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How to Recognize and Respond to Violence Against Women with Disabilities

Woman with black eye and bruised face

By Julie Williams, PsyD, CRC, ABPP (Member, APA Committee on Women in Psychology)

If you’re a woman with a disability, you’re 40% more likely to be abused by your intimate partner than a woman without a disability according to research done in the past 10 years. Studies show that this abuse occurs at the hands of both intimate partners and/or caregivers and that the patterns and types of abuse for women with disabilities are unique.

For instance, abuse patterns suggest higher rates of abuse among women with more severe disabilities, cognitive disabilities and hearing impairments. Research suggests that the abuse tends to involve multiple perpetrators, to last for longer periods of time and to be inadequately if at all identified by potential responders.

Healthcare providers may be the first individuals to see evidence of this abuse, but often miss opportunities to respond to abusive situations due to lack of awareness.

Responders need to know the unique forms abuse can take for women with disabilities, such as:

  1. Removing and/or destroying a woman’s mobility devices (e.g., wheelchairs, scooters and walkers).

  2. Removing and/or destroying a woman’s assistive devices and/or technology.

  3. Denying a woman access to and/or taking her prescribed medication.

  4. Forcing a woman to take medication against her will.

  5. Forcing a woman to lie in soiled undergarments.

  6. Preventing a woman from access to food.

  7. Inappropriately touching a woman while assisting with bathing and/or dressing.

  8. Denying a woman access to disability-related resources in the community and/or health care appointments.

Systemic barriers also prevent women with disabilities from getting the kind of help they need.

  1. Staff within disability service delivery systems are not trained to address violence while staff in domestic violence service delivery systems are not trained to address disability-related needs.

  2. Shelters for abused women are often inaccessible to women with disabilities who need emergency housing.

  3. Communication barriers hinder access to assistance, for Deaf women in particular.

  4. Societal beliefs that women with disabilities are not sexual, and therefore, cannot be victims of sexual abuse, leaves women with disabilities vulnerable.

  5. Women with disabilities, particularly those with cognitive and / or psychiatric disabilities are often not believed when they report.

Psychologists can move beyond awareness to action by doing the following:

  1. Seek out research and training around abuse of women with disabilities, specifically on the identification of abuse and appropriate interventions.

  2. Reach out and collaborate with multiple agencies (e.g., independent living centers and domestic violence centers) to bridge gaps in services available to women with disabilities who are being abused.

  3. Ask all clients with disabilities about possible abuse and remember to use specific language that reflects the unique types of abuse often experienced by women with disabilities.

  4. Be aware of disability resources available in your area as well as nationally, for example: APA’s Intimate Partner Violence brochure, VERA Institute of Justice , National Domestic Violence Hotline, and

  5. Finally, join the efforts to end the violence against women with disabilities.

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