Having a Disability Can Mean Danger

People with disabilities are vulnerable in many ways – especially when they may be dependent on a loved one or caregiver. That dependence opens them up to risk.

In the U.S., one in four women experience domestic violence – the number one cause of injury to women between 15 and 44. But women with disabilities have a 40% greater chance of experiencing domestic abuse than women without disabilities. In fact, women and girls with disabilities are more at risk for violence, experience violence more often and more severely, and have more barriers to getting support.

“The shocking statistic to me is that 90% of women with intellectual and developmental disabilities have experienced domestic violence or sexual assault – almost all of them,” says Susan Ferguson, chief program officer at accessABILITY, a disability rights organization serving the Greater Indianapolis area. “So it’s almost inexcusable we aren’t doing a better job of addressing that.” Susan’s previous position at Prevail working with victims of crime and abuse means she is well-versed on domestic violence. “It’s all the complications we know of with DV, but amplified,” she says. AccessABILITY recently added a domestic and sexual violence survivor services advocate to their staff.

In addition to women, other groups of people with disabilities also experience higher rates of abuse: people of color, people with intellectual or psychiatric disabilities, and people with multiple disabilities.

Tactics abusers use for power and control are multiplied when the victim is a person with disabilities. They simply have more tools. According to the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence, survivors may:

  • Have their medications intentionally withheld or overdosed
  • Experience financial abuse and extortion
  • Receive threats of abandonment
  • Experience inappropriate sexual touching during baths and dressing
  • Have access to adaptive equipment restricted or taken away
  • Have communication or mobility devices taken away
  • Have their service animals threatened or harmed
  • Have caretakers intentionally ignore personal care and hygiene

“Many people with disabilities are abused by caretakers,” says Susan. “In today’s environment, where it’s really hard to hire home care, that means a tough choice.” They might have to pick between reporting the abuse and being placed into an institution, or just living with it. If a person has needs that have to be taken care of daily, deciding to stick with their abuser might be the only option they see.

Data also shows people with disabilities are less likely to report, and less likely to be believed. And when they do seek help, the barriers are many – isolation, lack of transportation, lack of privacy, inadequate interpretation services or communication devices, inaccessible community spaces and simply the attitudes other people hold about disability.

AccessABILITY helps people live independently wherever they are, working with a range of clients – from those who live in their own homes to those seeking affordable housing. “Housing is not our expertise, but it’s one of our biggest requests,” says Susan. Their work is more in systems advocacy – talking to developers about designing homes that would be accessible for anyone who may want to live in it or visit. They also have an employment program.

“What’s unique about us is that we are peers with disabilities,” says Susan. “At least half of our staff and half of our board are people with disabilities. So we can provide that peer support.”

During Susan’s time at Prevail, she connected with accessABILITY. “We knew we weren’t serving people with disabilities in the best possible way. When I look back at that time, I realize we were trying to accommodate survivors with the physical design of the space, but that leaves behind a huge part of the population who may not have physical barriers but have other kinds of barriers.”

Susan says having a domestic violence and sexual assault advocate on staff allows accessABILITY to serve survivors with all types of disabilities in a way that’s culturally competent.

Her dream for domestic violence organizations is full inclusion – ADA requirements should be the minimum. “Making things physically accessible is one thing, but you also need to work with people on their individual accessibility needs,” she says. “I would love it if providers were doing a universal screening for what accommodation needs people have. How can you be more accessible for someone with reading difficulty if you’re giving them a packet of papers? Somebody with low vision who may not present that way may need larger font on all the printed materials. We may assume someone is having a literacy issue and find out it’s a disability issue. So how do we make the environment more welcoming rather than having people figure out how to manage?”

Susan says in some ways, simply being trauma-informed – like Coburn Place – is making things accessible. “So that’s a fair way to make sure we are meeting people’s needs.“

But we can do more.

For more information on accessABILITY and their work to empower people with disabilities to lead and control independent lives fully included in community life, visit abilityindiana.org.