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Violence against people with disability

  • People with disability have a higher risk of experiencing violence than people without disability
  • People with disability can also experience more barriers to access support services
  • Being aware of the issues people with disability experience can help to prevent further violence and increase safety

Understanding violence against people with disability

People with disability experience violence at higher rates than people without disability. In particular, women with disability are at greatest risk. Women with disability may also experience barriers to accessing support services.

Compared to women without disability, women with disability:

  • Are at greater risk of severe forms of intimate partner violence
  • Experience violence at significantly higher rates, more frequently, for longer, in more ways, and by more perpetrators
  • Have considerably fewer pathways to safety
  • Are less likely to report experiences of violence

For many people with disability, recognising that what they are experiencing is violence and that this is a problem or a crime is a significant issue. This can be made worse by limited access to quality information and support. They may also lack the confidence to seek help or be unaware of the services available to support them.

Another barrier to seeking help or reporting violence is not being listened to. Often people with disability have limited control in family or institutional settings. In these environments, perpetrators are often seen by others (such as police and doctors) to be more believable.

Recognising forms of violence

Although women with disability are affected by similar types of violence as women in the wider community, they often experience different forms of physical, psychological and sexual violence. The violence may be perpetrated by a partner, relative, paid or unpaid support worker as well as strangers. In a residential or institutional setting the perpetrator could be another resident or staff member, a medical practitioner or a service provider. Those who rely on personal care assistance may be subject to frequent violence and abuse, ranging from neglect and poor care to economic, verbal and sexual abuse.

Examples of other forms of violence towards women with disability can include:

  • Threatening to punish, abandon or institutionalise them
  • Threatening that police or other services will not believe their reports
  • Threatening to report them to Child Protection or have their children taken away
  • Threats to assistance animals (such as guide dogs)
  • Financial abuse
  • Abuse that focuses on the disability itself

People with disability can be more likely to experience abuse due to a range of factors, including:

  • Reliance on the perpetrator of the violence, for example, for personal care, mobility, income, parenting support or transport
  • Lack of support options
  • Lack of economic resources or sufficient income
  • Lack of awareness that the violence they are experiencing is wrong
  • Social isolation that stems from the marginalised position of people with disabilities in our society
  • Failure of adequate supervision in a community residential or other institutional settings
  • Communication challenges and lack of access to interpreters, communication devices and information in appropriate formats
  • Normalisation of the experience of being controlled and abused (especially if this has been accepted by authority figures, for example, where a carer is asked to 'speak for' a person with a disability)

Responding to violence against people with disability

  • It is not always possible for people with disability to contact support services when they experience violence or abuse
  • Sexual, domestic and family violence services need to ensure that they are inclusive of people who live in 'domestic' settings such as group homes and other forms of supported accommodation
  • If you don't respond to sexual, domestic or family violence often, our Introduction to responding page is a good place to start

How to support people with disability affected by violence

Workers need to be able to get support to people with disability in ways that take into account institutional cultures and practices. There are some practical things services can do to support people with disability who are affected by violence.

These include:

  • Treat all people with disability with dignity and respect
  • Treat all people with disability as adults
  • Empower people to make their own informed decisions about their situations
  • Be sensitive to cultural and linguistic diversity (including deaf culture or speech impairments). In particular, be sensitive to the needs of people from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander or CALD communities. Remember that people with disability can also identify as belonging to minority groups including LGBTI.
  • Be sensitive to the needs of women with disability who are mothers

It is important to remember that the person comes before the disability. A common mistake many service providers make is to focus on issues of disability rather than what is most important to the person at that time (for example the need to escape a violent situation).

Be mindful of additional risks that the person you are supporting might be experiencing.

When supporting someone, keep in mind the following actions:

  • Check what, if any, communication assistance is required before any assessment of the situation
  • Check whether they identify as having a disability
  • Check whether any children identify as having a disability
  • Check whether they have an assistance animal and what support or provisions are required
  • Enquire about any supports that may be required for daily living, and who provides that support
  • Check whether they require mobility aids, medications or treatments and record the details of any schedules
  • Identify any support services that they are engaged with
  • Explore what support or assistance is needed if they want to access other services, including accommodation
  • Develop a safety plan that meets the needs of mothers and children (addressing, for example, lack of mobility and any communication difficulties)
  • Explore how other factors (such as living in a rural area, being in a same-sex relationship, immigration status or dependence on the perpetrator) might impact on the safety of mothers and children accessing services
  • Believe the person you are supporting and address any concerns they may have about being believed by others. Remember the perpetrator may have destroyed their confidence or self-esteem
  • Be aware of patterns of mental illness or psychosocial disability
  • Recognise that anger and distress are appropriate responses to violence and not necessarily signs of mental illness or relapse. (Once a person has a diagnosis of mental illness, there is a risk that all of her behaviour is seen in illness terms rather than related to the experience of violence)
  • Recognise the importance of emotional support and the impact of stigma on seeking help

To ensure people with disability have equal access to support, remember to:

  • Treat people with disability with respect and dignity
  • Give people with disability the time they require to communicate their story and identify options for their safety
  • Ensure people with disability are able to communicate in their preferred way (for example, using Auslan, Braille or pictograms, or via a communication assistant - making sure that this person is not the perpetrator)
  • Provide an accessible and comfortable environment
  • Do not make assumptions about a person’s ability to understand based on their appearance
  • Be familiar with local disability agencies to enable secondary consultation and ensure that women's and children's support needs are met
  • Provide disability awareness training for staff
  • Develop Disability Action Plans for the organisation

Safety planning with people with disability

  • A safety plan for a person with disability needs to be developed with a support service
  • Issues such as communication difficulties, limited mobility or special care requirements can mean that extra planning and support are needed
  • A well designed safety plan should be available in a usable format and be readily accessible by the person intending to use it

Safety planning for people with disability

Safety planning for people with disability can pose greater challenges than for people without disability. As a starting point, a safety plan for a person with disability should:

  • List the contact numbers for sexual assault, domestic and family violence support services
  • List emergency contact numbers
  • Identify a safe place to go if there is danger, and how to get there
  • Identify a friend, family member or other trusted person who can assist in an emergency, and how to contact them
  • Identify a way to get access to money in an emergency
  • Identify a way to access emergency personal care assistance and support if required
  • Identify a place to store valuables and important documents so they can be accessed when needed
  • Specifically address any barriers to enacting the safety plan (for example, leaving a pet behind, or having mobility or communication difficulties)

When assisting someone to make a safety plan, you can encourage them them to find solutions that fit with their own situation. Use these points as prompts for discussion:

  • Where will you go if you need to leave quickly — a refuge, a friend's place or a family member's place?
  • Women with disability can go to a women's refuge. A refuge may also be called a safe house or a shelter. Some refuges (but not all) are accessible for women in a wheelchair or with a mobility restriction. If you need to, ask the person helping you to find a refuge which is accessible. Children are also welcome at most refuges.
  • How will you get away? Do you need to get accessible transport? Would you need the refuge to pick you up or is there someone who can give you a lift?
  • Is there someone you trust who could help you leave quickly? If there is, let them know about your safety plan and how you would like them to help if you call.
  • Make a list of phone numbers of people who could help you. Important numbers might include:
    • Police
    • A friend or family member that you trust
    • A domestic violence support service
    • Your nearest accessible transport service
  • Put aside some money in case you need a taxi.
  • Gather together any special things and important documents for you and your children. Put the special things in a safe place. A safe place might be somewhere in the place you live or at the home of a friend, neighbour or family member you trust. These things might include:
    • A spare key for the house
    • Photographs
    • Important documents (or copies) like your birth certificate, Medicare card, passport
    • Bank books or bank details
    • Any medications you might need and any special information about your health