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Violence Against Women With Disabilities: Probing the Scope of the Problem

On Friday, Flavia reminded readers of the problems with the limited reach of anti-violence campaigns, which tend to focus on specific populations, and discussed the #16days campaign intended to highlight numerous perspectives on gender-based violence. She touched upon one area of conversations about violence against women that tends to be neglected: Discussions about the intersections between disability and violence.

Disabled women have generally been marginalized in both the women’s movement and the disabled movement because they are seen as being on the peripheries of both groups. The issue of violence against women with disabilities deserves particular focus, as their voices may be lost not only by their marginalization, but also by the particular attributes of their disabilities and the isolation in which those disabilities often place them. (source) [Ed. note: This quote emphasises a medical model of disability with the comment that disability is isolating, rather than that living in an ableist society can be isolating.]

It is critical to integrate discussions about disability into conversations about violence against women because disabled women, like other women, are at an increased risk of experiencing violence in their lives. Furthermore, disabled women are much more likely than nondisabled women to experience violence during their lifetimes, for longer periods of time, due to social attitudes and beliefs about disability, as exemplified by this quote from Kimberly Black Wisseman, discussing a home invasion and rape, and I should note that this piece is very graphic:

I was…repeatedly told throughout the attack that I was going to be killed. Towards the end of the assault, I was also told that I had been stalked and targeted. From what they said, I found that as a woman with a disability I am seen as being very vulnerable and an easy target.

Furthermore, women with disabilities experience violence in some different contexts than nondisabled women, which must be integrated into conversations about fighting violence against women as a whole. Issues like caregiver abuse and violence in institutions are very specific to the disabled community, which means they are often left out of discussions about violence, even though they are critically important. To add to the problem, many domestic violence and sexual assault services are inaccessible, with personnel who are not trained to work with disabled persons. Women with disabilities are a vulnerable population, more at risk of experiencing violence, and less likely to get assistance when they do.

One significant issue when it comes to combating violence against women with disabilities is that it is severely understudied. Violence against women as a general topic has been a subject of considerable sociological analysis. Most of the studies on violence against women with disabilities in North America (where I have access to the most resources) are from Canada, feature small samples, and are limited in nature. Thus, it’s difficult even to perform relatively ‘simple’ actions like saying how much more likely women with disabilities are to experience violence than nondisabled women; some studies say twice as likely, for example, while others say 10 times as likely. The utter lack of statistics on similarities and differences when it comes to abuse in populations of disabled trans women versus disabled cis women is also a serious obstacle to creating meaningful tools for fighting violence against women, because disabled trans women face particular issues that disabled cis women do not; in just one example, they may face dual shelter inaccessibility because they’re disabled and trans.

These issues are compounded by the considerable complexity of defining ‘disability’ for the purpose of a study, and creating a definition that can be functionally used to compare multiple studies. Self-identification can also come into play; some people who share my mental health diagnoses, for example, identify as disabled and members of the disabled community. Others do not. In responses to questions about experiences of violence, we might thus answer very differently in conversations about the connections between our mental health conditions and abuse.

There is considerable variance in the experience of disability within the disabled community, the experience of violence related to it, the most appropriate interventions, and where priorities lie:

There is no question that abuse of women with disabilities is a problem of epidemic proportions that is only beginning to attract the attention of researchers, service providers, and funding agencies. The gaps in the literature are enormous. For each disability type, different dynamics of abuse come into play. For women with physical disabilities, limitations in physically escaping violent situations are in sharp contrast to women with hearing impairments, who may be able to escape but face communication barriers in most settings designed to help battered women. Certain commonalities exist across disability groups, such as economic dependence, social isolation, and the whittling away of self-esteem on the basis of disability as a precursor to abuse. Research that employs methodologic rigor must be conducted with women who have disabilities such as blindness, deafness, mentalillness, and mental retardation. Particular attention must be paid to identifying vulnerability factors that are disability-related as opposed to those factors experienced by all women. (source)

Two particular disability-specific issues need to be addressed in discussions about violence against women: caregiver abuse and institutional abuse. They are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to talking about gender-based violence and disability, though, highlighting the need to incorporate disability fully into discussions about violence against women, and studies intended to help fight violence against women.

Some women with disabilities need aides or assistants, which can place them in an extremely vulnerable position. Wisseman again:

I knew at this point that my life was in danger and I wanted out of this relationship. At the same time, this was the man that I thought loved me and was helping me with some of my personal care services. I thought, “If I leave him and hire an attendant to come in, what would someone do to me who I didn’t know, if he was already doing these things to me.”

For women who work with aides, assistants, and caregivers, intense fear may be associated with reporting abuse. Worry that the next caregiver will be just as bad or worse, that they will be punished for reporting, that they will be unable to live independently. Caregivers can have tremendous control over the lives of their charges, from leaving them lying in their own feces to refusing to allow them to see friends and family. That control can be utilised in escalating abuse situations to isolate the victim even further.

Defining abuse can be challenging, too. Women with disabilities can experience intimate partner violence, for example, but they also experience threats like caregivers who withhold medications, including hormones in the case of trans women, or consistently make meals late. These things are also abuse, but may not be immediately read as such, both by the victim and people outside the relationship. When it comes to asking for help in these circumstances, the response may be confusion or uncertainty about whether a case really constitutes abuse.

And she may not be able to go to a shelter for help, because the shelter may be inaccessible. She is trapped in a violent relationship, whether with a romantic partner or a paid caregiver. Economic exploitation can play a role in such abusive relationships as well. The victim may not have the economic independence needed to get out on her own, and thus has no realistic means of escaping.

These situations are the result of devaluation of people with disabilities as human beings, the framing of disability as a burden, the lack of full participation and equal rights for people with disabilities. Fear about reporting can be much more compelling for some disabled women than some nondisabled women, which contributes to even less accurate statistics; for every case that does make its way into the reports, how many more are going unremarked?

Institutionalised women are also at increased risk of abuse, whether they are in psychiatric facilities, long-term ‘care homes,’ or other institutions. Abuses in institutions can include rape, physical assault, psychological torment, and neglect. Forced sterilisation still occurs in institutional settings, where residents may be treated like objects to be warehoused, rather than human beings. They are also viewed as conveniently vulnerable targets, as they may also have difficulty reporting, out of fear, because people won’t communicate with them, because they cannot define what happens to them.

For women with mental illness, institutional abuse can be a serious concern. Mentally ill people in general are more likely to be victims of violence than the general population, a statistic that goes up for women, where violence against mentally ill partners is so normalised that it’s made into a fun joke in pop culture on a regular basis. The idea that partners deserve to be abused, or that their nondisabled partners have an ‘excuse’ to abuse them, is widespread when it comes to women with mental health diagnoses; ‘difficult to live with,’ irrational,’ ‘dangerous.’ These are the kinds of statements made about mentally ill women, and the kinds of situations that may force them into institutions where they are exposed to further abuse. Because they are mentally ill, they are less likely to be believed when they report, and less likely to receive assistance.

People are forced into institutions in a variety of ways, like poorly structured government programmes that won’t pay for community-based care but will pay for institutionalisation. For people trying to live independently or in community-based living environments, the expenses may be too high to bear alone, even though paying for them would be less expensive as a whole than paying for an institution. Parents and partners of people with disabilities are also forced into an untenable situation where they aren’t paid for their labour, aren’t given respite care, and experience caregiver burnout and frustration, with institutionalisation seen as the only option because there is no community-based support.

This, too, is the consequence of ableism, and living in a culture where disabled people are not seen as fully human. We are locked away in institutions to be abused, we are trapped in abusive relationships, and disabled women experience a dual oppression because they’re devalued both as women, and as people with disabilities. They also struggle for inclusion, to gain a foothold in conversations that occur about and around them, but not with them. Mythology surrounds them, and it can be very difficult to push through those social attitudes while also struggling to survive.

There are also huge race and class intersections with disability which cannot be ignored; the looming health disparities when it comes to the kind of care people can access, for example, are critical when talking about violence against women, as is the increased likelihood of living in poverty if you are a disabled woman of colour or nonwhite woman. Race, gender, and disability are known as ‘the triple oppression‘ for a reason, and it contributes heavily to the devaluation of certain bodies more than others.

Fighting ableism will fight violence against women, and it’s critical for disability to be fully integrated into the fight to end violence against women. Being a woman with a disability means that you are highly likely to experience abuse, and this is a risk disabled women live with, and think about, every day, in full awareness that their disabilities may make them less likely to be believed and helped when they reach out for assistance.

It’s not just that the disparity in the statistics when it comes to violence against women versus nondisabled women is unacceptable: That any person ever, anywhere, is abused is unacceptable. Which means this is a battle that must be fought from all fronts, because liberation for some is justice for none.


  1. KittyWrangler wrote:

    Thanks for this post!

    Monday, November 28, 2011 at 10:20 am | Permalink
  2. This is a terrific post. Very thorough. Thank you!

    Monday, November 28, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Permalink
  3. Tanya wrote:

    This was heart-breaking to read. I know how hard it is to get t of an abusive relationship and I hadn’t considered how people with disabilities would experience this. It just isn’t fair that this goes on.

    Monday, November 28, 2011 at 9:47 pm | Permalink
  4. Becca wrote:

    There are new voices in the movement, hearing everyone speak out in is progress.

    Tuesday, November 29, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Permalink
  5. Esteleth wrote:

    Thanks for this post. It churned up all sorts of feelings and memories. Like of my grandmother expressing fear of what would happen to her after my grandfather – then terminally ill – passed. She has severe arthritis and needs a good deal of care. Previously, he had provided this care. She referred to incidents involving hospital stays, to friends, etc. It says a LOT that the reaction of an 83-year-old woman to the soon-to-come passing of her husband of 50-odd years was fear of her coming dependence on others.
    Someone missing the point would think that she was selfish, that there wasn’t love between them, that she was overreacting about perceived danger – all of which is false.
    I remember a conversation with a friend who’s an ambulance worker of responding to a call to a nursing home for an old man. Of the bruises on the man’s body, and how they were obviously not due to the fall he’d taken. Of how the man shrank back from my friend and and the other EMTs.
    I remember hearing people laugh at the sight of a man pushing the wheelchair of his wife, paralyzed after a stroke, making gross comments about their sex life and expressing disbelief and scorn at the husband’s obvious love and devotion for his wife.

    This shit doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Somewhere along the line, we as a society decided that the disabled don’t deserve more than this. Horrifying.

    Tuesday, November 29, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Permalink
  6. k wrote:

    s.e., this is heartbreaking. Thank you for writing this thorough, clear post. Like Esteleth I feel like this clarified many things I’ve heard about over the years.

    Wednesday, November 30, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Permalink
  7. Angie unduplicated wrote:

    Police protection, in particular, is likely to be scanty or nonexistent for disabled women. Those buffed-up law officers are apt to believe that the disabled are whiners or, in modern RWNJ-speak, “needy” and are to be ridiculed and dismissed. Skinhead a**holes!

    Thursday, December 1, 2011 at 8:09 pm | Permalink
  8. Glauke wrote:

    T/w for violent crime, sexual abuse. And ableism, of course :s

    I was reminded of a court case that was decided recently. An elderly woman, in her late eighties had killed her only daughter.

    The daughter had Down syndrome. The mother had had her daughter committed to an institution where the daughter was abused.

    The mother had taken her daughter back home and cared for her. Now that she was getting old she felt she had no other safe place for her daughter.

    Thank you for drawing attention to this intersection

    Friday, December 2, 2011 at 9:30 am | Permalink