Women with disability are far more likely to suffer domestic and sexual abuse than non-disabled women. Despite that, many women’s shelters and domestic support services are physically inaccessible or don't have enough funding or support to accept women with complex care needs.
Content warning: references abuse and suicide.
When Nicole Lee first disclosed her then-husband had been physically, emotionally, financially and sexually abusing her for more than a decade, it was because she had recently tried to end her life and the hospital staff wanted to know why.
In response, they asked her if she wanted to go to a women’s refuge - an offer she had to refuse.
There was a list of reasons why she couldn’t go, the 40-year-old student and disability rights advocate told SBS News, but at the top was that she uses a wheelchair, needs daily assistance with living, and had two young children at home.
Just hours after her disclosure, a nurse called Ms Lee's husband - who was also her full-time carer - to come and pick her up.
“That broke me down as a person,” she said. “To be sent home to the house I was being abused in with the person I was being abused by. It was this sense of 'no one’s going to be able to get me out, I’ve got no way of getting out of this'.”
When police did later step in and remove her husband, Ms Lee said she was “terrified”. Without a full-time carer, she couldn’t do basic tasks like getting her children to school and opening the door to let her pets into the backyard.
With no other option, she begged police to lift the intervention order so her husband could return home.
“It was an incredibly terrifying point in time, in that nobody thought to ask me what my immediate care needs were right then and then,” Nicole, who lives in Melbourne, said.
“They’d removed my carer from the house and left me and my children to try and survive on our own. And that was some of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.”
Her husband later pleaded guilty to the abuse and was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison.
At a time when family violence is very much in the public consciousness following an increase in calls for help during the coronavirus pandemic, Ms Lee said women with a disability are still being left behind in conversations about domestic and family violence. This is despite women with disability experiencing violence at higher rates than those who do not have a disability.
Data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows 20.8 per cent of people with disability have experienced intimate partner violence after turning 15, compared with 13.2 per cent of people without a disability. For people with a “severe or profound” disability, it increases to 28.5 per cent.
Women with a disability also face additional challenges when, like Ms Lee, their abuser is also their carer or they live in an institutional setting, such as a disability group home.
Despite that, most domestic and family violence services are not equipped to support women with disability or complex care needs and many shelters are not physically accessible for people who have physical disabilities and may use mobility aids such as wheelchairs.
“We know from a number of different research projects that domestic and family violence services have historically not been built or designed or planned for women and children with disabilities," said Freya Higgins, from advocacy group People With Disability Australia.
“For example, when women with a disability have raised issues or sought help when trying to escape domestic and family violence, they have often been referred to disability services … [which] are not equipped or trained to support people escaping domestic and family violence.”
Ms Higgins is leading the Building Access for Women with Disability initiative, which works with Domestic Violence NSW (DVNSW) to audit services for accessibility barriers and provide them with information, support and resources to increase accessibility.
She said the problem is not only a lack of physical access, such as women’s shelters without ramps or elevators, but also with policy and procedures, information and staff attitudes.
“Generally domestic and family violence services don’t have a lot of resources, so they are often situated in old buildings … so physical inaccessibility is an issue we often find,” she said.
And even if physical accessibility to the building isn't an issue, Ms Higgins said there are still a number of ways women with a disability could be prevented from accessing services. One of these is “hardline” policies that see women refused if a shelter feels they cannot meet their care needs.
Often this means not accepting a woman unless she has a carer or support worker with her - which is an issue when a person’s carer is also their abuser - or conversely, policies that bar carers or support workers from entering the shelter. Companion animals, such as support dogs, are often also banned from services.
When asked how limited the options were for women with a disability seeking help, Ms Higgins said: “it’s pretty bad”.
“I don’t think there would be any guarantee that a woman with a disability could access an accessible shelter,” she said. “I’d say there are a couple in Australia and that’s it.”
'The final taboo'
In a 2016 report titled Breaking the Silence, Illawarra Women’s Health Centre investigated how women with intellectual disabilities were experiencing domestic and family violence and found the “issue of violence and sexual assault of women with disability is the final taboo”.
“There are few services targeted at these women and many of them are still not receiving the level of help required to enable them to lead happy, healthy lives after the abuse,” the report read.
Ms Lee shared her experience of being sent away from domestic violence services when she was trying to escape because they were not a “specialist disability service and they actually didn’t know how to help me”.
“One of the hardest things is being told 'you can’t access this service because we don’t support women with disabilities',” she said.
“It really wasn’t good enough to have been offloaded or shunned in a different direction. There aren’t any specialist disability and family violence services for a reason, because they should all be accessible.”
One of the hardest things is being told 'you can’t access this service because we don’t support women with disabilities'.
The issue is so widespread that executive director of Women With Disabilities Australia Carolyn Frohmader said whenever she asks women and girls with disability what their biggest concern is, the answer is always violence.
“It doesn’t matter how many times you ask the question,” she said. “The number one priority, human rights issue, for women and girls with a disability is the right to be free from violence.”
She added: “We have a very long way to go in this country to make our crisis and support services inclusive and accessible ... No woman should be denied a response and support on the basis of their disability, and yet we continue to see that.”
In September last year, the issue made its way to the United Nations when a delegation of Australian disability advocates was invited to discuss the biggest issues still facing the community.
Kelly Cox, a long-time disability and women’s rights campaigner and wheelchair user, used her opening statement to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to highlight the lack of support in place for women with disability affected by violence.
“Disabled women should have pathways to safety. We should be free from abusive and coercive behaviour from the people around us. We have had enough of being at the mercy of the people whose behaviour puts us at risk,” the statement read.
She later stressed the urgency of the situation, which she said is a far bigger problem than most people realise.
In her regional hometown, located on the NSW North Coast, Ms Cox said the only domestic violence service is located in a central part of town but has steps to access the building. The door is also too far from the steps so a person with mobility issues wouldn’t be able to knock for help.
“If you are trying to escape violence, you don’t necessarily want to be sitting on the footpath at the front of a domestic violence service, because that increases your risk,” she said.
Most disability advocates working in the domestic and family violence space define it as encompassing any violence that happens within the home, which would include people who live in institutional settings. But as it stands, Ms Cox said, people in those situations would struggle to have it recognised as such by support services or police.
“It's very unlikely that any action would be taken and any support would be given because it would be seen as an internal incident,” she said. “We see that often that when disabled people experience the violence it gets reduced to an incident, and that’s not good enough.”
'More than a ramp and an accessible toilet'
DVNSW spokesperson Renata Field said most domestic and family violence organisations were “critically under-resourced” and therefore are “not as accessible as they should be for people with disabilities” despite making concerted efforts.
“An accessible domestic violence service is more than a ramp and an accessible toilet, it is varied and includes accessibility of forms, website resources, signage, flexible, person-centred care and trained staff. Moreover, services need to do outreach and go to women and girls with disability, however, there is no funding for this type of support.”
Ms Lee wants to see disability support workers, who are often in the unique position of spending significant time within their client's homes, trained in identifying and responding to signs of family violence.
“[Health workers] know to look out for red flags but when you add in the element of disability and the element of care, everybody puts on rose coloured glasses and all those red flags just look like flags,” she said.
A spokesperson for the NSW Department of Community and Justice, which manages the Family and Community Services, told SBS News it was committed to supporting all women experiencing domestic and family violence - including those with disability - through a $20 million community fund.
They said a number of services that support people who are homeless as a result of domestic and family violence "are fully accessible" and those who manage refuges "can request modifications to their properties at any time".
"A range of other domestic and family violence support and referral services are also accessible over the phone and online," the spokesperson said, and the department "has commissioned the development of easy-read domestic and family violence awareness resources for people with intellectual disability".
Part of the fund goes towards the Building Access for Women with Disability initiative, an arrangement Ms Higgins hopes will continue.
“I don’t want to put more strain on domestic and family violence services, but I think if they were given adequate resources to become fully accessible, that would go a long way to resolving the issue,” Ms Higgins said.
“So a woman with a disability can access a service when she’s trying to leave a situation of violence and feel safe.”
Wednesday 25 November is International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and the start of the UN's 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.
Readers seeking support can also contact Lifeline crisis support on 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 and Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 (for young people aged 5 to 25). More information is available at Beyond Blue.org.au and lifeline.org.au.
For people with a disability seeking information or support visit People with a Disability Australia.