additionally, the types of harm to which disabled women are subjected can be unrecognisable when we think of ‘domestic violence’ in its traditional sense: a denial of care; withholding medication and food; encouraging self-harm; and exploiting and exacerbating incidences of psychosis, mania and depression are forms of violence unique to mental and physical impairment and illness.

Even when seeking justice, disabled women face barriers. Women who experience mental distress are seldom supported in ways they need to report violence and give evidence in court. Quite often, women’s testimonies are doubted or disbelieved because of their mental health diagnosis. This is even more likely if women are institutionalised, detained (for example, under a mental health section) or are deemed to lack capacity.

While we – as authors whose lives intersect with disability in various ways – don’t want to emphasise disabled women as inherently vulnerable or as victims, it is important to recognise that disabled people experience less privacy in their lives, have increased reliance on others, services and institutions for care, and experience increased access to their bodies by non-disabled people – all of which increase chances of experiencing abuse, violence and exploitation. We think it is important that we highlight this in our communities – particularly during these very difficult times of austerity where cuts to services and a rolling back of the welfare state mean many disabled people are living in more vulnerable circumstances.

Importantly, disabled women also experience an overwhelming lack of access and support in leaving situations of violence – often because the majority of women’s services and refuges don’t cater to their needs. This is despite the fact that disabled women, in comparison to non-disabled women, are more likely to experience sexual and physical violence in their lifetime by people close to them (parents, intimate partners and carers).

Commonly, mainstream domestic abuse organisations seldom consider disabled women within their remit, and services and refuges themselves can be inaccessible in a range of ways. The pragmatics of disability and care are pertinent here: the ability to leave a situation of violence, or move out of the family home (often quickly, quietly and without raising unwanted attention), can be far more difficult if the support of another person is needed, or if your home has been specifically adapted to meet your needs.

The stories of disabled survivors of domestic violence have highlighted a reluctance to leave care packages that have been fought long and hard for, and that care provision is currently not flexible enough to move with women in ways that would protect them. Again, these worries run deeper at a time of significant governmental and local authority cuts to existing care provision.

It is important that disabled women’s stories are heard and that they are given a voice. While talking about violence and hearing such stories is difficult, listening to women – all women – is one critical step we can all take towards keeping women (and others) safe.

If you have been affected by this post, or would like help to find accessible services in your area, please visit our support page by clicking here.

If you would like to share your story with us, you can anonymously submit by clicking here.

Please note that a longer version of this article was originally published by Disability Now.

The Istanbul Convention Vote – Friday 16th Decemeber

Purple and white logo. The female gender sign with a clenched fist in the centre. Text says "#changeherstory write to your MP to ratify the Istanbul Convention"

Why it’s important?

From the ICChange website: “The Istanbul Convention…is the most comprehensive legal framework that exists to tackle violence against women and girls.”

The Convention sets minimum standards for governments across the global to meet to protect women and girls against violence. The ratification of the Istanbul Convention (IC) in the UK would mean that our government would be legally bound to uphold the convention, forcing them to take necessary steps to PREVENT violence, PROTECT those experiencing violence and PROSECUTE perpetrators. This would mean a lasting, national commitment to the safety of women and girls experiencing violence, it would mean real change.

The Istanbul Convention has been given the ‘gold standard’ by UN Women and deemed ‘ground-breaking’ by the Human Rights Watch.

Countries that have already ratified the Istanbul Convention:

• Albania • Andorra • Austria • Belgium • Bosnia and Herzegovina • Denmark • France • Italy • Malta • Monaco • Montenegro • Portugal • Serbia • Slovenia • Spain • Sweden • Turkey

Why we need to ask our MPs to vote

This Friday, 16th December, our MPs are voting on the law that will decide whether or not the Istanbul Convention gets ratified in the UK. However, at least 100 MPs need to be present for the Bill to pass onto the next stage. As the vote is taking place on a Friday, and the last Parliamentary session before the holidays, most MPs will be in their local constituencies at this time, and less likely to show up to the debate.

Because of this, it’s important for us to campaign/write to our local MPs to get them to attend the debate for the Private Members Bill on Friday.

This debate could lead us to having a government that has a practical and legal framework to protect women and girls from violence. It could lead to the creation of more adequate refuges and women’s shelters, the funding for women’s services, 24-hour helplines and specialist services.

All the co-founders have emailed their MP, as this is an issue close to all of our hearts. This is a Bill that is vitally important to women everywhere, but especially to disabled women. Being 3.7% more likely to experience violence and abuse in our lifetimes compared to able-bodied women, these measures are vital for us and could be life changing.

DSU have created a template for anyone to use to email their MP about this matter. You can find that here: Istanbul Convention MP Template

If you have the energy to, create some noise on social media too, use the hashtags: #StandByMe #ChangeHerStory #IstanbulConvention

And if you are wondering how to find your MPs email, take a look here: http://www.ukpolitical.info/Finder.htm

International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women: A Disabled Perspective

Red circle logo. Around the circle text says "stop violence day". In the circle text says "November 25, STOP violence against women". Handprint replaces the o in stop.

Content note: this post includes descriptions of abuse and sexual violence experienced by disabled women.

Last year Public Health England published a report which found that disabled people are twice as likely to experience abuse and sexual violence compared to non-disabled people. And disabled women were identified as being at the highest risk.

They also reported that the abuse disabled people experience is likely to be more severe, frequent, and last for longer periods of time. Yet, across the country, support services for survivors are simply not accessible to disabled people. This is why we exist.

Many services understanding of disability access is narrow, with some believing it simply equates to their building being accessible to wheelchair users. While this is very important, we train them to have a much broader interpretation of access needs and reasonable adjustments.

Our work goes beyond accessibility. We want all services to understand that in order to be truly inclusive, they must recognise that the forms of abuse against disabled people cannot be likened to the experiences of non-disabled survivors. In fact, the abuse we suffer is often unrecognisable when the two are compared.

Many disabled women are abused by partners who also care for them. This gives the abuser the power to withhold food, medication, and personal care. Perpetrators are also able to limit a disabled person’s independence by exacerbating their conditions. One woman told us that her abuser induced seizures that physically harmed her, another explained her wheelchair was damaged by an abusive partner to prevent her from leaving the house.

Disabled people also experience institutional abuse. We recently supported a woman called Jade* whose social worker refused to change her care provider when she explained her personal assistant was being abusive. Jade was told if she cancelled her care package altogether she would not be allowed to leave the house alone and if she did it would result in her being raped. Her social worker knew prior to saying this that Jade was raped as a child.

Disabled women are also less likely to be believed when they speak out about being abused. This is because we are completely desexualised, we are seen to be undesirable and passive. This leads people to believe we cannot be victims of sexual violence and, as a result, we are often disbelieved more frequently. One woman we met was told: “Things like this don’t happen to people like you.”

The dynamic of our abuse is completely unique to disabled people and a big part of our work is to raise awareness of this. It is imperative that all services and organisation which work with survivors recognise this in order to best support disabled people.

On this day, and everyday, we stand alongside our disabled sisters who have experienced abuse. We believe you. We are here to listen. And together, we will create change.

If you would like to share your story with us, please visit our (re)Storytellers page.

If you need support, please visit our support page.

*Please note that small details of the stories in this post have been altered to protect people’s identities, including names; however the abuse experienced has not been changed.