Voices against violence: listening to women with disabilities

By John Alizzi in conversation with Keran Howe | 20 Jun 14
Last month saw the launch of Voices Against Violence, a report on the extent and nature of violence against women with disabilities in Victoria. The report is an initiative of Women with Disabilities Victoria, in partnership with the Office for the Public Advocate and the Domestic Violence Resources Centre Victoria. In the aftermath of the launch, Right Now spoke with the Executive Director of Women with Disabilities Victoria, Keran Howe.

Right Now: How do you see the historical progression of women’s rights in Australia, and particularly the rights of women with disabilities?

Keran Howe: When I think of women’s rights in historical context, the question “are we progressing in a two steps forward, one step back kind of a way?” comes to mind. I think the answer to that question is “yes”, we make progress and then we see the backlash. So if we look at the issue of women’s right to abortion we’re seeing a threat to winding back legislation that was only passed in 2008.

And although we’ve made some progress with regard to recognition of the rights of women with disabilities, we still have a very long way to go. We still have the situation where women with disability experience involuntary sterilisation and it’s considered legal in many parts of the world.

So I think for us, the intersection between the rights of women and the rights of people with disabilities is critical. What we see is when you get an intersection between two marginalised groups then oppression is compounded. So women with disabilities are marginalised by virtue of being women and they are marginalised by virtue of having a disability. If you are an Aboriginal woman with a disability then you are marginalised further.

However, we believe we are making progress – government are starting to recognise it is an issue whereas only 10 years ago government wasn’t taking account of women with disabilities in their policy. So, I have to say, that’s a sign of progress – at least we now see government recognising women with disabilities as a particularly “at risk” group for violence.

In Australia, what is the incidence of violence against women with disabilities?

It’s not possible to say what the incidence of violence against women with disabilities in Australia is. The only widespread data collection of violence against women is the Personal Safety Survey. And it’s only in the last survey that the question of whether a woman had a disability was even asked. Also, the nature of the methodology means that many women with disabilities would not be included in that survey. So, there isn’t any research that shows the incidence in Australia.

Overseas we see that where research on incidence has been done, there is up to twice as many women with disabilities who experience violence compared to the general population of women. So what we know if we extrapolate from U.S. research is that women with disabilities are much more likely to experience violence than other women and more likely to experience violence than men with disabilities. There is no reason to expect that Australian figures would be very different to that and our qualitative research confirms similar trends.

How did you go about researching the issue and what themes did you see emerge?

One aspect of the research we undertook involved interviewing 20 women with disabilities. It was not uncommon for women to talk about being demeaned and degraded and having their disability used against them. A woman with a mental illness talked about being described as a “nut case”, and there were other examples of women’s impairments being used to abuse them psychologically. The effects of that are very powerful over time – women come to believe it, especially when it is in the context of society having very negative and discriminatory attitudes against women and against people with disabilities.

Women talked about being strangled. Having limbs broken. Being beaten. One woman talked about her husband pulling out a machete. So we’re talking about very extreme forms of physical violence.

The other issue that came out of the research with regard to the audit of the Office of the Public Advocate’s files was economic abuse. Significant numbers of files illustrated situations where women were being set up by someone with a power of attorney, being taken advantage of by a member of the family (often a son in regard to older women), and then women losing their houses, losing huge sums of money. That’s one end of the spectrum.

On the other, there are examples of women on the Disability Support Pension where you could say they were deliberately targeted by men who befriended them, struck up a relationship and then took control of their money. So I think economic abuse is another major consideration.

What are the current initiatives and the Report’s recommendations for addressing these forms of abuse?

There are a number of areas where we see some progress and we want to see more progress. With regard to workforce development, consideration of disability is part of the training that the Victorian government has developed around a common risk assessment framework for identifying and responding to family violence. And we want to see that training available to people who work in the mental health sector, disability sector and aged care sector, so that there is a much deeper understanding of these issues facing clients of those sectors.

With regard to access to justice and to the courts, there has not been the sort of progress that we would like to see there, in terms of alternative means of taking evidence. With regard to sexual offences, there are provisions in place; with regard to family violence, however, that is not the case. Access to the courts is a real issue for women with intellectual disabilities. Often police won’t take a statement because they don’t believe them or if they do believe them they don’t believe that the case is going to proceed to court. So police don’t see the value in doing the work to get the case to court.

“when you get an intersection between two marginalised groups then oppression is compounded”

In relation to police responses, an example of the compounding disadvantage of having a disability and being a woman is the story of Georgia, who explained to us what happened when she approached the police for assistance.

I went to the police. I walked in and the constable there at the time, he knew of my husband, because of his work and I said I would like to get a restraining order because of the situation I was in, which was a violent one. I said I wanted to make a complaint and do what I needed to do to protect myself and he didn’t even have the decency to ask me to go in to a private room.

He made me stand out in front of the desk and say what I needed to say. Didn’t write anything down, and then had the cheek to turn around and say “if you were my wife and left me with three children, I would have changed the keys, the door locks and the keys myself.” That’s the police! And I was just so, I felt so humiliated!

I think that demonstrates a real problem with police responses.

There are also significant recommendations around the need for better support for women with disabilities attending court. We need better referral processes between the independent third persons, for example working with police and the opportunity to refer women to support services. We need family violence applicant support workers being available and resourced in all Magistrates’ Court. So there are a number of recommendations about ways that we could have a better system of justice for these women.

What are the most urgent amendments to legislation that need to be made?

One of the recommendations is that the legislation on family violence be amended to better accommodate women with disability. At the moment family violence focuses primarily on the family, but If you think about domestic violence being about women’s place of residence, that broadens the concept to women in a whole range of domestic settings. So we would like responses to women experiencing violence in their domicile, wherever that be, to be part of government’s response to violence against women.

What are the most important lessons that come out of the research?

There’s so much in this research and one of the key points is women’s poor access to the service system. The disability service are generally not well attuned to family violence, and family violence services don’t always know how to accommodate the needs of women with disability. The story of Louise illustrates this point; she explained to us her attempts to contact different service agencies:

I initially called a housing service but they couldn’t help me ‘cause at that time I was thinking of moving interstate, but you know, that’s when I sort of started getting blocked, you know because it was like domestic violence ones couldn’t help me ‘cause of this and disability couldn’t help me with that, so then I’d go to refuges and caravan parks and I was going through everything you know, hotels, motels anything, trying to find and nothing just seemed to be working. I mean I’ve got an exercise book just full of all these organisations and that that I approached.

I think that’s a really good example of how women fall through the system and how we’ve got the get the different parts of the system working together. That is one of the most important issues coming out of this research – how does the system work to close those gaps and work collaboratively together so that we recognise we all have a responsibility in this area.

Another thing that comes out really strongly is that we have to respect women with disabilities, listen to what they say and not to dismiss their stories – that is not respectful, it’s disrespectful.  We as women with disabilities need to be listened to in planning, service planning, policy, evaluation in a whole range of ways.

Our voices need to be there.

This article is part of our June Issue, focusing on Human Rights and History.