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Why gender-based violence is an issue for Disabled people

Why gender-based violence is an issue for Disabled people

By Bristol Disability Equality Forum

Bristol Disability Equality Forum is an organisation run by and for Disabled people* who live, work, study and/or use services in Bristol.  As an organisation concerned with challenging inequality we seek to work with others to gain, and promote, a greater understanding of the impact of inequality and discrimination on the different groups and communities of Bristol.

We welcome the opportunity to work alongside the Bristol Zero Tolerance initiative and all those supporting survivors of gender-based violence, so that together we can develop a better understanding of Disabled people’s needs and respond in way that is inclusive and accessible.

We know from the experience of our members, and from research, that for many Disabled people harassment and abuse are considered part of ‘everyday life.’ Disabled women are twice as likely to experience domestic abuse or sexual violence as non-Disabled women.

Disabled people are often described or portrayed as ‘vulnerable’, ‘a burden’, ‘heroic’ or ‘brave’ with no particular regard to the individual concerned but based on the attitudes of others.  These seemingly different portrayals work together to present us as different, ‘other’ or as needing someone to control our lives.  This can help foster a range of views that support abuse, either because we are viewed as incapable or because we are failing to meet the expectations of a ‘heroic’ or ‘brave’ individual.

This is borne out by the prevailing political climate of austerity, where supporting Disabled people to be equal citizens is increasingly seen as a burden, or an unaffordable luxury.

At the same time, recent studies point to an increase in hate crime and harassment of Disabled people, that appears to correlate with media portrayals of Disabled people as ‘scroungers.’

It is these persistent narratives that normalise and enable the objectification, devaluing and ultimately the abuse of Disabled people, and in particular Disabled women and children and those in residential care.

People may find it difficult to accept that ‘vulnerable’ individuals are subject to abuse and violence, something identified as a ‘culture of disbelief’ in the Equality and Human Rights Commission 2011 report ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’.

At the same time Disabled people may be thought of as ‘unreliable’ and therefore not to believed.  This enables the abuse to continue and may prevent Disabled people from reporting incidents, or seeking help.

Evidence shows this is particularly the case for women labelled with learning difficulties, or as having mental health problems.  As with recent ‘grooming’ cases of children and young people, the perceived unreliability of ‘vulnerable’ women may be a deciding factor in perpetrators targeting them for violence and abuse.

Another area that we would welcome the opportunity to focus on, is the relationship between coercive control and hate crime.  Despite the differences in legislation, and the way these may be flagged by prosecutors, for Disabled survivors these forms of abuse, control and violence often overlap. However, for a variety of reasons, these experiences might not be recognised as such, by both survivors and professionals.

We recognise this abuse takes different forms and happens in a variety of situations where survivors are made to feel utterly dependent on the care and support of those perpetrating abuse.  Disabled women in Bristol have reported being purposefully isolated from family and friends, of having food and personal care withheld, of being financially exploited, and of being controlled by the use of threats and humiliation.  Disabled survivors of abuse have been told ‘no one else would have you’, or ‘you should be grateful.’

A report by researchers from the Universities of Bristol and Warwick, commissioned by Women’s Aid, found that:

  1. Disabled women are twice as likely to experience domestic violence, abuse or rape as non-Disabled women.
  2. Disabled men and women are more likely to experience abuse from a partner or family member.
  3. Disabled women are likely to have to endure abuse for longer because accessible or appropriate support is not available.
  4. Disabled women report that being a Disabled person made the abuse worse and severely limits their capacity to escape or seek help.
  5. Women with learning difficulties experience the greatest levels of abuse.
  6. A study of women who access mental health services identified between 50% and 60% had experienced domestic violence.

Domestic violence, harassment, coercion and abuse must become matters of concern for all sectors of society in Bristol.  To this end, we fully support Bristol Zero Tolerance, and their commitment to encouraging everyone to work towards a city free of gender-based violence.


*Our definition of Disabled people is informed by the Social Model of Disability; a Disabled person is someone who experiences discrimination on the grounds of a physical or sensory impairment, learning difficulty, neuro-diversity, long term life-limiting illness, or long term emotional or mental distress.


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