We need to prioritise women with disability in domestic violence discussions


Moo Baulch and Jess Cadwallader

Despite significantly higher rates of all types of violence, most of the focus on violence prevention continues to leave ...

Despite significantly higher rates of all types of violence, most of the focus on violence prevention continues to leave women with disability quietly hidden.

It's the too-often-forgotten part of the conversation when we talk about violence against women: the abuse that women with disability face.

Despite experiencing significantly higher rates of all types of violence, with some added unique extras including sterilisation and the threat of institutionalisation, most of the investment in and focus on violence prevention continues to leave this group of women quietly hidden.

Last week's Senate Report on Violence Against People with Disability contained a loud call to action for the meaningful inclusion of women with disability across all violence response policies, frameworks, and services, at a national and a state level.


This call reflects a desperate, hidden need.

Earlier this year, a woman with disability was hospitalised after being brutally attacked. An ADVO was taken out, but - as so often happens - the perpetrator threatened to kill her, physically assaulted her and then locked her in her home.

When a domestic violence support line was called, they said that services in the area were not equipped to support women with disability. Police refused to allow the woman a support person when she tried to report the ADVO breach, contradicting their own code of conduct. The full extent of the assault was not recorded. Charges are yet to be laid. This is just one example and one incident illustrative of the systemic failures that women with disability face daily in our 'lucky country'.

For too many women with disability facing violence in their homes, domestic violence responses are not available or not accessible. At a time when many victims without disability struggle to find space in a refuge or shelter as they leave violent situations, women with disability might not even be able to get past the front step. If they can, they may still require expensive attendant care, which they are often forced to use their very limited victims' support payments to fund. And that's only if the service supports her to make such arrangements.

For women with or without disability, making the decision to leave is incredibly difficult. If your partner or family member is also your informal carer, the withdrawal of life-sustaining supports can be a key part of the pattern of coercion and control. Leaving violence may put you at risk of being institutionalised, or having custody of your children removed. It also takes extraordinary planning: when you have to find an accessible place to stay, plus funding for disability support services, it may be almost impossible to conceal from a violent partner. And as we know, women are at higher risk when they try to leave.

But accessing domestic and family violence support services to leave depends on the victim, the police and services recognising that what you are experiencing is domestic violence.

Under NSW law, domestic violence is recognised as occurring in institutional settings such as group homes and in the context of relationships with paid support workers. Yet in the past year, NSW Police crime statistics regarding violence in these settings show very few incidences. We know that it's not because the violence is not occurring. It is far more likely that victims and survivors have not been referred to the relevant services. They may be waiting for a space in another institution to open up before they can make their escape plan.

Women with disability are frequently referred to as a 'priority population' in policies and frameworks related to violence against women or at higher risk than other cohorts. But in many cases, issues of 'violence against women' and 'domestic violence' are defined in ways that exclude the experiences of women with disability because it's simply too hard.

Even more problematically, real change is impeded by a lack of funding to help ensure domestic and family violence services become fully accessible. Earlier this year, Domestic Violence NSW and People With Disability Australia collaborated to create a set of resources designed to assist, encourage and guide domestic violence support services to become more accessible.

As a community, we must all grapple with what it means that women with disability - around 18% of all women - experience violence at twice the rate of other women.

As a nation we must confront the fact that domestic violence is a leading cause of disability for women and think about what that should mean for our responses to violence.

It is only by fully including women with disability in every aspect of our work to end violence against women that we will achieve true change. Meaningful inclusion is not a tickbox exercise nor is it an easy pathway. Last week's report offers us some useful places to start.

Jess Cadwallader is violence prevention advocacy project manager for People with Disability Australia. 

Moo Baulch is the CEO of Domestic Violence NSW. 

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au