Violence and disability: What is it?

The issue of violence against women with disabilities is complex and profound. However, a proactive approach that is sensitive to the additional needs and vulnerabilities of these women can help to prevent further violence and increase safety.

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Women with disabilities experience high levels of sexual assault, domestic and family violence and have high levels of unmet needs in terms of access to community support services.

Compared to non-disabled women, women with disabilities:

  • 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

However, programs and services for this group either do not exist or are extremely limited.

For many women with disabilities, identification and recognition that violence in their lives is a problem or a crime remains a significant issue. They may have difficulties in recognising, defining and describing the violence; have limited awareness of strategies to prevent and manage it; lack the confidence to seek help and support; and be unaware of the services and options available to assist them.[1]

A further difficulty is caused by the fact that women with disabilities often have little autonomy in family or institutional settings. In these contexts, perpetrators are often perceived by others (such as police and doctors) to have more credibility. This can be a significant barrier to women with disabilities seeking help or reporting domestic and family violence.[2]

Responses to violence against women with disabilities have traditionally been characterised by limited recognition by governments and the service sector of the nature and extent of the problem; inadequate research; incomplete or partial response structures; and scarce resources to support advocacy in the area.[3]

Forms of violence against women with disabilities

Although women with disabilities are affected by similar forms of violence as women in the wider community, they often experience different dimensions of physical, psychological and sexual violence. For example, chemical, mechanical and physical restraint, medical exploitation, institutional abuse, forced psychiatric interventions, forced isolation, seclusion and confinement are examples of the different dimensions of violence experienced by women with disabilities.

The violence may be perpetrated by a partner, relative, paid or unpaid support worker, co-patient, co-resident or staff member in a residential or institutional setting, or a medical practitioner or a service provider.[4][5] Women with disabilities who rely on personal care assistance may be subject to frequent violence and abuse, ranging from neglect, poor care and rough treatment to economic, verbal, physical, and sexual violence and abuse.[6]

This type of violence may take the form of withholding food, water, aids (such as wheelchairs or walking sticks) or medication. If the perpetrator is a carer (unpaid), or support worker (who is paid) they may also withhold assistance with daily living tasks such as toileting, showering, dressing, travelling, shopping or eating. They might be rough with intimate body parts or engage in inappropriate handling, or they might demand or expect sexual activity in return for helping, or otherwise take advantage of the woman's physical weakness or inaccessible environments.

Examples of other forms of violence towards women with disabilities can include:[7][8]

  • 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 and/or have their children taken away. Many women are very fearful about having their children removed from their home, particularly if they rely on the perpetrator to assist them with their parenting role.

  • Threats to assistance animals (such as guide dogs)

  • Financial abuse

  • Abuse that focuses on the disability itself

For women with disabilities, their level of vulnerability to violence will depend on a number of different factors.[9]

These can include:

  • 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 and/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 male carer is asked to 'speak for' a woman with a disability)

Due to the living situations of some women with disabilities (for example institutional environments with little outside scrutiny) they may be easily coerced or prevented from making their own decisions. Many women who live in institutions or supported accommodation may have limitations with their decision making capacity and may be overly compliant and/or coercible. They generally do not have access to the outside world other than through 'gatekeepers', and research has shown that women with disabilities living in institutions too often experience violence from those who are supposed to be affording them care and support.[10]

Inclusive service provision

Sexual assault, domestic and family violence services cannot expect women with disabilities who live in institutions to come to them when they experience violence or when they are at risk of violence. Rather, sexual assault, domestic and family violence service workers need to take a proactive approach and ensure that their services are inclusive of women with disabilities who live in 'domestic' settings such as group homes, hostels, boarding houses and other forms of residential and supported accommodation.

Workers need to be able to get support to women with disabilities in creative ways that work around institutional cultures and practices, as well as using the standard empowerment models of responding to domestic and family violence. (For example expecting some women with disabilities to get themselves to a place of safety should violence occur will be unrealistic.)

As a worker coming into contact with women with disabilities who have experienced violence[11], or who are at risk of violence, you can:

  • Treat all women with disability with dignity and respect

  • Treat all women with disability as adults

  • Empower women to make their own informed decisions about their situations

  • Be sensitive to cultural and linguistic diversity (including deaf culture and women with speech impairments). In particular, be sensitive to the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and CALD women. Remember that women with disabilities can also identify as belonging to these groups.

  • Be sensitive to the needs of lesbians with disabilities, and women with disabilities who are mothers

It is important to realise that women with disabilities are women first. A common mistake many service providers make is to become pre-occupied with issues of disability rather than focusing on the issue of importance to the client at that time (for example the need to escape a violent relationship/situation).

To minimise the effects of the additional risks and vulnerabilities that might be experienced by a woman with disabilities,[12] it is important that you:

  • Check what, if any, communication assistance she requires before proceeding with an assessment of her situation

  • Check whether she identifies as having a disability

  • Check whether any children identify as having a disability

  • Check whether she has an assistance animal and what support and/or provisions are required

  • Enquire about what, if any, supports she and/or her family require for daily living, and who provides that support

  • Check whether she requires mobility aids, medications or treatments and record the details of any schedule that applies to these

  • Identify any support services/agencies that she and/or her family are engaged with

  • Explore what support or assistance she needs if she wishes to access other services, including accommodation

  • Develop a safety plan that makes specific provisions for her and her children's requirements (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 her and her children's safety and access to services, and make provisions to address these

  • Believe her and directly address any concerns she has about whether she will be believed by others, especially if the perpetrator has undermined her confidence or self-esteem

  • Be aware of the episodic nature of mental illness or psychosocial disability

  • Recognise that anger and distress are appropriate responses to domestic and family violence and not necessarily signs of mental illness or relapse. (Once a woman has a diagnosis of mental illness, there is a risk that all of her behaviour is seen in illness terms rather than attributed to the experience of violence).

  • Recognise the importance of emotional support and the impact of stigma on seeking help

All service providers have a responsibility to ensure equal access for women with disabilities. This means:[13]

  • Treating women with disabilities with respect and dignity

  • Giving women with disabilities the time they require to communicate their story and identify options for their safety

  • Ensuring that women with disabilities 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)

  • Providing an accessible and comfortable environment

  • Not making assumptions about women's cognitive abilities based on their presentation

  • Being familiar with local disability agencies to enable secondary consultation and ensure that women's and children's support needs are met

  • Providing disability awareness training for staff

  • Developing Disability Action Plans for the organisation

Useful phone numbers for assisting women with disabilities

Emergency: Police, Fire, Ambulance

Call 000 or TTY 106

National Relay Service

Call 133 677 (availalbe 24 hours a day using a modem or TTY) or

Call 1300 555 727 (availalbe 24 hours a day Speech to Speech Relay Service for callers with a speech/communication impairment)

Telephone Interpreter Service

Call 131 450 (availalbe 24 hours a day)



[1] Frohmader, C. & Meekosha, H. (2012) Recognition, respect and rights: Women with disabilities in a globalised world. In Disability and Social Theory, Edited by Dan Goodley, Bill Hughes and Lennard Davis, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

[2] Family Violence Risk Assessment and Risk Management Framework and Practice Guides 1-3 Edition 2 Published by Victorian Government, Department of Human Services, Melbourne, Australia, April 2012.

[3] Frohmader, C. & Meekosha, H. (2012), OpCit.

[4] Frohmader, C. (2011) Submission to the UN Analytical Study on Violence Against Women and Girls with Disabilities. WWDA: Rosny Park.

[5]Family Violence Risk Assessment and Risk Management Framework and Practice Guides (2012) OpCit.

[6] Jennings, C, Julian, F, Howe, K, Humphreys, C, Healey, L, 2008, Building the Evidence: a report on the policy and practice in responding to violence against women with disabilities in Victoria, Victorian Women with Disabilities Network Advocacy Information Service, Melbourne.

[7] Frohmader, C. (2011) OpCit.

[8] Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) (2007b) ‘Forgotten Sisters – A global review of violence against women with disabilities’. WWDA Resource Manual on Violence Against Women With Disabilities. Published by WWDA, Tasmania, Australia. See also: Family Violence Risk Assessment and Risk Management Framework and Practice Guides (2012) OpCit.

[9] Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) (2007b) OpCit. See also: Family Violence Risk Assessment and Risk Management Framework and Practice Guides (2012) OpCit.

[10] Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) (2007b) Ibid. See also: Frohmader, C. (2011) OpCit.

[11] Cusitar, L. (1994), Strengthening the Links: Stopping the violence.  DAWN Network: Toronto.

[12] Family Violence Risk Assessment and Risk Management Framework and Practice Guides (2012) OpCit.

[13] Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) (2007b) OpCit. See also: Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) (2007a) It’s Not OK, it’s Violence, Information About Domestic Violence And Women With Disabilities. WWDA: Rosny Park. See also: Family Violence Risk Assessment and Risk Management Framework and Practice Guides (2012) OpCit.



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