Shh!! we’re “keeping mum” -an examination of the profound silence about Domestic Violence which persists for women with disabilities

By Sue Salthouse for Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA)

Paper presented at the ACT Conference ‘Responding to Family Violence: National Perspective – Local Initiatives’; 6-7 May 2010, National Convention Centre Canberra

© Copyright 2010


This presentation will examine the factors which predispose women with disabilities to an experience of higher levels of domestic violence than any other population group. Any incident of domestic violence experienced is a violation of an individual’s human rights. The Australian Government’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol carries an urgent obligation to address the inequities which exist for women with disabilities. The testimonies of women with disabilities themselves illustrate the ways in which we are particularly vulnerable. Some recent ACT actions have been taken with the aim to improve community safeguards for women with disabilities and minimise this vulnerability. It is acknowledged that there are commonalities that women with disabilities share with non-disabled women in getting access to refuges and the justice system, but there are additional factors which must be dealt with if progress is to be made in our protection.


I begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people on whose land we meet, and pay my respects to their elders past and present, and to any other people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here today.

Women with Disabilities in the ACT

I am here today representing the 27,000 women with disabilities in the ACT[1]. We make up just over half of those with disabilities, and comprise about 17% of the population of ACT women. About 1 in every 3 of us in the ACT has a severe to profound core-activity restriction which affects our daily lives. This is approximately one-third higher than the incidence of profound disability for ACT men[2]. Yet the proportion of men with disabilities on the Disability Support Pension (56.7%) is much great than that for women[3]. There are women than men seeking assistance through Disability Employment Services.

I do have to qualify these figures, in that the data available to a Non-Government Organisation is limited and out of date. Australia-wide Surveys of pwd are conducted 6-yearly, and the data from the 2009 survey will not be publicly available till June.

Insofar as it is possible for an NGO to examine the allocation of any government funding to ACT pwd, it would seem that despite our greater numbers, the greater proportion of support services money goes to men with disabilities. The exception is in public housing, where we are substantially over-represented.

Violence and women with disabilities

The lack of data and the lack of access to is it a part of the profound silence which prevails around any discussion of domestic violence and women with disabilities. The scarce studies that have been conducted identify an incidence of violence from 2 to 10 times that experienced by non-disabled women. The most definitive work in this area is that published by WWDA in 2007. Our Resource Manual on Violence Against women with disabilities, contains a volume “Forgotten Sisters” which examines the nature, incidence and prevalence of the dv we experience and includes an annotated bibliography of all research available in the area at that time. The images in the powerpoint loop playing behind me are taken from that Manual.

To my knowledge, in the ACT there has never been any research which could either substantiate or disprove WWDA’s allegation of an alarmingly high incidence of violence against us. Anecdotally, in any confidential gathering of women with disabilities, ALL of those with intellectual disabilities will have experienced sexual abuse, along with MOST of those with any other disability.

What we do know is that there are many factors which predispose women with disabilities to violence. Gender-based violence in itself is very different from that which men perpetrate against other men. For us, an extra layer of vulnerability is imposed by our disabilities. If we consider Violence in terms of power imbalances, then the twin affects of gender and disability tip that balance unfavourably against us. Whilst I will speak further on these factors, I am an not endorsing a ‘victim blaming’ mentality, which would use our vulnerability to foster a defeatist justification for completely ignoring the issue. Our human right to freedom from violence demands that the problem be addressed pro-actively.

Consider the following realities:

  • Many women with disabilitiesare dependent on family or paid care givers in some aspect of our daily lives. This dependence may be for the most intimate of care, or for washing, dressing, eating, or more public interactions usingtransport, at work and in social activities. The opportunities for exploitation of a power imbalance are many when one individual is dependent on another.
  • This dependence brings complex consequences. For it can be risky to disclose an incident when the perpetrator is the only one to whom the disclosure can be made. Such disclosure risks escalating the violence and/or withdrawal of the essential care.
  • Disclosure to a neutral higher authority such as a service provider or even the police calls up a more formal power imbalance. We are treated as “attention seeking”, “having unreliable memory”; “fabricators of stories” and “exaggerating”. Such dismissal of our disclosures is a form of abuse in itself. An actual inability to communicate orally can be exploited by both the perpetrator and those purporting to protect a victim.
  • Our loss of power arises from our low socio-economic status. As individuals, women with disabilities are over-represented in the lowest income quintile. From this evolves an economic dependence. The fear of trying to survive economically forces a woman with disabilities to remainin a violent relationship or in a violent domestic situation in a group house, or public housing complex. Whether with or without dependent children, women with disabilities face open discrimination in the private rental market.
  • The twin discriminators of disability and gender limit our ability to enter the workforce, and then to maintain employment. Being over represented in short term, part time, low paid, casual jobs, we earn little and cannot risk seeking higher paying work.
  • Stereotyping by teachers of women with disabilities, combined with the way the government structures reward course providers, sees us over represented in “lifestyle” and “living skills” courses. This further reduces our chances to obtain economic independence.
  • Lack of information combined with lack of self esteem and isolation from peers or a support network of women, frequently leads to acceptance of a violent situation as ‘normal’.

Many of the factors that I have mentioned here, will not be a revelation to those who deal with non-disabled women who experience family violence. However, I contend that the power imbalance in operation in every situation is more pronounced, and theforce, intensity and duration of the violence is different and more marked as a result.

One of the difficulties for women with disabilities is that in mainstream thinking, the distinction between domestic and family violence is blurred. The legal definition of ‘domestic violence’ varies from state to state. Despite the development of a Model Domestic Violence Law in 1997, the difference between jurisdictions persists. If we take a 1997 “agreed principle” in regard to domestic violence, which defined DV as:

‘an abuse of power perpetrated mainly (but not only) by men against women both in a relationship or after separation. It occurs when one partner attempts physically or psychologically to dominate and control the other’.

This definition assumes that what we define as ‘domestic’ and a ‘relationship’ are the same for all women and understood by all women, as well as by the justice system. However, for women with disabilities this is not the case.

What passes for a ‘domestic’ situation, must include all types of long term living arrangements used by women with disabilities – including group houses, boarding houses, gaols, rehabilitation facilities, hospitals, and mental health and other institutions.

Similarly a ‘relationship’ must include the relationship between the woman and the people with whom she must interact in the course of her daily life. Therefore it includes the more conventional understanding of relationship as being with a short-term or long-term partner. However, it must also include carers and support workers at ‘home’, in the workplace or school, or in the transport she uses for any purpose.

What is more, the forms of domestic violence can be much more diverse, and of longer duration that that experienced by non-disabled women.

As a wheelchair user, I could be vulnerable to removal of that chair from my bedside, refusal to retrieve something which is out of reach, mocking my lack of prowess in performing tasks. I am certainly vulnerable to someone who chooses to push my wheelchair against my will or even to tip me out of it. This is not to give you ideas for the afternoon tea break, but to describe our reality.

Women with disabilities report a wide range of physical violations which include all the unfortunate litany experienced by non-disabled women, plus things such as chemical and physical restraint, deprivation of freedom, removal of equipment, and withholding of medication.

For a woman who is blind, merely shifting things in the home, can result in both loss of independence, and complete loss of confidence. I am not going to describe the situation for every disability diagnosis, but I am sure that you can extrapolate the manifold ways in which our disabilities can be exploited by a perpetrator. The greater the degree of dependence the greater the scope for torment.

WWDA has learned of instances of sexual violence, where care has been withheld on demand of sexual favours; or the woman’s inability to physically escape has been used; or her inability to identify the perpetrator by sight; or her poor ability to orally describe the attacker. , o

There are too many instances where emotional and psychological violence is used. This includes threats of punishment or abandonment, threats to institutionalise, threats to withdraw care or services, and denial of rights, e.g. to travel, to own a pet.

Where there are children in a relationship, the threat of removal of children most usually forces complicity in the violence. The threat is a real one since the justice system too often rules in favour of a perpetrator rather than entrust children to a women who may need additional domestic support.

For women with disabilities, the incidence of financial and economic abuse is at a much higher rate than for non-disabled women. Women with disabilities have had wills altered, bank accounts plundered, compensation money mismanaged and lost. Phones are misappropriated and used so that ‘bill shock’ is common.

The effect on the psyche and esteem of any of these actions entrenches vulnerability.

Freedom from Violence as a Human Right

I think the fact that the particular and negative situation of women with disabilities worldwide is recognised at an international level, is sufficient for governments to pay special attention to us in the formation of policies, programs and projects, and to allocate specific funding to address our situation.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which came into force in Australia on 16 August 2008 and its Optional Protocol which came into force here on 20 September 2009. Australia has been a leader amongst developing nations in taking these early actions. The CRPD specifically mentions the multiple discriminations against women and children with disabilities in it preamble and devotes Articles 6 and 7 to this. In order to “take appropriate measures” to protect the fundamental freedoms of women with disabilities, governments do need base-line information and pro-active programs specific to women with disabilities.

The Australian Government’s ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) had its 25thanniversary last year. In celebration, after years of agitation by women’s groups, the Government ratified the Optional Protocol to this convention, and this action entered into force in March 2009. General Recommendation 18 to CEDAW (1991) is specific to women with disabilities as an “area of concern”. As in the CRPD, it mandates that special measures are taken to ensure that “they can participate in all areas of social and cultural life”.[4] Between the tenth and thirty-fourth sessions of CEDAW, there had been no progress on Recommendation 18. In 2006, the CEDAW committee instructed the Government to do something about its poor record in disaggregated data collection:

‘…………The Committee regrets the absence of sufficient information and data on women with disabilities. The Committee requests the State party to include adequate statistical data and analysis, disaggregated by sex, ethnicity and disability, in its next report ….[5].

Thus, getting information about the real situation for women with disabilities in this country is only just starting. In the intervening 4 years, the Government has started a ‘stock take’ of data, and its 2009 report[6] contains little in this area:

(Para.2.39) The Australian Government is currently undertaking a gender indicators ‘stock take’ to identify gaps in the availability and accessibility of sex-disaggregated data, including data for Indigenous Australians, people with disability, and people from lower socioeconomic and rural and remote backgrounds.

These findings were echoed in 2009 in the concluding comments of the Economic and Social Council to the Australian Government, reporting to the 42nd session on the Covenant for Social Economic and Cultural Rights. The report specified criminalizing acts of domestic violence; increasing shelters and support services for the victims of domestic violence; increased efforts to prosecute; and to improve collection of data on the number and nature of reported cases. WWDA has been calling for these actions in relation to women with disabilities for over a decade.

A National Plan for Action

Reduction of the levels of violence against women is now a national priority. “Time for Action”, the 2009Plan developed by the National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children[7], contains 6 long-term outcomes, to address:

  • communities safe and violence-free
  • respectful relationships
  • services that meet the needs of women and their children
  • responses that are just
  • measures to stop perpetrators
  • systems that work together effectively.

The Government has responded to the 20 high-priority areas identified in Time for Action[8]. Eleven of the actions expand or build on existing actions under federal jurisdiction. A number are of direct relevance to the nature of family violence against women with disabilities. These include: development of a national primary prevention framework; building capacity in prevention education; programs to promote respectful relationships; a telephone/online crisis support service; and integration of domestic violence, child protection and family law. All of these must have identifiable components addressing the situation for women with disabilities.

A further 9 items will be discussed and developed at the Council of Australian Government (COAG) level, because their implementation involves all jurisdictions. Once again, some are of direct relevance to women with disabilities:

  • development of a Centre of Excellence against Violence;
  • an audit of crisis accommodation services for their accessibility for all women; and
  • ensuring that Commonwealth, State, Territory and Local government agencies work together to respond to violence against women and establish reporting measures that encourage collaboration.

Any Centre of Excellence must include considerations of all marginalised groups including women with disabilities.

The ALP Platform for Action and Constitution (2007) contained a commitment to improvement of the lives of people with disabilities through “Closing the Access Gap” and a specific reference to the “particular vulnerability of people, particularly women, with a disability, to domestic violence and will implement measures to address this” (Para. 136)[9], and “strengthen programs that assist women escaping family violence”. This needs to be addressed, at least by all Labor governments.

Violence, Women with Disabilities, and the Law

As identified in the National Plan on Violence and the Government’s response, there needs to be reform of rape, sexual assault and domestic violence law. Several jurisdictions (NSW and SA) have already begun this process. In its submission to the South Australian 2007 Discussion Paper on reform of Domestic Violence Laws, WWDA concentrated on the need to expand the conventional definitions of ‘Relationship’ and ‘Domestic Violence”.

WWDA proposed that:

Any composite Domestic Violence Act should incorporate a definition of 'family' which is sufficiently broad to cover:

  • spousal relationships (past and present);
  • intimate personal relationships (past and present, including dating relationships, same sex relationships, and non-sexual intimate personal relationships);
  • family relationships (with a broad definition of relative which also reflects the extent of kinship and family relationships within indigenous and CALD communities);
  • formal and informal care relationships (between a person and a carer which takes place for fee or reward, or for no fee or reward); and,
  • persons who are ordinarily members of a household.”

Similarly any definition of ‘family’ or ‘domestic relationship’ must encompass all the living situations in which women with disabilities are found.

As outlined earlier women with disabilities have a range of different places of residence, and a range of domestic relationships with people who work and live therein. Perpetrators may be residents, other patients, relatives, and carers (including family members, informal carers or paid service providers). The relationship with a worker may be transient because of the high turnover of staff.

Establish Avenues of escape

In the ACT work has already begun to address one of the essential priority COAG actions. In 2009 the Women’s Centre for Health Matters, in collaboration with Women With Disabilities ACT (WWDACT) and the Domestic Violence Crisis Services, undertook an ACT-wide initial audit of 8 of its 9 Crisis Services including refuges. The study developed 8 Principles of Good Practice which, if applied conscientiously by crisis services and refuges would make refuges both accessible for and amenable to access by women with disabilities[10].