A recent online interaction with somebody who seemed to enjoy holding power over women in wheelchairs sent me down the path of ‘What-If’. What if someone I trusted, an intimate partner, turned out to be that kind of person? What would it look like for me to leave that relationship?
It has been my experience that people imagine they have a rightful position of power and control over women and girls with disabilities. It is this kind of power and control that can be abused by family, caregivers, or partners. Our society often dismisses people with disability as passive, helpless, child-like and burdensome. These prejudices not only encourage others to try to control us, but also tend to make us less visible to society, reducing the odds of someone noticing the abuse.
We know women with a disability are 40% more likely to be the victims of domestic violence than women without. Some women or girls may even believe that their disability is the reason for their abuse, that they somehow deserve to be abused, or that the abusive relationship is the best they can hope for due to their disability.
As a straight, white, middle-class, educated woman with disability in Australia, I’ve only ever dealt with discrimination through my privileged lens. But I can’t help wondering at every step what might have happened if I weren’t so lucky. What if I had been led to believe my self-worth was defined by my disability? What if the only person who’d ever advocated for me was not only my caregiver, but also my abuser?
In October 2021, the first public hearing by the Disability Royal Commission (DRC) for women and girls with disabilities was held, focusing on family, domestic, and sexual violence. As well as first-hand testimony, it highlighted shocking statistics which revealed how common abusive relationships are for women with disabilities.
On day one, the Royal Commission heard that of women with disability who are in a current relationship:
- 23 per cent, or nearly one in four, had experienced physical violence within a period of three months.
- 4 per cent, or nearly one in six, had experienced sexual violence within that three-month period.
Thelma Schwarz, Principal Legal Officer with the Queensland Indigenous Family Violence Legal Service, talked about the issues women with disabilities face when they tell the authorities about domestic abuse. For example, the issue of women with disability being ‘misidentified’ by police as the perpetrator instead of the victim. “It happens at alarming rates,” Ms Schwarz said, and gave an example of a Deaf woman who was misidentified when police wouldn’t take the time to find an interpreter and get her side of the story – even though they were originally called for help out of concern for that woman’s safety.
When I, myself, tried to ring someone and make a complaint about a less serious issue, the person on the other end hung up after hearing me struggle with my speech. If I had been calling the police about domestic abuse, how long would it take me to try again?
In her opening statement to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Kelly Cox, a long-time disability advocate, described the lack of support in place for women with disability who are affected by abusive relationships.
“Disabled women should have pathways to safety. We should be free from abusive and coercive behaviour from the people around us. We have had enough of being at the mercy of the people whose behaviour puts us at risk.”
There are many barriers that prevent women with disabilities from seeking help, including the shame that comes from not fitting into the role that we think we should. Other barriers can be a reliance on the abuser, fear, and access gaps in domestic abuse services.
One survivor of domestic violence, wheelchair-user Nicole Lee, told The Courier Mail that she got stuck in an abusive relationship with her husband, and the father of her two children. During the second part of the Royal Commission hearing on domestic violence, in March 2022, Nicole described the frustrating experience of trying to get help from a system that seemed to either understand disability or domestic violence, but not both at the same time.
I know I could have fallen into the same sort of abusive relationship that Nicole Lee struggled to escape from. I can’t imagine successfully navigating the lack of access and bureaucratic hurdles in Australia’s so-called safety net.
In Australia, it is very hard for women with disability who want to put distance between themselves and their abusers. Accessible homes are not easy to find, which can often make leaving very difficult. Most women with disability stay where they are and endure the abuse, which may seem like a slightly better option than poverty, homelessness or institutionalisation.
I’ve had friends with disability who have struggled financially to leave the relationship they’re in. Australians with disability who move in with their partners receive a significantly reduced pension. On top of that, they wouldn’t be deemed as eligible for NDIS funding towards their life goals as a single participant would. There are no specific government grants available for women who require a lot of physical support with daily activities and want to escape their abusive relationship.
The lack of financial support and housing for abused women with disabilities both comes from and supports the false notion that these women only seek out a relationship with someone who can also be their caregiver.
I would like to see next year’s final report of the Disability Royal Commission highlight the hurdles faced by women with disabilities who are no longer considered to be financially independent.
Australia is one of the most forward-thinking countries regarding disability in some respects. But it can always do better, and making sure our system understands and supports the needs of domestic abuse survivors with disability should be a top priority.
Jamie-Lee Dwyer is a 31-year-old writer and disability advocate from Queensland. She has studied and received a bachelor of journalism with first-class honours from Griffith University. In between her casual work with Summer Foundation and other advocacy work, she is currently writing a fiction book about disability.
Our Voice is a series of guest blogs by members of our community who have been affected by violence, abuse, neglect or exploitation. Like the Disability Royal Commission, we want to spotlight the voices of ordinary people with disability telling their own stories.
For more information on the Disability Royal Commission’s investigations into the issues discussed in this blog, among others, see our info page on women with disability and domestic violence. You can also find out more from Women With Disabilities Australia.