Causes and Risk Factors for Violence Against Women with Disabilities

last updated 4 August 2008

According to the Disabled Women's Network Ontario, the single biggest factor affecting the incidence of violence against women with disabilities is the extent of these women's "families."  By “families,” DAWN refers not only to parents, husbands, boyfriends and other relatives who typically are perpetrators of violence against women, but also to the many other people who may assist in their daily lives, including friends, neighbors, and caregivers.  The title “caregiver,” in turn, may encompass attendants, interpreters, drivers, doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, psychiatrists, therapists, counselors, and workers in hospitals and other institutions. This large number of people, and the intimate physical and emotional contact involved in the care they provide, greatly increase the risk of abuse to women with disabilities.  When a disabled woman lives in an institution, the danger of abuse further increases because she is dependent on a larger number of people and is therefore placed in a vulnerable situation more often.

DAWN also reports that escape from an abusive situation is difficult for disabled women.  Disabled women tend to be viewed and treated as children and as lacking intelligence.  Also, disabled women may be trained to be compliant and are sometimes punished for assertiveness or for challenging authority figures. 

Women with disabilities may be considered to be non-sexual and are often not given sex education, which can result in an inability to distinguish between abusive behavior and normal or necessary forms of touching.  They also may be considered incompetent witnesses by police and the courts, particularly if they have difficulty, or require assistance, in communicating.  And, when disabled women do report abuse, they may not be believed.

The Independent Living Institute (ILI), an organization promoting disabled people’s self-determination, states that the cause of high rates of violence against disabled women possibly comes from attitudes towards women that have emerged from a masculine society, exacerbated by certain conditions due to the disability itself.  While ILI’s analysis overlaps with DAWN’s to some extent, the ILI analysis adds the following factors as contributing to violence against disabled women:

  • being less capable of self defense;
  • greater difficulty reporting maltreatment due to difficulties in communicating;
  • difficulties in accessing information and counseling locations, due mainly to architectural and communication barriers;
  • lower self-esteem and disregard of their image as women;
  • the absence of traditional female roles for disabled women;
  • fear of reporting the abuse, as it might cause bonds to break and special care to be lost;
  • having to live in environments that favor violence: broken homes, institutions, residences and hospitals; and
  • less credibility when reporting abuse in certain institutions.

ILI also cites other references that disclose “myths” about disabled women that may lead others in society to think abusing disabled women is somehow more acceptable.  These myths include that disabled women are “damaged merchandise,” feel no pain, are a menace to society, and are helpless.

Maria Barile, a disabled feminist researcher with a degree in social work, makes several suggestions concerning the reasons such abuse continues, with most based on disabled women not having access to resources available to non-disabled women.  She notes that, in a study of disabled women who attempted to report abuse, 15% reported that no services were available or that they were unsuccessful in their attempts to obtain services.  In 73% of the cases in another study, treatment services were either inadequate or not offered.  Barile suggests that financial scarcity is a major reason that these resources were not available to women with disabilities.