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  • Stephanie Woodward

Reasons Women with Disabilities Experiencing Violence Cannot or Do Not Seek Help

Updated: Jan 2

Society’s treatment of women and girls with disabilities can contribute to the domestic violence we experience. Essentially, when you treat us like we’re a burden or like we’re worth less than other women, we start to believe that about ourselves. I have written about this before about this to raise awareness about not only domestic violence against women with disabilities, but also to raise awareness of how society views and treats women with disabilities.

While no population is immune to experiencing violence, women with disabilities experience violence at much higher rates than women and men without disabilities. If you want evidence, I welcome you to go to Google. There you will find statistics and facts from sources like the U.S. Department of Justice, they’re from national and international organizations that spend large parts of their budgets doing research on this issue, and they’re from real disabled people who have experienced the violence.

The point is women with disabilities experience much higher rates of violence. My point in writing this is not to regurgitate the well documented evidence that women with disabilities experience violence at significantly higher rates, but rather, to discuss some of the many reasons that women with disabilities who experience violence don’t seek help. Sometimes there are physical or systemic barriers that prevent a person from seeking help. Sometimes it’s societal issues, like how ableism can cause disabled women to have low self esteem which can cause them to believe they deserve the abuse.

Below is a list of reasons why some women with disabilities cannot or do not seek help. This list is by no means comprehensive. The examples I have included are real examples from real women who experienced real abuse. I have not included their names or any other identifying information.

Poverty Many women with disabilities have fewer economic resources, thereby exacerbating their inability to seek help. Poverty is a factor that prevents many people without disabilities from seeking help. For women with disabilities, it’s a bit different. Imagine you are a woman living in poverty and you are being abused.  You may not seek help because you fear that you will not be able to afford your own home, food, transportation, and other living expenses without your abusers financial assistance. You may have kids too. How will you be able to support them as well? These are real concerns that people with and without disabilities face.

With disability it goes a step further. Imagine you are a wheelchair user. You live in a rural area with no bus stop in your area. There is no paratransit. You certainly don’t have a wheelchair accessible van because those cost upwards of $60k and you can barely afford to pay your rent. How will you get out of your house to go to a shelter or any other place to seek help? Accessible Uber? Ha. Most big cities don't have accessible ride sharing services, so they certainly don’t have them in your neighborhood.

Fear All people who experience abuse struggle to leave because of fear. Every person is different and fears different things, but people with disabilities have fears that people without disabilities don’t usually even think of. Fear of losing assistance or being institutionalized Say you’re a person with a disability that requires assistance from a personal care attendant, but your attendant is abusing you. Your attendant started off fine, helped you shower and get dressed, but eventually she became controlling. She started becoming more aggressive when helping you shower and dress. Then she started hitting you when you took too long to put your pants on. A few times when she got really angry she would put her cigarettes out on your legs. You want the abuse to stop, but if you report your attendant then you won’t have anyone to help you shower and get dressed every day. How will you get out of bed in the morning? If you go without an attendant for too long, your doctor or caseworker may deem that it is “unsafe” for you to live in the community without support so you will be sent to an institution. An institution where you lay in bed all day, eat whatever gross food they put in front of you, never go outside, and possibly experience more abuse. What do you do?

Fear that you will get in trouble Now let’s say you’re a person with an intellectual disability. You live in a group home and one of the employees is sexually abusing you. You know what is happening is wrong, but when the employee touches you sometimes it feels good to you. You’re afraid to tell because you know what is happening is wrong, but you think you might get in trouble because it felt good to you. So you don’t tell because you don’t want to get in trouble.  Fear of Not Being Believed What if you’re a woman with a mental health disability? Maybe you have anxiety or depression or borderline personality disorder or maybe PTSD. You are being abused by your partner or your parent or someone else close to you. You want to tell someone about the abuse, but you fear no one will believe you because everything thinks you’re “crazy” already.

Fear of Further Abuse You’re a woman with a disability that lives in the community and your attendant is abusing you. She hits you occasionally when she gets angry, she leaves you sitting in the same position for hours which causes you to get bedsores that become infected, and sometimes she thinks it’s funny to refuse to help you with your toileting needs and you end up sitting in your own feces for hours. If you tell someone, maybe your attendant will find out and make things even worse on you. Right now she only hits you sometimes and neglects you, but if you tell she might start hitting you more or worse. Maybe it’s better if you just suck it up and don’t tell anyone so things don’t get worse.  

Inaccessibility

Physical Inaccessibility of Shelters You use a wheelchair and your husband is beating the crap out of you all the time. You’re fed up. You know you shouldn’t have to take this. You find a way to get to your local women’s shelter to seek help when your husband is out of town for the weekend. You get to the front door of the shelter and you only see stairs. You can’t get in. So you call the shelter while you sit outside, staring at the steps that are preventing you from seeking help. They come out and agree to carry you and your chair inside. It’s humiliating, but you take it because it’s your only way to get away from the abuse. Once you’re inside you try to go into an office to talk to an employee, but the doorway is too small and you can’t get in. They come out and you meet in another area and then show you around the shelter. You try to get in the bathroom, but it’s completely inaccessible. The bed is so low that you can’t independently transfer yourself from your chair to the bed. So you can’t sleep there or go to the bathroom there or even get in and out of the door without others carrying you, how could you possibly stay? Programmatic/Systematic Inaccessibility of Shelters You have rheumatoid arthritis (RA). It’s hard for you to walk, but you make it to the shelter and decide you want to stay there to get away from your abusive partner. The shelter says you can stay but has a no opioids rule. You take prescribed opioidss to treat the extreme pain you experience from your RA. They refuse to make a reasonable modification to their rules for you. So you can get away from abusive partner or you can treat your RA, but not both. 

Inaccessible information You’re blind and your boyfriend is verbally and physically abusive as well as completely controlling. He does not let you have a phone and sometimes he doesn’t even let you go to class. On a day he does allow you to go to school, you talk about domestic violence in one of your classes and different options victims have to seek help but you can’t read any of the handouts. You want to seek help from a shelter, so you skip your next class to go to the school library to google your local shelter before your boyfriend comes to pick you up. Unfortunately the website isn’t accessible so the screen reader can’t read any of the information. You don’t exactly want to ask the librarian to read the information to you either. Why is it so hard for you to seek help?

Communication Barriers


Communication Barriers for Deaf Women

You’re Deaf and you don't have a video phone, so you use TTY to call your local shelter. When the person at the shelter answers, they don’t want to deal with TTY communication, so they hang up. You’re upset because you feel rejected when it took you so much courage to finally seek help, but you won’t give up. The next day you go to the shelter for help, but they refuse to get an interpreter so you can communicate with them. You demand an interpreter because you know your rights. You tell them the ADA requires them to provide an interpreter as an accommodation. They finally agree to provide an interpreter during meetings and therapy, but for the other 22 hours of the day you have no access to communication with others. No one else in the shelter knows sign language. You feel so isolated and alone. Maybe it’s better to go back to your partner. After all, he knows sign language. He communicates with you. And he doesn’t always hurt you. Maybe if you go back things will get better? At least you know you won’t be so alone.


Communication Barriers for Women with Speech Disabilities Maybe you have cerebral palsy and your speech is difficult for others to understand. Often people need to ask you to repeat yourself multiple times in order to get what you’re saying. You don’t mind repeating yourself but most people don’t have the patience to listen to you. Your girlfriend understands your speech, but she is the one who abuses you. You try to tell others when your girlfriend is not around, but everyone just smiles and nods, pretending to understand you. Will anyone ever listen?


Lack of Understanding

You Don’t Understand That You’re Experiencing Abuse You have an intellectual disability. Your mom hugs you and kisses and feeds you, but she also yells at you, hits you, and controls everything you do. You know your mom loves you and you don’t like when she hits you and yells at you, but she tells you that she has to yell at you and hit you because you’re a bad girl and she needs to teach you a lesson. You don’t understand that she is being abusive, so you never seek help.

You Don’t Realize Specific Actions Are Abusive Your husband loves you and he would never hit you. He’s never laid a hand on you. But, sometimes when he’s mad he refuses to let you have your wheelchair. He takes it away from you so you can’t reach it. You end up lying in bed for days sometimes – laying in your own urine because you can’t get to the bathroom. Sometimes you get bed sores from laying so much and twice the bedsores have gotten infected causing you to be hospitalized for days. But that’s not really abuse, right? He loves you. He’s usually very good to you, he just gets frustrated sometimes. It seems like an insult to women who experience real abuse to say that this is abuse. It’s fine.


© Stephanie Woodward, 2019. All rights reserved.

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