Don't leave women with disabilities behind in domestic violence fight

Disability activist Sue Salthouse.

Disability activist Sue Salthouse. Photo: Jamila Toderas

Next time you find yourself on a crowded train, look around and count how many women you can see who have a disability. Chances are you won't see any and this is strange because nearly 20 per cent of women in Australia have a disability. In fact, people with disabilities make up the largest minority group in this country.

The reason for the lack of visibility of this large portion of our population is two-fold. Firstly, many disabilities – vision or hearing impairment, acquired brain injury and intellectual disability to name a few – are not immediately obvious. Secondly, where a wheelchair, guide dog or other assistive equipment is used to get around, the barriers to participation are correspondingly high and we are absent from our transport, streets and workplaces. In the twenty-first century in Australia, this should not be the case.

For all women, with appropriate services and supports, there is no reason why most of us can't reach our potential and live a fulfilled life. Many do, as we should.

Sue Salthouse was named the Canberra Citizen of the Year in 2015.

Sue Salthouse was named the Canberra Citizen of the Year in 2015. Photo: Melissa Adams

But an alarming portion of women are being denied that basic right. In fact, many are being denied the right to any life at all. By now we know the stats: one woman is murdered by a current or former male partner each week.

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This is, of course, horrifying and a national disgrace. It is even more horrifying to know that women with disability are 40 per cent more likely to experience domestic violence that their non-disabled counterparts, and that the rates of sexual violence against women with disabilities are 4 to 10 times that of those without disabilities. To our shame, nine in 10 women with an intellectual disability have been sexually abused.

Violence against women is the result of gender inequality; deep-seated disrespect for women, which invariably leads to a power imbalance conducive to abuse. For a woman with a disability, discrimination due to their gender and their disability, means disadvantage is compounded. The erosion of self-respect can start early in life, only to be affirmed in an abusive partnership.

Control, manipulation, humiliation – as well as physical, sexual, emotional and/or financial abuse – are all deadly ingredients of intimate partner violence, whether or not the woman involved has a disability.

But, if she does happen to be living with a disability, this violence can take on additional forms and may include putting medicines out of reach deliberately, denying access to assistive equipment, or verbal abuse about the disability. Worse, the violence is often perpetrated over a much longer period of time. Where a home is adapted to her needs or she relies on that perpetrator for essential personal supports it is much, much harder to imagine how one could find any pathway to safety.

As a woman with a disability myself, and an Our Watch ambassador, I am adamant that the high incidence of violence against women with disabilities be recognised, understood, and addressed.

As a citizen of the ACT, it is pleasing that we have made a promising start, giving those working in the Domestic Violence Crisis Service and the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre broad-spectrum training about the effect a disability might have on both the physical and the psychological status of a woman who experiences domestic violence or sexual assault and comes to them for help.

In addition to the training, a comprehensive consortium of services has worked together to set up a system of supports to help women with disabilities create that pathway to safety. Women with physical disabilities can be assisted to accessible safe accommodation, with emergency accessible transport, specialised equipment and personal support hours arranged at short notice. Importantly, women can be supported to stay at home where adaptations are tailor-made, the perpetrator removed and additional personal supports brought in.

As a member of the Council of Australian Government Advisory Panel on Reducing Violence against Women and their Children, I was heartened to have the support of fellow members to ensure that a number of recommendations were specific to women with disabilities.  

The recommendations of the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence echo these findings, but have the added legitimacy of funding already committed by that government. This needs to happen across the country. We need financial commitment. We need action. We need all services to have the tools and skills to end violence against women with a disability that stem from what evidence says works to prevent violence against women generally.

To improve the status of all women, we need to look between the cracks and make sure we can be seen. I know our communities are better when we recognise diversity. Minorities need to be properly represented in leadership positions, and an integrated part of policies, programs and actions.

We have started the journey, but there's much to be done.

Sue Salthouse is an Our Watch ambassador and disability advocate.