No Exceptions Made: Violence Against Women with Disabilities

“Once he knocked me out of my wheelchair with my baby on my lap. Another time he knocked me out of my chair, through a glass door, then dragged me by my hair through the broken glass.”

Laura Jackson* speaks quietly and deliberately as she recalls scenes from her marriage. [This woman's name has been changed to protect her safety.]

“I remember being kicked around the floor while he was wearing steel-toed army boots. I remember being locked in the bedroom and beaten for three or four days.”

Laura Jackson’s private hell began in 1967. She was fresh out of high school; her boyfriend had just returned from Vietnam. They left a school dance in his brand-new Camaro, got in an accident, and she became an L-I paraplegic.

At that time in the rural Midwest, Jackson says, “There was no such thing as rehab. They taught me a little about transferring, and they sent me home.” But not before inflicting some serious damage. “The physical therapist and the doctor told me there was no point in continuing my relationship, because I could never be a wife. They said a family and children were not in my future.”

Jackson was frightened. Her boyfriend was guilt-ridden. Six months later, they were married; soon after, Jackson gave birth to their first daughter.

“As soon as I told him I was pregnant, the physical abuse started,” Jackson says, attesting to a common pattern. In addition to physical violence, Jackson endured “almost constant” verbal and emotional abuse.

But, like anyone who is repeatedly battered, Jackson didn’t think of it as abuse, and she blamed herself. “I was always made to feel it was my fault. And that was easy to believe. If I was extremely compliant, he was less likely to hurt me. Therefore, when he did hurt me, it was because I had messed up.”

Five years later, the couple’s second daughter was born with a life-threatening illness. Under the added stress, Jackson’s husband became increasingly violent. Why did she stay?

“I had two small children, one of them drastically ill,” Jackson says calmly. “I could not bear the thought of losing custody. In those days, a disabled woman wouldn’t have been deemed capable of caring for them.” And, she admits, “In the back of my mind, there was that thought: If I leave him, I’m going to end up alone for the rest of my life. He always told me I should be grateful that he took me, since no else would want me.”

“During all the years it went on,” Jackson says, “it never occurred to me that my disability was a factor in the abuse.” Now, Jackson believes her abuser had tremendous guilt over the accident.

Raised in an abusive family, he used violence to cope with pain. “He always thought I wasn’t walking just to punish him.”

They were married 14 years when her husband began threatening her life and her daughters’ lives. “I believed him,” she says, “and I left.” With the help of a neighbor and her Social Security benefits, Jackson rented her own apartment. “He cried continually,” she says, “but I was unmoved.” She had no intentions of ever going back.

A few months later, the people at Social Security decided that her husband’s home was also her asset, and slashed Jackson’s benefits by 75 percent. With no other means to support her daughters, Jackson returned to her husband.

To the uninitiated, Laura Jackson’s story might be shocking. But it is all too common. The statistics are mind-numbing. Every 15 seconds in this country, a woman is beaten. One out of every three American women will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime. If an American woman is murdered, she is five times more likely to be killed by a husband, boyfriend or ex than by a stranger.

Violence against women rages in epidemic proportions in this country, and women with disabilities are no exception. But until very recently, women with disabilities who were abused were on their own. And although that is still the case in many communities, things are beginning to change.

A central figure in that change is Margaret Nosek, executive director of the Center for Research on Women with Disabilities (CROWD). When Nosek founded the center, now part of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, she wasn’t intending to study abuse. But after her research team conducted a detailed nationwide survey of both disabled and nondisabled women, the issue was inescapable. Nosek says, “We concluded that abuse is a central problem for women with disabilities, because we are women.”

While some professionals believe that the incidence of abuse is much higher among disabled women, Nosek’s researchers didn’t find evidence to support this. They were, however, able to define the ways in which disability can change the experience of abuse. For example, very few battered women’s shelters are fully accessible, and most hotline counselors aren’t versed in disability issues. Disability may cause a greater economic and physical dependence on the abuser, making it more difficult to escape. Disability may create other avenues for abuse, such as withholding medication or orthotic equipment, or refusal to do personal care. Legal hurdles are daunting for any battered woman – it’s difficult to advocate for yourself when your self-esteem has been destroyed. Abusers often threaten women with a custody battle. For a woman with a disability, this threat may be all too real. Nosek says, “We’ve seen so many cases where abusers are granted custody, using the argument that her disability makes her an unfit mother.” Counselors tell stories of women with cerebral palsy calling the police, only to be written off as drunks. Nosek, a wheelchair user herself, says, “In these situations, all the attitudinal and physical barriers come into play.”

What Nosek’s team uncovered was a dire need for networking and education. “There’s one industry set up to deal with disability,” Nosek explains. “Then there’s another network helping women who are battered. But they’re not linked in any way.” In eight years of graduate work in rehab counseling, Nosek never encountered a single lesson on the signs of domestic violence. “We were never introduced to the symptoms of battered women,” she recalls. “This would be extremely relevant to a woman’s rehab process, but it’s not in the curriculum.” On the other side of the equation, Nosek found a late start and good intentions. “The battered women’s network has only recently become aware of the necessity of serving women with disabilities. They want to learn about ADA, but they’re so poorly funded that it’s very difficult for them to come into compliance.”

In addition to the financial obstacles, Nosek says, the women’s network “doesn’t know how they should modify their hotlines or what their counselors should know.” To those ends, CROWD is bringing the two systems together, and cross-training them. “We’re educating disability service providers, increasing their awareness of abuse, so they can identify women who are abused and refer them to appropriate services,” says Nosek.

But she cautions that a unilateral approach is ineffective. “Let’s say you have a counselor who suddenly realizes that 10 percent of her clients are being abused, and she refers them all to the local women’s center. What’s the center going to do? The shelters are filled to capacity, they’re turning women away. So getting more resources to women’s centers is a very serious problem. “Somehow we have to create a tide that’s going to raise all the boats.”

The Houston Area Women’s Center, one of a handful of disability-friendly women’s centers in the country, floats on that tide. Maria Palacios, the center’s hotline case manager at the time of this article’s original publication date, describes HAWC as “one of the few places that serves women and also has a keen awareness of disability, as opposed to an ILC with an increased awareness of abuse. We see all women as women first.” In addition to its fully accessible shelter, HAWC has incorporated a disability-sensitivity component into all its program training, and educates local disability service providers about domestic violence and sexual assault. Palacios, who uses a wheelchair as a result of childhood polio, trains and supervises the hotline volunteers, and stands at the ready to handle more challenging crisis calls herself. She says, “If a client has a disability, we go that extra mile to find out what her specific needs are. There may be transportation issues; finding a housing fix her may be more challenging.

Palacios also points out another way that disability may create the opportunity for abuse. “In our society, people with disabilities have been conditioned to be compliant and submissive. The average woman with a disability may be more prone to think of herself as ‘less than’ than the average woman without a disability. If she is in an abusive relationship, she may be more likely to think, ‘This is the best I can do, who else would have me?’” But Palacios cautions against generalizations. “All women in our society are vulnerable to abuse.”

Another major challenge may be attendant care. “Perhaps we can help her arrange for an attendant at the shelter. Or perhaps her attendant is the abuser. Then the woman has to face the fear of confronting a system that may deny her the services she needs to survive. We will support her and advocate for her.” If a woman is physically dependent on her abuser, the “safety plan” strategies that counselors often work out with clients may not be appropriate. As Nosek says, “Everything on the list — hide money, hide keys, have a friend you can signal if you’re in danger — takes on different dimensions when you have a disability. You can’t ask your perpetrator, ‘Can you put this money inside this tampon box?’” The disability-aware crisis counselor understands these obstacles. “Serving women with disabilities,” Palacios emphasizes, “means much more than putting a ramp in a shelter.”

Laura Jackson had no disability-friendly women’s center to call. She had very little money, and virtually no self-esteem. But two years ago, Jackson left her husband. She got a lawyer, an order of protection and a divorce. When local authorities wouldn’t enforce the court order, she moved to a different city. With the support of her adult daughters and the help of a trusted employer, she started a new life. “I left my children and my grandchild behind. I came to a place where I didn’t know anyone and, in my mid-40s, started over with zero — no furniture, no kitchen items, nothing.”

It has been a very difficult journey — financially, physically and emotionally. But she wouldn’t change a thing. “I was dying there,” says Jackson. “I had no volition. Every conversation I had, every decision I made, was based on what his reaction would be.”

To those who fear that leaving is more dangerous than staying, Jackson says, “It’s true that more women are killed when they leave. But staying didn’t guarantee me safety. At least if you leave, there’s a chance. “There are all kinds of survival. There’s physical survival, but there’s emotional survival, there’s your sanity. There’s the quality of your existence. I would not go back, no matter what the risk.”

Now Jackson’s quiet voice becomes urgent. “This is the most important thing,” she insists. “Even with the added problems caused by a disability, and the poverty that goes with it, it can still be done. I want women to know that it’s not impossible. I need women to know that you can get out, and you can survive. It may not be cushy, it may not be pretty, but, by god, you’ll be doing it, and you’ll get your life back.”

What does Laura Jackson look forward to in the future? “Peace.”

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Abuse Has Many Faces

“Society has conditioned us to believe that abuse is only hitting,” says Maria Palacios of the Houston Area Women’s Center. “Women call the hotline and say, ‘He’s not really abusive — I mean, he doesn’t hit me.’” But abuse takes several forms, including:

• Emotional: This includes constant criticism, putdowns and threats. Frequent threats of violence, to sue for child custody, or to withhold medication or care constitute emotional abuse.

• Social: The abuser controls the people the woman is allowed to see, speak to or socialize with. He may not allow her to hold a job or participate in recreational activities. The hallmark of social abuse is extreme jealousy and possessiveness.

• Economic: An abuser will not allow a woman to make her own financial decisions, and prevents her from gaining access to her own money.

• Sexual: Any form of unwanted sexual activity constitutes sexual abuse.

• Physical: This includes slapping, pinching, hair-pulling, pushing or kicking. It also includes the withholding of medication, equipment or personal care.

 

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What You Can Do

The best way a woman can increase her safety is to increase her awareness. Maria Palacios says, “Abuse is not normal. A lot of women feel that this is their lot in life, and there’s nothing they can do about it. But you have rights! This is against the law.”

If you’re in an abusive relationship, or think you might be, seek support. “Always let other people know what’s going on,” says Palacios. “This can be very difficult, because isolation is one of the tools of the abuser. But do your utmost to tell someone — a trusted friend, your family, a counselor. And always do know that somehow, somewhere, you’re going to find support.”

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Old Myths Die Hard

These are some of the most commonly held myths about spouse, partner or caregiver violence:

• “I brought it on myself. If I change my behavior, he’ll treat me nicer.” Abuse is never your own fault. Every person is responsible for his or her own behavior. The abuser — not the victim — is responsible for abusive behavior. No one ever deserves to be mistreated.

• “I can change him.” You didn’t make him abusive, and you can’t make him not abusive.

• “It was a one-time-only incident. It will never happen again.” If he hit you once, take it seriously. Make it clear to him that you deserve to be treated better, and you will not tolerate that behavior. If you disregard the first instance of violence, you can be almost certain it will happen again.

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Resources

• National Domestic Violence Hotline, 800/799-7233, 800/787-3224 (TTY); www.thehotline.org.

• National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, 800/ 537-2238 ext 5, 800/553-2508 (TTY); www.nrcdv.org.

• National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 303/ 839-1852, 303/839-8459 (TTY); www.ncadv.org.

• RAINN-Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, 800/ 656-HOPE; www.rainn.org.

• Finex House, 617/288-1054; www.finexhouse.org.

• Look in your local Yellow Pages under “Domestic Violence,” “Battered Women,” Sexual Assault Services” or “Victim’s Services.”

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