Disability and Domestic Violence

In Relationships & Family by Mel Ashford

Over a quarter of American women and 1 in 7 men suffer violence and abuse at the hands of their romantic or sexual partner. However, domestic violence can be more challenging if the victim has disabilities. 

Mel Ashford writes for audacitymagazine.com

Living with a disability or disabilities means that we’re subject to more violence and abuse than non-disabled people. Domestic violence rates are twice as high amongst people with disabilities as with non-disabled people. People living with disabilities also suffer several different types of abuse that non-disabled people don’t have to worry about. For example, misuse of conservatorships, financial abuse, and higher rates of sexual abuse.

Domestic Violence and Disabilities

For someone living with disabilities, domestic violence includes being exposed to all the usual abusive behaviors, as well as disability-specific behaviors. Some of the regular signs of domestic violence include physical violence, sexual violence, financial abuse, and verbal/emotional abuse. If you live with a disability, sexual and financial abuse are often worse or more common. It’s horrifyingly easy for an intimate partner to abuse a disabled partner’s finances or even just use the relationship for a carer’s allowance. Money is also a way an abusive partner might keep somebody under control, for example, spending their benefits or the funding they have for their car.

Sometimes, disability is the reason for the abuse, or at minimum, it is used within the abuse. For example, a D/deaf woman might be abused with slurs that directly relate to her Deafness or disability, and someone with autism might have their routine disrupted on purpose. If you have physical disabilities, you might be subject to things like being trapped without your wheelchair, or parked somewhere that you can’t reach food or water. Abusive partners might remove access to medications, or use a lack of mobility to commit sexual assault. One victim told the Guardian that her abuser became “angry with me for getting sick so much.” However, she was given priority at the shelter because of her multiple physical disabilities. 

Disabled people are twice as likely to experience sexual assault or rape, and within intimate partner relationships, this is no different. Being assaulted or abused by your partner is incredibly challenging to deal with, and sexual violence can go on for a long time. If your disabilities leave you unable to move, you are much more at risk of sexual abuse by a romantic partner or anyone else you live with. You’re also more likely to suffer sexual domestic violence if you have a sensory impairment like vision loss or hearing difficulties.

Some of the disability-specific issues victims of domestic violence face include:

● Controlling or restricting access to medications and doctors, or even disallowing it completely
● Supervising doctors visits and refusing to allow the victim to attend medical appointments alone
● Using a lack of mobility to abuse the victim sexually
● Encouraging dependency on them, such as becoming a carer or swapping your mobility
car for the abuser driving you around

Domestic violence can be especially dangerous for people living with physical disabilities due to difficulty moving around, physically protecting yourself, and running away from your abuser. You’re more likely to struggle to fight someone off, and you may end up being moved around and left places without your consent. If you live with learning difficulties or autism, the relationship can seem confusing, and navigating shelters and escape can be challenging, especially during an upsetting and frightening time. People with sensory disabilities, such as hearing loss, or visual disabilities, may find escaping more complicated, and they’re more vulnerable to unexpected abuse.

Another serious issue with domestic violence and disabilities is that the abuse continues for much longer. Getting yourself out of an abusive relationship is challenging as it is, but for those of us with disabilities, it can be even more challenging. For example, the abuser may have trapped you by removing aids, medications, or money that you need, or you feel you can’t leave an apartment that’s been adapted to support your disabilities. An abusive intimate partner may even remove your wheelchair, as this leaves him more in control of you.

Shelters and Leaving An Abusive Relationship

Living with disabilities can leave you isolated, and an abusive partner can easily use this to narrow your social circle and trap you in the relationship. They may also keep family and friends out by answering your calls and telling them you’re too unwell to come to the phone. With certain medical conditions, this can trap someone living with disabilities for a long time.

For non-disabled people, shelters are an obvious option, but they’re challenging to access if you live with one or more disabilities or medical conditions. If your home is already adapted to suit your needs, it can be hard to leave it, and most shelters don’t have the right level of accessibility for someone with severe disabilities. Sometimes it can be challenging to find a shelter that could accommodate you, and if you’re already depressed and lethargic, or you don’t have long to figure shelters out, this can leave you trapped in an abusive situation. One woman said that it was “difficult to find wheelchair-accessible accommodation,” but she’d been able to call the police when a friend “put a small phone in her incontinence pad.”

If you’re being physically or sexually abused by your intimate partner, it can be much more challenging to get away from them physically. This might mean you try to please them more or that you’re much less likely to take a risk by breaking the rules or trying to get away. If you’re physically unable to protect yourself from violence or escape the situation (for instance, if you can’t run away or move), you’re much more likely to remain in the relationship.
Another reason you might stay in an abusive relationship is because you’re afraid of being moved to an institution. Someone living with severe or multiple disabilities may remain with an abusive intimate partner because they’re dependent on them for care. An abusive partner may also convince you to stay by threatening you with institutionalization.

Help Is Available

Domestic violence and disabilities can be a dangerous combination. If you or a loved one are victims of domestic violence, please know that there is help out there and that doctors and shelters will support you, despite your disabilities or needs. If you’re not sure what to do, please call the police. Alternatively, you can access help and support via the following:

● The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1−800−799−SAFE(7233). A videophone line is also available for D/deaf callers (206) 518-9361. You can also access help via chat.
● The National Deaf Domestic Violence Hotline: 855-812-1001.
● SafeLives: It’s a British website, but it has lots of useful resources, including a Spotlight
on domestic violence and disability.

Editor’s note: Have you been a victim of domestic violence? If you’d like to share your story be sure to contact us nathasha@audacitymagazine.com

Here’s another article by Mel for you. https://www.audacitymagazine.com/what-marvels-makkari-means-for-the-deaf-and-hard-of-hearin

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