Why does disability make people more vulnerable to domestic abuse?

// 23 October 2013

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wheelchair attr D H Kelly.jpg

Before I came to terms with my own experience of domestic violence, I might have imagined that vulnerability to abuse would be about being attracted to a certain “type”, being a little self-destructive,submissive or gullible. If I knew that disabled people were twice as vulnerable to abuse, I might have imagined that this was because disability throws up a load of stressful situations and – as I could testify – people like me were hard to live with.

In fact, how vulnerable you are might be better understood as the number of excuses an abuser could find to mistreat and control you. Never good excuses – terrible excuses, in fact – but excuses that might convince, or partially convince, a particular victim and sometimes the people around them. Such as the idea that people like you are hard to live with.

Disabled people are more vulnerable to domestic abuse because society hands out a hell of a lot of excuses. There are ways in which certain impairments increase practical or social vulnerability (e.g reduced capacity to ask for outside help), but by far the biggest issue is that disabled people are made to feel as though we are less deserving of good treatment. Media representation and political rhetoric present us as burdensome, costly, sometimes wilfully idle, with the facts of our lives a source of suffering to both ourselves and those around us. We rarely see people like us presented as attractive, complex or even heroic outside the highly-conditional frame of triumph over adversity. Meanwhile, the effects of increasing poverty, unemployment, discrimination and poor access can further batter our sense of self-worth.

It is easy to fall into a rhythm of constantly justifying one’s existence, apologising for being an inconvenience and responding with disproportionate gratitude towards people who do anything for us, even the slightest favour, even when we are paying for a service. There is a presumption that the partners and family of disabled people have strenuous caring duties, which they perform as selfless heroes. Usually people outside a household have no idea about what care involves, the distribution of labour and financial arrangements, but the assumption is that a disabled person is dependent, troublesome and unable to give anything back. Following the abuse of former motorcycle stuntman Eddie Kidd, a typical response is that, “the immense stress of caring responsibilities – particularly for an intimate partner or family member – can easily spill into lost tempers and violent reactions.”

Even paid carers are often regarded as if they are doing this work out of the kindness of their hearts. This is one reason why they are poorly paid (often under minimum wage), but our failure to treat this as a job requiring as much competence, professionalism and accountability as any other, also leaves elderly and disabled people vulnerable to the kind of abuse reported in the news in recent weeks.

People used to sympathise with and admire my ex-husband for taking care of me, without having a clue what that actually entailed. And such attitudes are contagious; I considered myself lucky and was truly grateful, even though my needs were rarely met and I was shouted at every day. I thought his criticisms, accusations and questioning my limitations were part of the natural frustrations any person would feel around me. I knew there were no excuses for physical violence, but that was on a spectrum alongside treatment I considered normal.

People with mental ill health are particularly vulnerable to abuse and violence generally, not because they’re difficult people, but because there are so very many excuses. Our cultural stereotypes of people with mental illness include the idea that they imagine or confuse events, blow small incidents up into big disasters and worse, that they themselves are manipulative, cruel and even dangerous. The idea that others need to control and coerce a disabled person for their own good is never more prevalent than when it comes to mental illness, especially women who might be cast as being a danger to themselves and their children.

In recent years, all domestic violence resources have suffered from the cuts, but disabled people – already excluded from many life-saving resources – have become even more vulnerable. Benefit cuts and changes make it more difficult for disabled people to live alone or to live with other people without becoming financially dependent. Government and media rhetoric has contributed to a marked increase in violence and verbal abuse on the street. This is bound to have a knock-on effect to the way disabled people see ourselves and what we’re should expect at home.

Disability is not unique in the stress it puts on families and relationships. Abuse is not caused by people becoming exasperated and lashing out. Stress can certainly cause arguments and even family breakdown, but domestic violence is about control and power. Disabled people will become less vulnerable when we have more control over our lives and are allowed to see ourselves as the whole, complex and contributing individuals we are, rather than the unwieldy baggage of our families, partners and society at large.

Image by D H Kelly is taken from floor level, looking up at the back of an empty wheelchair strewn with clothes including a bra and with high heeled shoes on the floor next to it

Comments From You

Matthew Smith // Posted 29 October 2013 at 10:38 pm

I think there are some general reasons why people with disabilities are more prone than others to suffering abuse — a major one being the low pay and status of “non-specialised” care work, which means employers often have difficulty finding workers of the right calibre, and have less motivation to do so as there is no regulatory body for the carers and no real measure of professional standing.

However, my experience is in a “special” boarding school for boys with behavioural problems and some of these were disturbed, some were plain hooligans and others had obvious autistic spectrum disorders. The care staff, although they did hire some decent and caring ones, often seemed to have been recruited on the grapevine down the pub, and several of them used threatening and abusive language and some were outright physically violent. The simple reason is that they did not regard any of us as having a disability but as kids who needed knocking into line. This sort of abuse was sometimes excused with “boys need discipline” (and the school sold itself with a claim of being “structured and disciplined”), but others simply called their victims “little shits”.

There was also a general disdain for the notion of rights — it was only ever the weaker boys who talked of rights, as bigger ones could use force to get their way and generally were more respected by the staff anyway. We were told on numerous occasions “you have no rights”, and there was a time that a few members of staff were suspended over abuse accusations (but swiftly reinstated), and I heard one of the bigger boys comment “it’s all this children’s rights shit”. One reason I suspect the Tories can easily rally people against the Human Rights Act is that people associate rights, and the need for rights, with weakness; as a “strong nation” (and the dominant race and class therein), “we” middle-class whites don’t need human rights; only people in third-world countries need those.

The Goldfish // Posted 2 November 2013 at 12:12 pm

I think one thing our experiences have in common, Matthew, is this ability on the part of abusers to either exaggerate or completely downplay impairment – and that’s something I didn’t mention here. So there were times when my ex-husband would insist that I couldn’t do this or that because of my conditions, there were other times when he treated the manifestation of my conditions as personal failings. Poor co-ordination was plain clumsiness and carelessness, getting muddled with words or short term memory problems were a sort of willful stupidity etc. – much as your classmate’s conditions were interpreted as pure bad behaviour.

I didn’t have a chance to talk much about the position of disabled children, but that’s still a massive issue. There was a case earlier this year where an autistic kid was killed by his mother and you had gems like this (Offensive Content Warning) where the author implores us “not to judge” – it’s the presumption that the families or carers of disabled people are always good and well-meaning, even when they commit child murder!

Fedup // Posted 19 July 2016 at 5:38 am

I know this is an old post but what it contains resonates. So, here goes…

Disablism – The Facts

I think if people want to know whether disablism (or ableism) exists one need only turn to the statistics and research into the abuse that people with a disability experience. In those statistics and research lies the irrefutable truth. These stats (and research) are something that has been experienced by people with disability for time immemorial and as many texts point out not only are the abuse stats staggering (and increasing) but even less pronounced abuses such as how poorly people with disability are portrayed on our screens (TV, movies etc) is embedded in our cultures. So whilst there is considerable evidence of overt abuse and mistreatment there are also subliminal messages and covert abuses that happen at a subconscious level. For me they are a daily grind that no matter who I have in my life (family, friends and partners) and also how much I give of myself to others, I will find that I will at best be that lesser being in their minds and hearts and at worst their target for whatever action they choose to inflict. It’s appalling but then abuse is appalling.
If you are a person with a disability (like myself) and have been abused, bullied, manipulated and mistreated (like myself) then you may well understand and nod in agreement that disablism not only exists but is endemic and on the increase. To add to the misery you are disbelieved in regards to your experiences. And that to me multiplies the oppressions* we experience viz a viz:
1. We have the daily battle with our disability,
2. We have the battle of disablism,
3. We have the battle of abuse, and
4. We have the battle of being disbelieved
Unfortunately, I don’t believe that disablism will gain the same traction of the other ‘isms’ (racism, sexism etc). Disablism is the last bastion of the ‘isms’ for a reason, it’s the hardest one to tackle. Any gains will be at best limited and therefore we will always be a target for abuse of some kind whether that be delivered consciously or unconsciously in the mind of the perpetrator(s). Sad but true. For me, I will never trust again…ever, it’s just not worth the risk.
*I use the term multiple oppression for the dot points I’ve listed above, however, I understand the term multiple oppression applies equally to those (like me) who also face oppression on more than one front (eg someone who is black, female, lesbian and has a disability will face multiple oppressions). What is not generally understood is how multiple oppressions work. If you are oppressed in, say, three different ways (eg disability, sexuality and gender) then the oppression is not times three, it is far more than that. Oppression rises exponentially the more types of oppression you endure. Additionally, many that are multiple oppressed experience not fitting in with any group. So for example, if someone has a disability and is gay they will be oppressed by those who like to abuse either group but you will also be oppressed by those within your group. This results in having no group at all to belong to and adds further to the oppression.

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