Anti-Violence Programs Need to Do Better By Women With Disabilities

By Jewelles Smith | November 30, 2016 -

As a longtime activist and researcher in the areas of women, disabilities, and human rights, I believe that this moment—the confluence of the 16 Days of Activism to End Gender-Based Violence campaign (November 25 to December 10) and the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (December 3)—is a time for a call to action on behalf of disabled women and girls who experience violence and abuse. Due to prejudice and social isolation, women and girls with disabilities experience higher rates of violence and sustain abuse for longer periods of time. Legislation and policy often create further, systemic violence against them.

DisAbled Women’s Network of Canada (DAWN), an NGO that works for the advancement and inclusion of disabled women, is in the midst of a three-year study of policy, legislation, and services for disabled women and Deaf women in Canada who have experienced sexual assault, abuse, and violence. The goals of the study are to encourage police, victim services agencies, and anti-violence groups to better address systemic barriers faced by disabled women; to raise awareness around these issues; and to empower women with disabilities to raise their voices. As project coordinator and researcher, over the past six months I have reviewed federal and provincial legislation and policy, and met with people who work in victim services, women’s shelters, and other programs that support women who have been assaulted.

What I have discovered is that policy is often reactionary in nature, created in response to a particular case instead of taking a holistic view of the needs of all women. At best it ignores disabled women as a population; at worst it creates barriers for them. Early findings indicate that in many instances, disabled and Deaf women and girls are unable to access shelters and resources. I have discovered inaccessible websites, lack of accessible means to reach out to staff and resources, and inaccessible physical spaces. According to a DAWN study, up to 40 percent of disabled women will experience violence or abuse in their lifetime, and this rate is much higher for women and girls with developmental disabilities. However, when DAWN conducted a survey of women’s shelters across the nation in 2008, we found that very few women with disabilities were using the services of shelters and transition houses.

These findings confirm a recent report by the Canadian women’s rights group West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund, which found that many court and family programs and resources are not accessible for disabled and Deaf women. This inaccessibility has resulted in women permanently losing custody of their children. For example, many mediation and parenting courses are located in inaccessible buildings, and American Sign Language interpretation is sometimes unavailable; parents who cannot complete assigned courses and counseling within the set timeframes of policy can permanently lose custody.

Not all disabled women are mothers, but for those who are, there is a long and negative history with social services. Because of discrimination and assumptions, many social workers do not understand that disabled mothers are capable mothers. Their mothering may look different, but different is not neglectful. A disabled mother may require support in completing household tasks; she may be Deaf and her child may be hearing; she may use a mobility device such as a wheelchair or a walker. These needs in no way preclude her ability to love, nurture, and care for her child. But many disabled mothers experience surveillance from the moment their child is born. A few years ago, in Ontario, two parents with cerebral palsy were threatened with having their baby taken away from them because authorities assumed they would not be able to care for their child. Because of these attitudes, disabled women who are experiencing domestic violence are often hesitant to reach out to social services.

For disabled mothers, there are many barriers and few supports for safely exiting a violent home. For example, in British Columbia, the criminal code policy on domestic violence has been amended to one that is primarily focused on the “best interests of the child” and less on protecting women, largely in reaction to a 2008 case in which a father murdered his three children. The policy impacts all women—in fact, it identifies women with disabilities, Aboriginal women, and immigrant women as higher-risk groups—but it was not created in response to the needs of women. There is no mention of specific ways that police, victim services, emergency shelters, and courts can respectfully support and lessen the risk of further victimization of disabled women. Rather, the policy is heavily weighted to investigating families to ensure that children are safe. BC policy connects many domestic violence services to the Ministry of Children and Families. Given the prejudiced attitudes toward disabled mothers, this has created a fear-driven and self-protective response for mothers toward social workers and other first responders; in short, women are afraid that if they report abuse, they will lose custody of their child(ren).

To be clear, it is critical to ensure that the entire family is safe in situations of violence and abuse. But the focus of the domestic violence policy is identifying abused and at-risk children rather than how police can better respond to disabled women, or how a community can look for signs of abuse, or how victim services and shelters can create inclusive and safe environments. By neglecting to create specific tools to support the most at-risk groups, these policies end up effectively shutting the door on disabled women. We cannot get women out safely and ensure that children are safe in the process if we do not make plans to support women.

DAWN Canada is hearing from front-line support staff and disabled women that better accessibility, more resources, and education for staff are needed to support women with disabilities and Deaf women, not more policy. Front-line workers need to be trained in ways they can support disabled women, whether by knowing where to direct women, or by having specific screening tools that identify the needs of women, such as the Model Protocol developed by Cathy Hoog. Further, disabled women need to be at the table from the beginning draft of new policy. It is critical to the lives of women that systems are set up with a clear response to data and need, and not to specific, emotional cases. Women who have experienced violence and abuse include women from every background; therefore policies need to address the best ways to support all these women, and they need to offer support to the most vulnerable groups.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates. Read the full article on the Women's Media Centre website here: