What do you do when your abuser is also your care provider, someone who bathes you, or dresses you, or whose assistance you need if you want to leave the house or communicate with other people? What do you do if people constantly tell you not only how good a person your abuser is, but how courageous and wonderful they are for helping you? What do you do when your abuser doesn’t treat you like a human being, but neither does much of the rest of the world?
Even though people with disabilities are statistically more likely to experience relationship violence than nondisabled people there’s virtually nothing about what disabled people experience included in anti-domestic violence education, fundraising and awareness campaigns, or other forms of activism. (And considering that what we know about the prevalence of relationship violence for people of all abilities is only the tip of the iceberg, that’s scary.)
It’s not so surprising though, that disabled people are mostly absent from awareness campaigns, when we consider that disabled people are often invisible in society, and that invisibility is often what makes intimate partner violence (or violence of any kind) possible.
When an abuser can physically control if their victim leaves the house, and whether they get to talk to anyone, or can contradict their partner’s words and be believed because their partner has trouble communicating or whose mental illness sometimes affects how they experience the world around them, the incidence of violence against people with disabilities becomes even more invisible.
I recently read a small, qualitative study that looked at the impacts of intimate partner violence on the lives of women with disabilities.
As with research of nondisabled people’s experiences, a lot of the material on relationship violence and disability centres on the experiences of women. Men, and people who don’t fall into the gender binary, also experience relationship violence. The lack of research and activism with these groups means services can be rare or unhelpful.
The women in this study identified abuse as the most significant health risk they faced.
We can’t ignore that!
Many policy changes in the United States are calling for healthcare providers to screen for abuse. The implications of this need to be considered carefully when it comes to disabled people.
Their abuser may be with them during an appointment to facilitate care or communication, and it may be assumed that the patient always needs their caregiver with them.
It’s impossible for any victim to truthfully answer the kinds of questions suggested here, if an abuser is in the room.
Most people can communicate in some way, and most people can find a way to respond to these questions, which just ask for a yes or no answer – response options could include head gestures, hand gestures, eye blinks, words on a communication board or an electronic communication application (such as on a smart phone or tablet), sign language, or talking.
It’s appropriate, and necessary, for a healthcare provider to conduct at least part of a patient’s appointment with no family members or other caregivers in the room, unless the adult patient makes it known that they want someone to stay. Healthcare providers need to take an active role in meeting patients’ communication needs themselves, such as by making sure whatever technology the patient uses is there with them, learning how to use that technology, or providing a sign language interpreter. (Tip:
If a romantic or intimate partner (or anyone, really, other than the patient) says it would just be simpler for them to speak for the patient than for the patient to communicate directly with the healthcare provider, red flags should pop up like they’re on helium. They may put it in terms of making things easier for the doctor. I’d hate to think any doctor (or other healthcare provider) would privilege their own ease over communicating with the patient, but I’ve heard of too many times when a medical office has refused to do the work of getting interpreters for patients who need them to believe that this couldn’t happen.)
Many of the health factors research has shown are prevalent in people who experience abuse may be chalked up to disability without a full evaluation being done, so healthcare providers need to check their biases and beliefs about disability and illness and give their patients comprehensive care. Sometimes, when healthcare providers are less familiar with a patient’s medical condition, they may mistakenly attribute small changes to that condition, or presume that these small changes will be less bothersome to someone with a disability, so be less likely to investigate their cause. There’s also the assumption a lot of people make about disabled people’s relationships not being romantic or sexual in nature, coupled with assumptions about what abuse looks like, that could colour healthcare providers’ evaluations of whether their disabled patients could be at risk of relationship abuse.
Being abused can both cause disabilities—physical as well as psychological—and exacerbate existing impairments. Experiencing abuse can impact how people manage their impairments or medical conditions—withholding access to healthcare is a form of abuse. The physical and emotional toll of abuse can lead to stress-related illnesses, compounding abuse victims’ disabilities with additional disabilities and illnesses. (as someone with multiple disabilities, I can personally vouch for the ways that multiple impairments make it harder to mitigate being disabled in this world.)
Another key factor that came up in the study I mentioned above was low sexual self-esteem. When we’re constantly bombarded with airbrushed photos of models, and magazine articles telling us the 101 best ways to please our guy in bed (not everyone has—or wants– a guy, and sexual pleasure can’t be broken down into surefire tips the way, say, scrambling an egg can be.) Meeting these cultural expectations is impossible. For people with disabilities, who often cannot do sexual things the ways other people can, and the ways our culture says “real” sex can and should be done—and who’ve gotten repeated messages that their sexualities either don’t matter or don’t exist—having any sort of sense of sexual self-worth can be a challenge. The women in this study talked about not being physically able to meet the sexual expectations of their partners, or the expectations society has of how women should be an act sexually.
The participants in this study whose sexual self-worth was lowest were those with disabilities acquired in adulthood, changing their sense of self (sexually and otherwise) and, because of these cultural messages, making it hard to build a new, just as strong, sense of self.
Several of these women expressed that they dated men they would not have considered prior to their injuries, dated men who had criminal histories, or with whom they didn’t click, or whom they didn’t find attractive. This does not mean that they dated men who were more likely to be abusive; it says, I think, that they had perhaps turned off, or at least dimmed, their own warning signals.
Some people with disabilities may tolerate abuse in relationships out of fear that no one else will want them. Sending this message is common among abusive partners regardless of anyone’s abilities, and this form of abuse is even more insidious for people with disabilities because many have also gotten that message from friends and family. As I mentioned above, many people think that folks who get romantically involved with disabled people are a step away from sainthood, and they sometimes will undervalue the sexual, intimate, or equal partnership parts of the relationship.
Part of the structure of society’s attitudes towards the sexuality of people with disabilities is that, even if we do have sexual thoughts, we don’t and shouldn’t have the time to act on them because we’re just so darn busy being disabled. If low sexual self-esteem is a risk factor for abuse, then someone had damn well better make time for recognizing disabled people’s sexualities.
Some of the risk factors correlated with experiencing relationship violence are especially common among people with disabilities. Unemployment rates are high among people with disabilities (the study linked at the top of this post also made this connection). And, while the specific statistics vary, it’s generally understood that people with disabilities are abused, in both childhood and adulthood, at higher rates than people without disabilities.
We have a culture that makes all sorts of excuses for abusers, and all sorts of excuses for why it’s not more inclusive of people with disabilities. If we had true community accountability we wouldn’t tolerate abusive behaviour. We wouldn’t have, when a parent attempts to murder a disabled child, an outpouring of sympathy for that parent, instead of the child she harmed.We would have a culture that says: “We know life was hard for that parent, but it’s never okay to try to kill your child.” That culture would also say: “We need to do better by disabled children and those who care for them.” (Yes, I’ve been talking here about intimate partner violence, specifically, but family violence is similar in that it happens in the home, and within the family unit—both of which are considered—like romantic relationships– beyond reproach and closed to outsiders.)
We’d also have a system in place for people of all abilities, because right now, people with disabilities don’t have equal access to the system we have for intimate partner violence victims/survivors.
Very few organizations work specifically with disabled people who have experienced abuse. These two are exceptions.
We need fewer exceptions. We need agencies to stop working on a scarcity model that makes being inclusive of and accessible to disabled people seem like too much work – like something they just can’t do with the limited financial and human resources they have. We need online and offline awareness campaigns to include the voices and experiences of people with disabilities, not as unique additions to the anti-abuse message, but as full and equal participants in sharing stories and support, and finding solutions.