It’s Not Okay to Overlook Violence, Abuse, and Exploitation of Disabled Children and Adults

We’re very pleased to share a guest blog by Parmi Dheensa, CEO of Include me Too. She has kindly written this in response to DSU participating in this years Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week.

Include us too as ‘it’s not okay’ is the key message of Disabled Survivors Unite activist organization who highlighted key issues of sexual abuse and violence experienced by disabled girls and women during Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week.

The campaign amplified the voices of disabled survivors for more awareness, support, intervention and prevention. It echoed the sentiments of ‘UK Says No More’ campaign and in addition the urgency of confronting the impact of consistent failures of stopping the increasing scale of violence and abuse of disabled victims.

There have been several research projects carried out internationally and here in the UK with similar findings regarding disabled women’s experiences.

15% of any population worldwide are people with disabilities of which half are women and girls. Disabled women have experienced violence two to three times more often than women in the average population. But disabled women also experience severe barriers in accessing support, information and services after violence.

Violence and abuse against disabled girls and women is present in many forms and the lack of specialist support, resources and prevention is disconcerting. Many of the issues I will be highlighting here are known to those already advocating in this area however it is imperative we share this information widely to end a culture of denial within our society and gain support and realisation that ‘Its Not Okay’.

A recent EU funded project in four countries including the UK highlighted:

  • Many disabled women were attacked in institutions, by carers, or at home by partners or male relatives.
  • Perpetrators isolated them, threated them, took away equipment or over-medicated them, to stop them from speaking out, or escaping.
  • Forms of violence and abuse experienced included psychological violence, impairment-specific violence, physical violence, forced sterilisation, forced marriages, sexual violence, abuse in institutional settings including disregard and violation of privacy and neglect.

All disabled or deaf women who took part in the survey interviews wanted a society in which ‘being disabled and being a woman’ did not mean having inaccessible services and being less valued, but where their safety mattered and their future life chances are supported in a violence-free life for all women in the future. 

In the UK the following statistics also amplify why not addressing these issues and stopping violence and abuse ‘Is Not Okay’:

  • Disabled children and young people compared to their non-disabled peers are three to four times more likely to be abused and neglected, according to the NSPCC.
  • Gangs of boys who don’t have a disability are grooming girls who do according to Respond.
  • Disabled women are twice more likely to be assaulted or raped as non-disabled women. The perpetrator is more likely to be someone they know or trust, a family member, carer or partner, according to research by Women’s Aid regarding domestic abuse.
  • Men (5.2%) with a long-term illness or disability were victims of partner abuse in 2013/14 compared to women (11.1%) in the same situation, according to Mankind Initiative.

Another survey looking into domestic abuse highlighted the dependency, lack of control and barriers to break the circle or seek help experienced by disabled women, sadly echoed the many stories of women and families I have listened to and supported even those nearly 20 years ago when managing mental health and women support services.

In this survey the majority of abusers were partners and ex partners 53% of the women who took part in the survey stated their dependency on abusers as carers, sympathy for partners, a panic of lack of support if they left, lack of alternative accessible housing and fear of losing their children all contributed to their inability to leave the situation resulting in women enduring abuse over long periods of time.

Physical neglect was a common theme with women commenting that personal care i.e. bathing, assistance to the toilet, eating etc were regularly withdrawn.

Women stated: “We are sometimes dependant on abusers as carers. How are you supposed to get anyone to believe you if everybody thinks he is a “Saint” because of how he helps you” “I sat dirty for days…he said I was demanding, disgusting and ungrateful. I said sorry loads of times but he ignored me…”

This ‘Is Not Okay’.

A way forward…

Ending Violence against Women and Girls Strategy 2016 – 2020 acknowledges government’s duties and responsibilities within the Equality Act 2010 and victims’ legislation, this strategy also needs to refer to United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability.

A commitment to strengthen the involvement in the implementation of the strategy and voices of disabled women and girls including autistic women and girls is required. The strategy refers to peer support network, national helplines, awareness raising in schools and amongst the public and accommodation based services for example. However there is no real emphasise of the specialist provision required to ensure accessible, inclusive, appropriate responsive services and support for disabled women and girls. Allocation of resources to support a disabled women and girls peer support network, specialist helpline, specialist/inclusive accommodation based services these areas could be a good start to thread through the strategy and strengthen the implementation for effective change in ending violence against disabled women and girls.

Disabled Survivors Unite are uniting with Include Me TOO to campaign and raise awareness of ending violence and abuse against disabled persons including harmful practices. Include Me TOO look forward to supporting Disabled Survivors Unite through strengthening diversity, equality, and safeguarding within a cultural framework approach addressing harmful practices which include forced marriages, grooming, exploitation, witchcraft accusations, FGM awareness and intervention to end violence and abuse against disabled persons.

We all have a responsibility to build a safe and inclusive society for all that can be okay.

#ITSNOTOK Disability Themed Twitter Q&A 

Blue speech bubble logo. Red and white text reads: SEXUAL ABUSE AND SEXUAL VIOLENCE AWARENESS WEEK 2017. 6TH - 12TH FEBRUARY

This Friday, the 10th of February, from 1-2pm GMT, Disabled Survivors Unite will be hosting a Twitter Q&A with Respond centred around disability for Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week.

We welcome everyone to take part in this discussion! We are especially keen to hear from disabled survivors and disabled people.

However, we have purposefully phrased questions in such a way that means you do not have to disclose whether you are either disabled or a survivor when answering.

Disabled Survivors Unite are a user-led organisation (all founders are disabled) creating change for disabled survivors of abuse and sexual violence. You can find out more about our work here.

Respond is a service which provides support to children and adults with learning disabilities who have experienced abuse or trauma. You can find out more about their work here.

How our Twitter Q&A will work

Be sure to follow @DSUtweets and @RESPOND_UK on Twitter. All questions will be posted by the @DSUtweets Twitter account.

We will be using the #itsnotok hashtag for this discussion. However, please note that this hashtag is being used widely for Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week, so other discussions might be taking place on it.

We will be tweeting ten questions over the hour, but please feel free to take your time answering these. All questions are available in advance below.

Format of Q&A

If you respond to a question such as Q1, your tweet should follow the format: “A1 [your message] #itsnotok”

In this case, Q1 stands for Question #1 and A1 stands for Answer #1.

The hashtag will allow us to see your responses, and the number means we know which question you are answering. However, if you find it easier, feel free to quote retweet with your answer.

If you might be overwhelmed by the volume of tweets and only want to see the chat’s questions so you can respond to them, check @DSUtweets account. Each question will tweeted about 6 minutes apart.

For an explanation of how to participate in a Twitter chat, please check out this useful example by Ruti Regan here.

Check out this captioned ASL explanation of how to participate in a chat by @behearddc by clicking here.

If you need any support during this discussion, or afterwards, please visit our website page on Getting Support here.

If you think posts may be triggering for you, please ‘mute’ the #itsnotok hashtag. This way you should not see the questions and answers. You can learn how to do this by clicking here.

Questions

Feel free to prepare your answers in advance, but please only post these once we have asked the questions on Friday.

Q1 Please introduce yourself however you feel comfortable! If you’re a service, please describe your work & reason for joining. #itsnotok

Q2 What services exist for disabled survivors? How can we create more specialised services? #itsnotok

Q3 How can existing support services become more accessible to disabled people? What changes would you like to see? #itsnotok

Q4 How do disabled people experience sexual abuse and sexual violence in different ways to non-disabled people? #itsnotok

Q5 What can schools do to educate disabled children about safe, appropriate sex and how to identify abuse? #itsnotok

Q6 How can therapy help disabled survivors who have experienced sexual abuse and violence? How could it be made more accessible? #itsnotok

Q7 What can the police do to better support disabled survivors? What changes are needed? #itsnotok

Q8 Does the criminal justice system put disabled survivors at a disadvantage? If so, how can we change this? #itsnotok

Q9 How important is it that disabled user led groups/survivors are involved in research surrounding abuse and sexual violence? #itsnotok

Q10 If you could say one thing to a disabled survivor, what would it be? We will collect these into a blog post for survivors to read. #itsnotok

We hope you can participate in our first #itsnotok disability themed Twitter discussion!

If you miss it, don’t worry! You’re free to answer the questions at any point!

We have tried to make this Q&A accessible a possible. However, can you think of anything that could make it more accessible? We welcome suggestions, please email these to us: info@disabledsurvivorsunite.org.uk

We want to say a special thank you to Alice Wong, founder of the Disability Visibility Project, for letting us use her wonderful #CripTheVote twitter discussion template. Be sure to follow Alice at @SFdirewolf and the Disability Visibility Project at @DisVisibility.

#ITSNOTOK Twitter Q&A

Blue speech bubble logo. Red and white text reads: SEXUAL ABUSE AND SEXUAL VIOLENCE AWARENESS WEEK 2017. 6TH - 12TH FEBRUARY

This Friday Disabled Survivors Unite and Respond are hosting a Twitter Q&A for Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week.

We hope that this online event will start an important conversation about disabled survivors and how we can be best supported.

Questions will be asked from 1pm – 2pm on our Twitter account, but please feel free to join in at a time convenient to you.

We also welcome you to submit question suggestions for this discussion! Please send these to: info@disabledsurvivorsunite.org.uk

Respond are a service which supports children and adults with learning disabilities who have experienced abuse or trauma, and we’re thrilled to be working with them! To learn more about their work, please click here.

We hope to see you on Twitter at 1pm on Friday!

Disabled Voices Heard at European Parliament Hearing

Photo of Holly, guide dog Isla, Ashley, Bekki, and Alice. Stood in front of pink "EUROPE NEEDS FEMINISM" sign.

Content warning: This blog discusses domestic and sexual violence experienced by disabled people.

On January 31st, Disabled Survivors Unite spoke at the European Parliament about domestic violence experienced by disabled people. The event brought disability organisations, MEP’s and disabled people together to speak about the issues we face and what we can do to combat them.

Soraya Post, MEP and member of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats organised the hearing. She said that domestic violence affected all people with disabilities and had gone “under the radar of lawmakers for too long.”

DSU spoke about our own personal experiences as well as sharing testimonies submitted to us by disabled survivors of abuse. Disabled people are prevented from coming forward when they experience abuse for multiple reasons. Some do not know that what they are experiencing is abuse, and others face structural barriers when trying to access services. As a result, we called for the UK government to reverse the cuts made to support services and disabled people directly. These have a significant impact on all disabled people, but especially survivors of abuse and violence.

Our testimonies were disturbingly echoed by others at the hearing. Ann Jönsson, who sits on the board of the European Blind Union, spoke about a deaf lady who was prevented from communicating by her husband who refused to interpret for her. She also shared the story of a blind teenager who was raped by a man pretending to be the taxi driver designated to pick her up from school. It was clear that disabled people across Europe are experiencing domestic and sexual violence, and not enough is being done to tackle it.

We hope that this hearing has sent a clear message to governments that they must do more to support disabled survivors of abuse and violence. It is imperative that they take this responsibility seriously, and we suggest three key changes they must make in order to do this.

You can download the transcription here.

#ITSNOTOK Call for Submissions

Blue speech bubble logo. Red and white text reads: SEXUAL ABUSE AND SEXUAL VIOLENCE AWARENESS WEEK 2017. 6TH - 12TH FEBRUARY

Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week is fast approaching, and we want to hear from you!

From 6th – 12th of February we will be giving you the opportunity to have your voice heard.

We are looking for disabled people who have survived sexual abuse/violence to create blog posts for us. This will help people to understand how we experience this type of abuse and what needs to change.

There is no right or wrong way to share your story or feelings, but we thought we’d give you a few ideas;

  • Write a letter to someone
  • Share a piece of art you have created or a photograph you have took
  • Tell your story
  • Share information that you think people need to know about disability and sexual abuse/violence
  • Write a poem
  • Offer advice

If you would like our help to create a blog post, please get in touch and we’ll be more than happy to assist you!

You can send all submission by email: info@disabledsurvivorsunite.org.uk

Or you can send written submissions anonymously using this form.

If you get in touch with us by email, you can still choose to remain anonymous and do not have to give us your name.

We hope you will consider helping us in our campaign to have disabled survivors voices heard!

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 First (Re)Storyteller

Content note: this post discusses childhood sexual abuse by a family member, failings by parents and police, and lack of justice.


I was routinely sexually abused by my grandfather from the age of eleven. My school called the police when I disclosed at 15 and I underwent an interview, after which my parents were told that I had simply misunderstood his actions due to my Autism and the case was dropped. He went on to abuse a number of other people in the next five years, but the abuse I was subjected to was never brought up again even though he was prosecuted for the other (less serious as far as the law goes) incidents, and he died without ever facing consequences for his abuse of me.


If you have been affected by the content of this post, the following services are here to support you:

  • Victim Support can give you free, confidential support if you have experienced child abuse at any point in your life. You do not need to have reported the abuse to be supported by them.
  • The NSPCC has lots of information on their website, including how to spot the signs of abuse and what you can do if you suspect a child is in danger.

We have a comprehensive list of support services that work with survivors of all kinds of abuse and violence. Click here to view the complete list.

Please also don’t hesitate to email us.[subscribe2]

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.