Breaking Free from Domestic Abuse

By Kathi Wolfe
(Updated April 2011)

For Linda Miller, the support of family and friends was crucial in escaping her abusive first marriage. "I was lucky. My parents had a wheelchair-accessible home."

For Linda Miller, the support of family and friends was crucial in escaping her abusive first marriage. “I was lucky. My parents had a wheelchair-accessible home.”

One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Linda Miller never expected she would be one of them.

In 1974, when Miller got married before graduating from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, she thought her marriage would be a happy one. “I grew up in a good environment,” she says. “My mother and father had always been loving with each other, I never heard a cross word.” She had no idea that her life would soon become a living hell.

“He was the only one working. I had my degree — my major was criminal justice with a minor in psychology in college — but he forced me to go on public assistance,” says Miller, who had polio when she was 3 years old. Miller’s husband was nondisabled. She had to plead with him for money to buy food for their baby. “If I’d ask for money to buy the baby ice cream, he wouldn’t give it to me. He’d buy a case of ice cream,” says Miller. He controlled all aspects of her life. “He’d take my welfare checks. If I said something he didn’t like, he’d take me out of my wheelchair and put me in the middle of the bathroom floor,” she says. She couldn’t get up off the floor without assistance. She says it was like being in prison though no doors were locked.

When her husband smothered her with a pillow and she nearly passed out, Miller realized she had to leave him. “It was the last straw,” she says. “I saw stars. I thought that was something that only happens in cartoons.”

Miller considers herself fortunate to be a survivor of domestic violence. When she left her husband in 1977, her parents took her in. Like many who are victims of domestic violence, she was embarrassed to tell anyone that she had been abused. But, she says, “I swallowed my pride and told my parents what happened. They were very supportive.” Her mother provided childcare while Miller used her public assistance money to buy a typewriter, went to business school and found work. Miller was the domestic violence services coordinator of the Health Resource Center for Women with Disabilities at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago at the time the story was originally published.

“I was lucky. My parents had a wheelchair-accessible home, and I stayed with them for three years,” says Miller. Her mother was able to retire from her job and care for Miller’s child. “She took my child to work and me to and from my job,” says Miller. Members of the domestic violence ministry of her church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, offered her support. “We talked, and I realized I was not alone or the only one who left the house to face the world after ‘running into a door,'” she says. “It wasn’t a ‘door.’ It was my husband’s fist.”

Miller divorced her first husband and remarried. She and her second husband, Frank, have been happily married for 17 years.

He’s NOT a Saint
Experiencing domestic violence is devastating for any woman, but it is even more difficult for women with disabilities. Like nondisabled women, women with disabilities experience emotional, physical and sexual abuse by intimate partners, says Margaret Nosek, executive director of the Center for Research on Women with Disabilities at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. But there is a “separate category” of disability-related abuse. For women with mobility disabilities, examples of this type of abuse include “withholding medicine or food, refusing to turn them over at night, refusing to help them go to the bathroom or taking away equipment” such as wheelchairs, says Nosek.

Dependence on assistance makes women with disabilities more vulnerable to abuse. Nosek, who has spinal muscular atrophy and scoliosis and uses a ventilator, jokes, “I’d be easy to torture — just lay me on a hard surface.” But this has serious consequences for women with disabilities who are victims of domestic violence. Unlike nondisabled women, “if you have a physical disability, you can’t fight back [against] abuse.  You often depend on your batterer for your attendant care,” says Nosek. Many strategies that can help nondisabled women escape from their batterers don’t work for women with disabilities. “They [domestic violence counselors] tell them to stash money in a tampon box so they can leave,” she says. “If you can’t reach the box without your abuser’s help, how can you leave?” Women disabled from birth or childhood have been victimized throughout their lives by the stigma associated with disability, says Tara Haley, current director of clinical services at HELP USA and assistant director of Barrier Free Living, a mental health clinic in New York, at the time this article was first published. The clinic serves people with disabilities who are survivors of domestic violence in New York. “They’re discriminated against … not looked at as being equal to people who don’t have disabilities,” says Haley. “This devaluation is added to the devaluation of domestic violence.”

Fran Odette, who uses a wheelchair, is project manager of the Women with Disabilities and Deaf Women’s Program at Springtide Resources in Toronto. “Many of us living with a disability get into relationships later [than nondisabled women]. We don’t have the opportunity to learn the nuances of dating,” she says.  Because of the marginalization of people with disabilities and this lack of socialization, it can be hard for women with disabilities to recognize when they are being abused. “We’ve been told we’re undesirable … no one would want to marry us. So we put a lot of energy into intimate relationships. We think if we could just be in a relationship, we would be competent women.” Odette, 42, became involved in her late 20s in a relationship with a nondisabled man she cared for very much, but who was emotionally abusive to her. “He made hurtful comments about my disability. If I asked him to help me go to the bathroom, he’d demand to know what right I had to interrupt his dinner, to actually have to go to the bathroom,” she recalls. These comments were embarrassing. “He’d say these things in front of people. He didn’t treat other people this way,” she says. “I thought there was something wrong with me.” Other people thought he was a wonderful person “because of all he had to do to take care of me, how demanding I was,” says Odette.

Odette’s life began to change when she went to school and studied social work. Through talking with nondisabled women and reading about systemic oppression, Odette realized there “was something abusive going on in the relationship.” The Disabled Women’s Network, a Canadian group, provided support to her, but leaving him wasn’t easy. “I still had a lot of love for this person and wanted to find a way to work it out,” she says. Finding healing from the abuse has been a process. “There are still days when I doubt myself,” she says.

Escaping Hell
Often disabled women encountering domestic violence feel they can’t leave their partners because they depend on them for attendant care, says Kimberly Wisseman, a former counselor at SafePlace, a domestic violence and sexual assault survival center in Austin, Texas. In 1990, while a senior at Texas A&M, Wisseman, a quad since she was 16, moved in with her nondisabled boyfriend, who provided her attendant care. “As soon as we started living together, he became controlling. He’d get jealous and yell at me for things I didn’t do,” she says. One day Wisseman overheard him talking to one of his friends on the phone.  “He referred to me as his ‘pretty bird in a cage,'” she recalls. He asked her to marry him in front of other people. “I knew I wasn’t ready, but I felt I had to say yes,” says Wisseman. They got engaged, but did not get married.

The verbal and emotional abuse escalated into physical violence. Once during an argument he took her out of her wheelchair, stripped off her clothes and laughed as she tried to “scoot my body to the phone to call for help,” she says. Her fiancé targeted her for abuse “because of my limitations,” says Wisseman.

One day Wisseman told him that she wanted to break up with him. This enraged him. “We were in the car. He was driving. He drove off and left me in my wheelchair in the gravel,” she says. Shortly after that, he broke her wrist so hard that she “heard it break as he bent it all the way back.” She convinced him to take her to the hospital. But, as is often the case with women who are victims of domestic violence, “he wouldn’t leave my side,” says Wisseman. She was too frightened to say anything about his abusive behavior to anyone. “No one looked for any signs of abuse. They just thought I’d fallen out of the wheelchair,” she says.

Kimberly Wisseman (shown here with son Evan) took her former boyfriend to court twice for abuse. Now married, she has been able to rebuild her life.

Kimberly Wisseman (shown here with son Evan) took her former boyfriend to court twice for abuse. Now married, she has been able to rebuild her life.

Three weeks later, over a very long night, he broke her nose, her ribs and permanently damaged her sternum. “I told him I was going to a class and went to the college health center. They told law enforcement authorities,” says Wisseman. Her perpetrator was tried twice, but women with disabilities find it very difficult to bring their perpetrators to justice. “In the first trial, he was acquitted. The jury believed his attorney, who said that I’d just fallen out of my wheelchair because I was so frail,” she recalls. The jurors believed that her abuser was “a saint” because he cared for her. At the second trial he pleaded no contest because there was physical evidence of his violence. He was found guilty but only sentenced to two years probation and counseling. “I felt after that there was no justice,” says Wisseman.

Despite these tribulations, over a period of years Wisseman was able to rebuild her life. She moved to California, got her master’s degree in social work and then moved back to Austin. Today she is happily married. She and her husband, Phil, have a 7-year-old son named Evan.

After auto and sporting accidents, domestic violence is the third most common cause of spinal cord injury for women, according to Minna Hong, peer support coordinator/vocational liaison at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. “Domestic violence is a women’s issue because men are stronger than women, and in general they express emotions like anger more physically than women. Women tend to talk things over more,” says Hong.

Deborah Ross, of Columbia, S.C., was a schoolteacher in 2003. One night in March of that year, while she was walking to her car in a parking lot, her husband, Mitchell, shot her and then shot himself. He died, and she sustained a spinal cord injury. The couple were married for 34 years and had three children. “There had been problems in the past. He physically abused me, slapped me around, bruised me. The kids witnessed this,” says Ross. Ross thinks her husband felt threatened when she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education. “He seemed threatened when I received national board certification, and the company where he was working was having financial problems,” she says.

Things “got better” for a time. “We went to Paris one Christmas and had a great time in London in 2001,” she remembers. Ross isn’t sure what caused him to injure her and kill himself. “He may have had an undiagnosed mental illness,” she says.

Since her injury, Ross’ life has been an arduous journey of readjustment and rehabilitation. She’s arranged for her home to be sold, and her children found her an accessible apartment. “I’m lucky because I had the money to buy a wheelchair accessible van,” she says. She plans to volunteer as a math tutor to elementary schoolchildren. “I can’t do anything about my paralysis. I just have to keep moving forward as best I can,” she says. Like many domestic abuse survivors, Ross says she “feels alone.” She’d like to meet others who have encountered domestic violence, so she could talk with “people who have gone through what I went through.”

Getting the support and services needed to recover from domestic violence is extremely difficult for women with disabilities. Disability service providers may not be informed about domestic violence. “The domestic violence community doesn’t understand about the dynamics of disability,” says Renee Wells, an accessibility consultant working with Vermont Center for Crime Victims Services. “And the disability community doesn’t understand the dynamics of the domestic violence community as well either,” she says. Wells believes opening the lines of communication and creating focus groups to share honest feelings and thoughts are key in bringing these two communities together for a greater impact.

Domestic violence shelters and counseling services may not understand that women with disabilities may be threatened with being placed in a nursing home if they attempt to leave a relationship, says Wisseman. “Or they may not know that women with disabilities have fewer resources — from money to job training to accessible transportation — than women without disabilities.”

Because of embarrassment, stigma and the stunning blows it inflicts on the self-esteem of women, domestic violence hasn’t been discussed, says Hong. But, now, finally, “society is more open. It’s being talked about.”

Resources
• SafePlace: 512/267-7233, TTY 512/927-9616; www.austin-safeplace.org.
• Barrier Free Living: 212/533-4358, TTY 212/533-4632; www.bflnyc.org.
• Minna Hong, peer support coordinator/vocational liaison, Shepherd Center: minna_hong@shepherd.org.
• Center for Research on Women with Disabilities: 800/442-7693; www.bcm.edu/crowd.
• North Carolina Office on Disability and Health: www.fpg.unc.edu.
• Springtide Resources: www.springtideresources.org.

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