Nowhere to go

Where does a disabled woman fleeing domestic violence
go? Although many refuges have facilities for disabled people,
there is a need for both a greater awareness of the problem and
more resources. Anabel Unity Sale reports.


Picture it: you and your partner are having an argument. Voices
rise and tempers flare before one of you apologises and everything
calms down. Imagine how this would have gone if you were one of the
25 per cent of women whose partner hits them. Then imagine this
scenario as a disabled woman: you cannot escape from your partner,
who is also your carer.

Domestic violence does not only affect able-bodied women. A 1996
British Crime Survey by the Home Office revealed that 12 per cent
of disabled women aged 16-29 had experienced domestic violence in
1995. This compares with 8.2 per cent of non-disabled women of the
same age.

Women fleeing physical, mental and domestic abuse – often with
children in tow – can turn to the Women’s Aid Federation of England
for temporary refuge. It has 250 members with 450 refuges providing
between six and 30 bed spaces each. The refuges deal with 60,000
women, and sometimes children, every year.

The federation logs the access arrangements for each refuge and
runs a national helpline for women suffering domestic violence. A
spokesperson says 90 per cent of its members’ refuges have some
form of disabled access, from especially adapted living areas, to
signers for deaf women. She says: “We encourage our members to
provide a wide range of services and facilities for disabled women
and for disabled children.” While the federation has refuges for
Asian and Jewish women, the spokesperson says this would not be
appropriate for disabled women: “If we build purpose-built refuges
in two towns it could create difficulties for disabled women who do
not want to travel too far.” She says disabled women could become
isolated if only a few women used it.

David Taylor, a community fieldworker for cerebral palsy charity
Scope, conducted a snapshot survey of refuge provision for disabled
women. “I was approached by a local authority social worker who was
trying to find a place in a refuge for a disabled woman who was a
wheelchair user. I made enquiries locally but was unable to find a
placement and I began to wonder whether this was a difficulty
throughout the country,” he says.

Taylor sent out 250 questionnaires with the Women’s Aid
Federation of England newsletter, going to individual members and
refuges, and sent 33 Welsh refuges copies directly. Of the 46
English and 19 Welsh responses, 48 per cent did not have wheelchair
access. And 29.6 per cent could not offer a disabled woman a place
in their refuge. The reasons for this, he says, varied from the
refuge not being staffed 24 hours a day or at the weekend to staff
not feeling they could provide necessary support to disabled women.
Taylor wants all refuges made physically accessible to disabled
women and refuge workers to be trained in disability awareness.

Pauline Magowan knows a lot about disabled women’s experience of
domestic violence. Not only has she been on the receiving end but
it is also the subject of her University of Nottingham PhD thesis
in sociology. For it she interviewed 20 disabled women who left
their male partners because of their violence.

She says the difference in “social power” between disabled and
non-disabled people and between women and men acts as a “double
whammy” for disabled women’s intimate relationships.

It also has a major impact on domestic violence: “Disabled women
are not able to defend themselves and they cannot leave the
situation. The abusers are often their paid carers or their
intimate partners.”

Disabled women often stay with their abusive partners, Magowan
says, because they are afraid they will not find suitable
accommodation or another partner. She says this would change if
disabled women who had suffered domestic violence were believed,
which she thinks is rarely the case. She says: “Professionals need
to be aware that disabled women are not able to tell the truth
about domestic violence while their partner is there.”

She says the way society views men who look after a disabled
woman does not help. “Abusing partners are often seen as saintly
because they are caring for a disabled woman. They fool agencies
and the women themselves.”

Magowan wants information about domestic violence targeted at
disabled women through free newspapers and the radio. She also want
councils to introduce emergency assessments for disabled women who
have fled their homes and left their community care packages
behind, and for women who had been solely cared for by an abusive

What happens to a disabled woman’s care package when she flees
is important to Ruth Bashall, an independent consultant and trainer
on disability issues. She says: “If a disabled woman gets out in a
hurry it takes months to renegotiate with the council for a new
care package. The process of getting out is hindered by the
bureaucracy involved in getting a new package.”

Receiving a care package in a refuge might also cause disabled
women problems, she says. Their confidentiality might be breached
if the agency providing their care supplies different staff. “That
is why disabled women need direct payments for their care packages.
It would give them the money to decide who their carer is.”

Like Magowan, Bashall believes there is a lack of awareness of
disabled women experiencing domestic violence because “people do
not want to open a can of worms”. Part of the blame for this, she
argues, lies with agencies working for disabled people.

“Major organisations are unwilling to acknowledge domestic
violence because it is not one of their priorities. They talk about
rights but still portray a ‘grateful cripple’ image of us.”

Christina Paparestis, director of The Powerhouse campaigning
group for women with learning difficulties, says professionals
working with disabled women must be trained to recognise hidden
signs of domestic violence. She says: “Sometimes staff find it hard
to consider the emotional needs of clients because there are so
many practical issues they have to deal with. They need to be more
aware.” The Powerhouse opened Beverley Lewis House, the first safe
house for women with learning difficulties fleeing domestic
violence, in 1995.

Paparestis believes disabled women can be vulnerable to abuse
because the services they live in “condition them to say yes”. She
adds: “We have to be aware of how we can all play a part in the
disempowerment of people with learning difficulties, which
ultimately is part of the culture of domestic violence.”

The Home Office launched an anti-domestic violence “Break the
Chain” initiative in 1999. It sent out leaflets and posters to
women’s self-help groups advising them on tackling domestic

In June 2000, as part of its overall £250 million Crime
Reduction Programme, the Home Office allocated £6.3 million to
the Violence Against Women initiative. This funded 25 local
projects and multi-agency partnerships reducing domestic violence
and nine reducing rape and assault. A Home Office spokesperson says
it will look at investing in some of the unsuccessful bids this
year but, despite such proactive steps, the Home Office does not
have a formal policy for dealing with domestic violence against
disabled women. Nor does it record the number of cases reported to
agencies. A Home Office spokesperson says: “There is no
differential policy when dealing with any groups whether it be
ethnic group, class or disability.”

The Greater London Authority is developing a domestic violence
strategy for the capital. Out for consultation until this
September, it will recommend minimum standards for agencies dealing
with domestic violence victims, but does not have a specific policy
for disabled people. A GLA spokesperson says: “Services aimed at
victims of domestic violence have to take into account all women,
regardless of their particular needs.”

Tackling domestic violence is high on the police’s agenda, says
detective sergeant Mike Thompson of New Scotland Yard’s racial and
violent crime taskforce. He admits a perception exists that it does
not happen to disabled women: “There is a stereotype that it is
[committed by] working class men coming home from the pub. But
whatever their culture, class, age or ability, domestic violence
happens to everyone.” He says the most serious crime he deals with
is domestic violence. He says: “It is important to take it
seriously and to deal with it in the right way because today’s
argument between a husband and wife is tomorrow’s murder.”

The taskforce’s remit includes crimes against vulnerable adults,
such as disabled people. “The crux of it is that we need to
recognise what a disabled person is going through in comparison to
what is happening to an able-bodied person,” he says.

The taskforce does not have a policy for dealing with domestic
violence and disabled women, but this could change. “At the moment
we are trying to meet disabled people’s needs but there might be
something we are doing wrong. We would be very happy to meet with
relevant agencies to discuss this.”

Paparestis would support such a move: “There needs to be
specialist thinking about domestic violence and women with
disabilities, including learning difficulties. Their needs have to
be considered as part of a wider strategy with specialist support
within it.”

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