“Privilege is when you think that something’s not a problem because it’s not a problem for you personally.” -David Gaider
According to the US Census Bureau, 1 in 5 people who live in the United States has a disability. These individuals are daily faced with challenges that many of us who are given privilege take for granted. Additionally, this population experiences violence at an alarmingly high rate. According to sources found on the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Program’s website:
“Dr. Brian Armour of the Centers for Disease Control has found that women with a disability are significantly more likely than women without a disability to experience domestic violence in their lifetime, 37.3% vs. 20.6%. Women with a disability are much more likely to have a history of unwanted sex with an intimate partner, 19.7% vs. 8.2% (Armour, 2008).” Additionally, “83% of women with disabilities will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime (Stimpson & Best, 1991). Only 3% of sexual abuse cases involving people with developmental disabilities are ever reported (Valenti-Hein and Schwatz, 1995).”
Not only do individuals within the community of disabilities experience violence at an alarmingly higher rate than the rest of the population, accessing services can be an additional challenge. For example, what if you are reliant on your abuser for transportation? What if your abuser avoids making accommodations to your home/life which would allow you the ability to access services? What if your abuser has cut you off from your supports? What if once you make an attempt to access services you find that the program is not equipped to support someone with a disability? What if you need a personal care attendant but they are not allowed to accompany you into shelter? What if the staff that you interact with don’t treat you well? What if your abuser threatens or attempts to take your children away from you by using your disability against you?
Are you overwhelmed yet? These are all the things that a survivor with a disability has to think about before accessing services. Additionally, some survivors also do not choose to access services because of the cost that reporting to law enforcement may have for their health and wellbeing. For example, Ariane Garner-Williams in the clip “Violence Against Women with Disabilities” states “Some women I guess are just scared of the repercussions of what could possibly happen. They might go to the police and that person gets put in jail. Then… (they’ll think)… I’ll have no one to look after me and I’ll be in the room by myself and that’s going to be hard so I’m better off just staying quiet and putting up with it.”
Additionally, some survivors with disabilities are denied the services they deserve. In the short resource guide Serving Sexual Violence Survivors with Disabilities by Shirley Paceley, Kris Bein and Leah Green a survivor with cerebral palsy stated “I did not get the rape kit done because they didn’t know how to get my feet in the stirrups.”
Women with disabilities are not the only ones who experience violence, however. When you research violence in the disabled community you often read about violence against women. Although we know that it is true that women experience higher rates of intimate partner violence then men do, one area of violence against disabled men is often missed and not spoken about. That area is men who experience sexual violence. According to an article called “Sexual Violence Victimization Against Men with Disabilities” by Monika Mitra, PhD, Vera E. Mouradian, PhD, Marci Diamond, MPA “The prevalence of lifetime sexual violence victimization was 13.9%…among men with disabilities; 3.7%…among men without disabilities 26.6%”
So what do we do about all of this? I personally believe that if we have privilege we need to re-evaluate ourselves to remove unintentional misunderstandings. Simply, if we have been given something that someone else has never had, how can we know what we need until we ask them? We may (just by our privilege) make assumptions or unintentionally do or say something that could cause more harm than good. I believe that just as I wrote in the last blog about intersectional feminism-if we have privilege then we need to shut up and listen. After we listen we need to ask them how we can be a better support and only then begin to take action. We need to stop assuming we know how to help someone who does not have something that we have. I once heard in a webinar a saying which I believe that is absolutely core of those with privilege to consider. The saying is “nothing about me, without me”. I believe we need to advocate for women and men with disabilities to be forefront in making the decisions for the community.
Second, I believe we need to learn how to respond and better understand those with a disability. A study conducted by the Delaware Disabilities Project Core Team found that many survivors were not treated well when they accessed services. In their report they stated that within a case study they were conducting about accessing domestic violence support “All program participants were given the opportunity to discuss the barriers they have experienced in accessing and receiving services. The barriers mentioned most frequently related to the poor quality of services at the “point of entry.” All program participants shared experiences in which agency staff behaved in a way that suggested they felt uncomfortable being with a person with a disability, mental illness and/or Deaf individual, at the point of entry.” The more we interact with people who are disabled the less awkward and uncomfortable we will be with welcoming them into our spaces. Here is a great site that offers some tips on how to interact with someone with a disability.
There are so many more things we can do to help to support women and men experiencing intimate partner violence but if I were to continue to write about it, you would be reading all day long. However, if you’re looking for more information about how to be a good partner to someone with a disability, please check out the links below!
Vermont Center for Independent Living (VCIL)
Disability Rights Vermont
Green Mountain Self-Advocates (GMSA)
End Violence Against People with Disabilities