Disability often intersects with domestic violence. Here’s how to better help survivors – California Health Report


I found out I had a disability before I realized I was in an abusive relationship, but the two were intertwined in my life for many years.

My disability, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, made it difficult for me to cope with my daily life, let alone navigate the abusive relationship I was in. My habits and compulsions were gradually consuming all of my time and energy. But my relationship has made it much more difficult to get treatment and to continue taking life-changing drugs.

Since leaving the relationship and becoming an advocate for others in similar situations, I have discovered that, although rarely discussed, disability and domestic violence often intersect. I was far from alone.

I’m sharing my story in hopes that I can help others understand the links between disability and domestic violence, but, as a journalist, I also wanted to speak with experts in the field and those who have had similar experiences. to me.

1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence at the hands of a romantic or sexual partner, According to the CDC. Similarly, 1 in 4 adults in the United States live with a disability. Between these two statistics, there is such an important overlap that it deserves our attention. Yet there is little discussion or awareness that domestic violence and disability often intersect. In reality, American Psychological Association studies show that disabled people with disabilities are twice as likely to be victims of domestic violence as people without disabilities, and that women with disabilities are 40% more likely to be victims of domestic violence than non-disabled women disabilities. Given this alarming reality, some domestic violence and disability rights advocates are calling for prioritizing survivors with disabilities in work to address violence. This is particularly important because, even if someone does not initially have a disability, domestic violence can cause both temporary and long-term physical or mental impairment.

For one thing, there are very few agencies whose staff are specifically trained in managing and supporting survivors with disabilities, says Rachel McCallum, a deaf disability justice advocate diagnosed with anaplastic astrocytoma. In her work audit trainings in social workspaces, she quickly noticed that the inclusivity and intake trainings rarely mentioned disability, instead referring to more common modules on race and gender. . Additionally, in California, there are only a handful of shelters that cater specifically to survivors with disabilities, and most lack accessible facilities.

The inaccessibility of resources makes victims with disabilities more vulnerable to abusers and often prolongs the duration of abuse – in some cases, from childhood. People with limited communication skills or cognitive impairments may have more difficulty effectively reporting abuse to authorities. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates that 70 to 85 percent of disability abuse cases go unreported.

“We fight against ableism at institutional, interpersonal and internal levels,” said Tom Hartig, a 26-year-old domestic violence survivor with chronic depression and complex PTSD. “When abusers take advantage of disabilities, it can become even more difficult to separate self-esteem and self-esteem from how society perceives us.”

Author Angela Kim.

First-hand experiences

When I finally sought treatment in 2013, I first talked about it with my Asian immigrant parents, who were skeptical due to their cultural background. But my boyfriend was even more dismissive. Even after explaining it a dozen times, he thought I was pursuing therapy for the unpardonable sin of telling someone about our relationship issues. He discouraged the idea, saying therapy was a sign of weakness and that it was inappropriate to discuss “private matters” with strangers.

But I could barely cope with my life, so I decided to go to therapy anyway. It saved my life.

I started cognitive behavioral treatment for my obsessive-compulsive disorder. The months of TCC have been the best of my life. Each week, my therapist and I focused on fighting different habits through cognitive restructuring. She challenged me to explore exposure to the situation to rewire the neural pathways in my brain. I started to see immediate improvements, but outside of this session I was still dealing with an abusive boyfriend.

When I took medication for my OCD, my boyfriend was ruthless about the side effects, such as fatigue, severe migraines, and low libido. I was getting incredibly tired and taking naps throughout the day. During these naps, my boyfriend would often bombard me with controlling calls or texts, asking me who I was secretly with or berating me for ignoring him.

Over time, my therapist noticed that I always hesitated before answering her questions about my boyfriend. She also picked up on how I said I was “walking on eggshells” around him. She was the first person in my life to recognize the signs of abuse and introduce me to the concept. I am eternally grateful to him for his intervention.

Partners who act abusively often strategically exploit disabilities to flex and maintain control. Hartig had similar experiences with a partner. Hartig’s depression caused him to have pervasive feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt. His partner took advantage of his low self-esteem and began to control not just the relationship, but his life, he said.

“She told me who I should date, who in my own family was not ‘good for me’, what to do in my free time,” he recalled. “It was all about control.”

Since memory loss is a common side effect of depression, Hartig said his partner would use it to manipulate him into questioning his own sanity, an abusive strategy known as gaslighting.

“I used to take notes on my phone during arguments in case she insisted she or I said something different,” he said. “But I couldn’t even trust what I wrote.”

Hartig said his partner would tell him that his depression made him “a burden on everyone”, which only made his symptoms worse and discouraged any thoughts of leaving the relationship.

Lack of accessible options

According to the US Department of Health and Human Servicesvictims of domestic violence with disabilities may endure unique forms of abusive behavior with complicated dynamics, such as:

  • Denying access to mobility or communication aids, food, water or medication
  • Controlling communication by acting as a communicator or caregiver
  • Threatening or injuring a service animal
  • Control or spend disability and social security benefits

Sometimes the caregivers are the ones causing the harm. People with disabilities, such as those with abusive partners, are often isolated and dependent on a small circle of friends, family members and other caregivers for essential support.

Even when survivors with disabilities leave an abusive situation, it is difficult for them to find a shelter that can meet their needs. Most domestic violence shelters are old buildings that cannot accommodate mobility aids or larger assistive technologies. This can make a survivor reluctant to leave a home that is already equipped and adapted to her needs, even if it means remaining in a situation of abuse. who coaches survivors with disabilities on credit scores, savings accounts, and financial planning. The campaign encourages good financial habits by paying participants a small stipend to start their savings account. “It may not seem like a lot, but it can mean the world to someone whose abuser had all the financial control,” said YWCA Executive Director Jennifer Radics-Johnson.

Training for service providers

Domestic violence organizations need to better train staff on the systemic discrimination and ableism faced by survivors with disabilities, attorney Rachel McCallum said. Greater awareness among social service staff will lead to faster improvements in accessibility and overall services for survivors with disabilities, she said. McCallum recommended domestic violence agencies partner with disability rights organizations in their local communities to ensure survivors can access services.

Access and shelter

Shelters for victims of domestic violence need to invest more in making their spaces accessible to victims with disabilities, Tatiana Dorman said. This is starting to happen but requires more state and local funding. For example, Rainbow Services ensured that a recent renovation of its emergency shelter complied with laws governing accessibility for people with disabilities. The organization also offers survivors with disabilities the option of staying in a hotel with accessible rooms.

Justice and Pride for People with Disabilities

Inseparable from each of them, it is essential to deconstruct the social myths rooted around people with disabilities. Hartig explained that people with disabilities are often seen as passive, helpless, non-sexual and burdensome. Many individuals and even organizations take a curative view, where eradicating or curing disability takes precedence over creating an accessible world for people with disabilities.

I encourage people to bring disability into their conversations, not just around domestic violence, but in all facets of life. It is counterproductive to avoid discussing and learning about disability simply because it is uncomfortable. Disability is something many Americans, especially young people, think you were born with or won’t affect until later in life. However, this is false – more than a quarter of 20 years become temporarily or permanently disabled before reaching retirement age.

To center and elevate people with disabilities, we must first understand how the disability community has been historically and currently marginalized. We need to understand the ways in which the disability community is more susceptible to abuse and stand up for people with disabilities. As Hartig said, “It’s already so difficult to live as a disabled person in an ableist, capitalist society, so spreading support, empathy, and care is key to achieving equity.”

If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence and you are deaf or hard of hearing, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline for the Deaf at 855-812-1001 (voice/VP) for video or voice calls. If you have questions about legal rights related to your disability, contact Disability Rights California at 1-800-776-5746 for referrals and assistance.


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