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Domestic Violence and Disability
Cindy Dittus, Associate Director, The Arc of Mississippi
The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey defines a disability as the product of interactions among an individual’s body—including their physical, emotional, and mental health—and the physical and social environment in which they live, work, or play. A disability exists when this interaction results in limitations of activities and with restrictions to full participation at school, work, home, or in the community.
One in four women experience domestic violence, according to research by Women’s Aid, but for women with a disability, this figure doubles. Almost one in two women with disabilities will be abused in their lifetime.
Most of the assault crimes against persons with disabilities are being committed by someone in a position of relationship with the victim. The perpetrators often are people upon whom the person with the disability relies on or in whom the person with a disability has placed trust. This includes family members, transportation drivers, service providers, and caregivers.
Some of their experiences fit within traditional definitions of domestic violence. Some do not. People with disabilities rely on caregivers for some of the most routine activities such as eating, taking medicine, mobility or toileting. Abusers use these dependencies with disturbing ease. Power and control can be exerted when they are the person being relied upon for care.
People with intellectual and developmental disabilities often times are invisible in our society. Crimes against those with disabilities are under-reported, under-investigated, under-prosecuted and un-punished. Many times the victim can’t identify abuse or violence. They have never learned the words or been taught what to do if it occurs. Then there is also the stigma of not being believed. Simply being believed – an obstacle for any abuse victim – can be especially hard for women with disabilities.
The reality is that people with a lesser ability to easily talk about, describe or report crimes against them (such as children, people with speech difficulties, people living in institutional settings, the elderly who have various types of communication challenges, and people with varying types of cognitive/intellectual disabilities) are easier targets.
Additional barriers to a woman with disabilities escape are particularly distressing because it’s often more difficult for them to speak out. The expectation that it’s normal to have someone with them during a GP visit, for instance, takes away a rare chance for privacy to disclose abuse. Another example, many times a home has been modified to meet a person’s unique needs, making the idea of escape even more daunting.
We, as advocates must work to include people with disabilities in our service delivery. We must find ways to respond and address the unique needs of people with disabilities who have been victimized. If you make services accessible to people with disabilities you make services accessible to everyone.

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