Before we get onto domestic abuse, I wanted to mention the low stats around disability hate crime. A home office bulletin about hate crime barely touches on disability and suggests it’s very low compared to other hate crimes.
Katharine Quarmby discusses this in a lot more detail in her book Scapegoat (an excellent but upsetting read) but to quickly run through some possible reasons for why this figure is so low:
- a lack of flagging disability hate crimes as hate crimes
- reports of disability hate crimes not being taken seriously by the police
- disability hate crime happens so regularly to people that it becomes a horrible background noise. You can’t report every person who verbally abuses you, who spits at you etc.
- fear that reporting will make things worse for yourself
- inaccessible police stations or lack of appropriate communication support
- a feeling that it won’t make any difference whether you report it or not so why would you bother when it might include several bus journeys, an inaccessible building etc
Most hate crime occurs outside, but near, a victims’s home. Disability hate crime differs in that it often occurs within the home. It is often carried out by people known to the victim, either close relationships (including the horribly termed “mate crime”) or people known in passing.
Domestic abuse and disability, the situation
The statistics around domestic abuse and disability are shocking:
- “The 1995 British Crime Survey found that disabled women were twice as likely to experience domestic violence as non-disabled women.” In 2008, Women’s Aid confirmed this was still the case.
- “Women with learning difficulties are even more likely to be at risk and the level of violence that they experience is also likely to be higher. The more dependent they are and the more complex their needs, the more likely it is that they will be at risk, as are women with mental health problems.”
- “More than 70% of women with learning difficulties are sexually assaulted, a rate that is twice as high as for those in the general population.”
(quotes from Scapegoat by Katharine Quarmby)
A government report adds that:
- Disabled women are significantly more likely to experience domestic abuse than disabled men and experience more frequent and more severe domestic abuse than disabled men.
- As being disabled carries further risk of domestic abuse, disabled men also experience higher rates of abuse than non-disabled men. Disabled men experience a similar rate of domestic abuse as non-disabled women
What form does the abuse take?
In addition to the “usual” methods of abusing a person, if that person has a disability, the abuser may also:
- withhold vital care, medication or food
- remove or damage equipment such as sensory or mobility aids in order to limit their independence
- obstacles around the home so that a person with visual or mobility difficulties is afraid to move around independently
- claim disability benefits on their behalf and limit their access to funds
- use the disability to criticise or humiliate them. Or threaten to tell social services that they are not fit to live alone
In addition to this, the nature of having a disability can leave a victim more physically vulnerable and less able to protect themselves. Or less aware that the treatment is not acceptable.
I have read and heard about women who had their battery removed from their wheelchairs; people with limited communication who had their communication device taken away from them; leaving people in defecated clothing; not letting a person spend any time alone with professionals and other horrific offences.
Mi casa es su casa – my house is your house
Being disabled can increase the number of people who enter your home. So many different people come through my house, opening me up to increased chance of domestic abuse simply by the fact that there are more people.
I have nine different carers who come to my home and let themselves in using the keys in my lock box. There are also carers who I no longer have but who still know how to enter my flat. I also have lots of medical people visit. My friends know the code to the lock box in case anything happens to me. My social worker and OT know the code and meet me in my flat. My benefits advisor and various other people all meet me in my flat. And this could put me in a vulnerable situation.
Partners as carers
If your partner is your carer, and even more so if they’re your only carer, you are more vulnerable.
Should they chose to, they can play on your dependency. They can isolate you – this is a common abusive technique but if you can’t walk or go out alone then it’s much easier to do this.
They can control your money by claiming you are unable to do this yourself. They can control your resources. They can control your health. If I was denied access to my medication, which I can’t give to myself, I would end up having an asthma attack, severe pain and more. And if these were stopped cold turkey, the withdrawal would be hell and could even kill me.
Neglecting disabled people can have awful consequences. Whether that’s not giving medication or not helping people to the toilet etc, it ranges from life threatening to stripping someone of their dignity.
Abusive language, common in domestic abuse, can hit closer to home – being told you’re useless, a burden etc rings closer to the truth if your partner is your carer.
If your partner is your main or only carer, how do you then go to the council to meet with a social worker to talk about your abusive partner? When do you meet with domestic abuse workers? When do you even get to contact a domestic abuse service? Especially if your partner is controlling your communication devices (whether they be communication boards or even just keeping your phone out of reach of your wheelchair).
Trying to get help
Barriers to support
If a victim receives support for domestic abuse then they are often the ones who end up leaving the home. In the case of disabled people, this is often exceptionally difficult – there is already a shortage of accessible housing and the house they are living in is possibly personally adapted to them. I don’t know much about the accessibility of refuges but the little I know suggests it might not be straightforward in most cases (past being able to get into the building, I’m thinking things like a suitable bathroom, someone to provide the care you need etc).
Additionally, leaving an abusive partner may bring worries about who will provide care if they move away, or about a change to their care package in a new area that could leave them with less support
In 2011, there was just one specialist refuge for women with learning difficulties in the UK. A quick google search hasn’t helped me find out there are more now and what do you do if you don’t live in the area…
As I’ve outlined about, disabled people are more likely to be environmentally or socially isolated which increases risk of domestic abuse but also reduces support available to help.
People with learning difficulties and communication disabilities are often considered to be “unreliable witnesses”. This means that they are less likely to be believed if they report the crime. If they are believed then they’re less likely to get to court. If they get to court then the victims are often considered unsuitable to testify. Given the nature of domestic violence happening behind closed doors, this leaves victims without any protection. And perpetrators know this.
However, progress is being made in this area. In 2009, Devon and Cornwall’s CPS prosecuted a man for sexual offences against disabled women without speech. A lot of support from a witness service volunteer resulted in using a video link, symbols and eye movements to give evidence.
For more information and support please visit Refuge’s website.