Approximately 47 percent of adults with disabilities have experienced violence, but the lack of accessible and inclusive services makes it extremely difficult for women with disabilities to escape violence.
Such was the case with the Tasmanian woman Fiona Hamilton, an Aboriginal woman living with autism.
Ms. Hamilton is a domestic violence survivor. When she tried to escape, she was unable to access any services.
Often times, due to cognitive overload, she could not understand what was being said.
“When you have neurodivergence, any type of crisis can put you in an elevated state and make it really difficult and overwhelming just to understand what people are telling you,” she said.
“Often times I just distanced myself from the trauma I was experiencing.
“I was constantly being asked to keep telling my story to different service providers and that really made my condition worse, which made it really difficult to understand what was going on around me.”
Ms. Hamilton began taking a risk management approach and masking her disability so that she would not be discriminated against.
“I knew very early on, when I entered a service, whether it would be risky to recognize a disability,” she said.
“I was often chastised by the services for not doing things right. I was presented with brochures by the services. But at the time, I couldn’t even read them because I was so upset about my disability.”
Ms. Hamilton is now committed to ensuring that domestic violence services receive adequate training to provide adequate support to people with disabilities.
“Accessibility isn’t just about where someone can actually physically access your service. It’s about accessible policies and processes, it’s about asking people what access requirements are required, ”she said.
Ms. Hamilton said she offered alternative communication options such as visual instructions in case meetings and provided a lawyer or supporter to explain what was said.
“There have been many times where I’ve just delineated and probably overlooked important information about my situation and my safety.”
Jen Hargrave says women with disabilities often find it difficult to be believed when reporting assault and violence.
Delivered: Jen Hargrave
Unfortunately, according to Jen Hargrave, a researcher with the Disability Health Unit at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, this problem is a common occurrence among people with disabilities.
Support offers for family and domestic violence:
“Fiona’s story poses a problem we see quite often when women who turn to violence support services may face a lack of understanding or ability to respond to disabilities,” she said.
“A key problem is that when women with disabilities say they have a cognitive impairment or mental health problem and then expose violence, they become discredited and unbelievable,” she said.
“Being heard and believed are some of the biggest problems facing women with disabilities.”
Ms. Hargrave is currently conducting research with a team of women with disabilities to prevent violence against women with disabilities.
This work has reinforced their understanding that women with disabilities are much more likely to experience violence, including stalking and assault.
“A lot has to happen on many levels [of government], from politics to long-term funding that would make change, “she said.
The federal government announced that it would provide 9.3 million US dollars in this year’s budget to prevent violence against women with disabilities.
Heidi La Paglia says it is important to involve women with disabilities in the creation of guidelines and training for domestic violence services.
Delivered: Heidi La Paglia
Senior Policy and Programs Officer for Women with Disabilities in Australia, Heidi La Paglia, said this was a much needed first step.
“It’s a really good start and something we’ve never seen before in a federal budget,” she said.
“So it’s definitely very welcome to tackle the barriers women with disabilities face across the board. It won’t end this violence, but it’s certainly a really good start.”
Ms. La Paglia wants people with disabilities to be galloped and consulted in future discussions on preventing and reducing violence against women.
“In the past, the domestic and family violence sector has excluded women with disabilities, and it doesn’t have to be a symbolic change every now and then,” she said.
“We really need more systemic efforts to make sure our communities are involved.”
Ms. Hamilton believes that this person-centered approach will make services for women with disabilities inclusive and accessible.
“I think there is a lot of education that needs to be done and it has to be done with people with lived experience,” she said.
“Government money needs to be spent on accessibility service audits, not just physical access, but a whole range of resources that can be developed for people with disabilities.”
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