Research Article – Experiences of Domestic Violence and Disability

By Gayle Brewer and Calanthe Hendriske

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Disabled people are at increased risk of violence, including physical, psychological, sexual, and financial abuse. We conducted a thematic analysis of discussion forum posts (N = 50) from the popular online platform, Reddit. Posts discussed personal experiences of domestic violence, most commonly referring to partner violence (n = 23) or abuse perpetrated by a parent (n = 16). We identified three primary themes associated with domestic violence: (i) Perpetrators Targeting Disability (e.g., withdrawing access to medication or assistive devices and verbal abuse focused on the disability), (ii) Isolation and Dependence (e.g., financial dependence on the perpetrator), and (iii) Accessibility of Support (e.g., inaccessibility of domestic violence shelters and bureaucracy of the benefits system).

Findings highlight the relationship between disability and domestic violence. Greater societal recognition of this issue is required, and systems must be put into place to ensure that disabled victim-survivors of domestic violence can access the health and personal care required

The present study focuses on the lived experience of domestic violence and disability. Previous research has established that disabled people are at increased risk of violence (including physical, psychological, sexual, and financial abuse), perpetrated by both paid and unpaid carers [1,2]. For example, disabled men and women are more likely to experience intimate partner violence [3,4] and are especially vulnerable to severe forms of partner violence [5]. Further, research demonstrates that disabled women are most likely to experience abuse and experience domestic violence at higher rates compared with disabled men and women and men without disabilities [4,6]. For disabled people, the increased vulnerability to violence is evident across the lifespan including childhood [7] and older adulthood [8]. A range of individual and societal factors may contribute to the increased exposure to abuse. As stated by Rioux et al. [9],

The radically unequal society and economic position of persons with disabilities places them at a disproportionate risk, as well as the lack of individual control and choice that makes it difficult for the individual to avoid and escape situations of risk’ (p. 203).Despite increased susceptibility to physical, psychological, sexual, and financial abuse, disabled victim-survivors of domestic violence are an unrecognised and neglected population [10]. Extrapolating findings from research focused on non-disabled victim-survivors is not sufficient to understand this issue as domestic violence when disabled may present additional challenges [11].

For example, previous research indicates that abusers may deny victim-survivors access to assistive devices or treatment such as wheelchairs and pain medication or take control of financial disability related benefits [12,13]. Further, abusers may criticise, humiliate, and devalue victims for their disability [14,15]. Understanding the specific lived experience of disability and domestic violence is, therefore, necessary to effectively support disabled victim-survivors and improve current practice.

Where abuse is perpetrated by a carer, the impact of the abuse is exacerbated by a dependency (e.g., for financial support or physical assistance) on the perpetrator [16]. Disabled people may attempt to minimise their dependence on the abuser through restricting requests for essential assistance, further impacting on the quality of care received by disabled people. For example, disabled people may limit their food or drink intake to reduce the number of requests for personal care assistance made [17]. Dependence on the perpetrator may be further exacerbated by the social isolation and broader societal discrimination that impacts the employment of disabled people, limiting opportunities to leave the abusive situation [18,19,20].In addition to increased susceptibility to domestic violence, disabled people are less likely to receive domestic violence-oriented support.

This reflects both a reduced likelihood that the abuse will be identified and a lack of appropriate support. For example, research indicates that unless disabled women actively disclose abuse perpetrated by family members, it is unlikely that professionals such as paid carers or social workers will become aware of it [14]. Societal perceptions of carers as compassionate and willing to place the needs of others above their own may make it especially difficult for disabled people to disclose the abuse or seek external support. Further, where abuse is disclosed, disabled people may be ignored or dismissed, especially if learning difficulties or impaired cognitive function are evident [17].

Therefore, services frequently overlook the experiences of disabled people [14], which effectively excludes disabled people from appropriate support. The systems in place to support victim-survivors are often inaccessible. For example, shelters may have physical barriers such as stairs, ban personal assistants, or require victim-survivors to perform physical chores that are inappropriate for disabled people [21]. Indeed, where the accessibility of violence service programmes has been considered, disabled people rate services as less accessible than service providers perceive them to be [22], suggesting that the experiences and needs of disabled people are not fully understood.

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