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.
*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.