“My disability meant I fainted a lot, though like a lot else it was made so much worse by the tension and the fact that my ex made me do so much around the house … I would pass out on the floor … and I would come round to him looming over me, shouting at me for being so stupid.”
Deborah, 31, met her ex-husband online when she was 17, two years after being diagnosed with a neurological condition. She had felt like a “freak” at the time, she remembers; self-conscious about using a wheelchair and isolated from friends getting on with their lives, away from illness. Ten months after meeting him, she moved in. For the next 10-and-a-half years he abused her at home.
According to research by Women’s Aid, one in four women experience domestic violence. For women with a disability, this figure doubles. Be it at the hands of their partner, family, or carer, almost one in two disabled women will be abused in their lifetime.
Some of their experiences fit within traditional definitions of domestic violence. Some do not. For a disabled woman, domestic violence can take on unique, complex forms, often specifically related to their disabilitysuch as having medicine withheld, being physically assaulted or deliberately not assisted to go to the toilet.
“A woman’s impairment can be used in the abuse,” says Dr Jackie Barron from Women’s Aid. “We’ve heard cases where a woman’s wheelchair was removed just as she was about to sit down, or a hearing aid thrown to the other side of the room leaving the victim unable to communicate.”
Common in other abusive relationships, there’s a disturbing ease with which power and control can be exerted – and the added opportunities. The abuser not only has a physical advantage, but is often the person being relied upon for care.
Deborah needed her husband to help meet her personal needs. It was help that was routinely withdrawn. “My ex constantly used my dependence on him against me,” she says. “When I was so ill I couldn’t fend for myself at all, he would threaten not to prepare food for me – and sometimes, he really wouldn’t, so I didn’t get a hot meal.”
Her husband cited various objections to a shower seat too. He would refuse to help her wash and then complain about “the state” she was in.
“There’s often humiliation and belittling as part of the abuse,” Barron says. “This can reinforce any existing feelings of low self-esteem.”
Deborah’s husband would describe her as a “psychological vampire”, whose needs sucked all his energy. “He would tell me what an inconvenience I was, not just to him, but to other people,” she says. “Sometimes he’d give me this lecture in front of friends and family.”
The combination of being told enough times that you’re a burden and the knowledge that, due to a disability, you do have additional needs, can make leaving an abusive home particularly difficult. Deborah’s husband often threatened to leave her or throw her out. “I was terrified of what would happen to me then,” she says. “But I really didn’t think I had any other options.”
“It can be harder for disabled women to get away, or to get support,” Barron says. Escaping an abuser can mean leaving a home adapted to meet their needs, or residential care. Refuges, already coping with cuts in funding, are not always accessible or able to meet needs. DeafHope UK, one of the only organisations designed to help disabled survivors of domestic violence, tells me of cases in which deaf women have returned to their abusive home after finding a refuge too difficult. “Some refuges have refused to accept a deaf woman due to ‘health and safety’ or insurance issues,” Lynn Shannon, DeafHope service manager says.
In 2010, Deborah left her husband. She had managed to arrange to stay with a friend because her disability made it difficult to physically organise the move, but she was forced to return. Unable to use public transport, Deborah had no way of getting to her new accommodation. At one point, this meant her ex was planning to drive her. “To be honest, I have my doubts I’d have ever got there,” she says. “That’s one thing that frightens me, with hindsight, that I could have imagined that would be a safe thing to do. But I couldn’t drive and I couldn’t take a coach or a train.”
The additional barriers to a disabled woman’s escape are particularly distressing because it’s often more difficult for them to speak out. The expectation that it’s normal for a disabled person to have someone with them during a GP visit, for instance, takes away a rare chance for privacy to disclose abuse.
Simply being believed – an obstacle for any abuse victim – can be especially hard for disabled women. “You often hear: ‘Oh, he seems such a nice man,'” Barron says. “This seems to be even more the case for disabled women. ‘This man is providing care. He’s giving up his life … ‘ It can mean they’re much less likely to be believed.”
For almost half of all disabled women, it’s abuse that is very real.
Thursday marks start of action to mark the UN Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Girls. The Freephone 24 Hour National Domestic Violence Helpline is 0808 2000 247.