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