Monday, 20 February 2017

Maybe He’s Caring: Responding to disabled women who experience domestic abuse

In this post Dr Jenna Breckenridge (Research Fellow, University of Edinburgh) explores the unique domestic abuse experiences of disabled women and discusses opportunities and challenges for improving the response to this important issue.

  • Disabled women are two times more likely to experience domestic abuse than non-disabled women.
  • A large study of domestic abuse prevalence across Europe (including 28 different countries) found that 50% of disabled women have experienced domestic abuse in their lifetime1.
  • Disabled women are four times more likely to experience sexual abuse2.
  • On average, disabled women experience abuse for up to 2 years longer than non-disabled women3.

This is a significant problem in which gender discrimination and the widespread oppression of disabled people, known as disablism, collide. Disablist attitudes portray disabled people as weak and dependent, meaning that perpetrators may perceive disabled women to be easier to control and overpower. Society often portrays disabled women as asexual, undesirable and undeserving of intimate relationships and, as a result, they are often disbelieved when they disclose domestic abuse. This is especially the case when the perpetrator of abuse is also the woman’s main carer.

A unique form of abuse

Although disabled women experience all forms of domestic abuse – sexual, psychological, physical and financial - they also experience a unique form of abuse that specifically targets their impairments. Women say this abuse makes them more disabled than they need to be. For example, women have described how their perpetrators remove batteries from power wheelchairs, refuse personal care, sabotage communication devices, deliberately cause injury to assistance animals or purposefully mismanage women’s medications.

Yet, despite experiencing more severe, more prolonged and more frequent abuse, disabled women are less likely to receive sufficient domestic abuse support from agencies across health, social care and the third sector.

How do we make support more accessible?

This might involve providing more accessible forms of communication, particularly for women with learning disabilities or sensory impairments, to ensure that women understand what help is available to them. Refuges need to consider how women’s basic care needs can be met – for example, assistance with mobility, activities of daily living, transportation - especially when her abusive partner has also been her main carer. Ultimately, however, different women, with different impairments, will have different support needs and it is important that domestic abuse services have a better understanding of the unique barriers facing disabled women and develop strategies for overcoming these. The crucial first step in achieving this is to listen to disabled women and work collaboratively with them to design domestic abuse support that is inclusive and accessible to all.


1. European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (2014) Violence against women: an EU-wide survey. Accessed at
2. Martin SL, Ray N, Sotres-Alvarez D, Kupper LL, Moracco KE, Dickens PA et al. (2006) Physical and sexual assault of women with disabilities. Violence Against Women, 12: 823-838.
3. Young ME, Nosek MA, Howland C, Chanpong G, Rintala DH (1997) Prevalence of abuse of women with physical disabilities. Archive of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 78: S34-S38.

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