International Day of Persons with Disabilities: More must be done to support disabled survivors

By Saliha Rashid, Women’s Aid’s Survivor Ambassador

8 years ago, I left behind an emotionally abusive home environment, where everything in my life was under constant control and monitoring—from the time I went to bed, the books that I read, the phone calls I made. An environment where I was constantly told that, as I am blind and a woman, I could not have high aspirations or be independent. Consequently, I was made to feel worthless. Whilst living under such tyranny, school, and later university, was my only reprieve from the abuse. The Covid-19 pandemic and consequent lockdowns have enabled me to reflect upon how lucky I am to have escaped, as many women and girls continue to suffer at the hands of their abusers, in a perpetual state of fear, leaving them isolated and afraid to seek help.

It took me three attempts to leave the abuse—the first time I tried to leave, I was 16 years old. I went to a women’s refuge, which was in another town, which was unfamiliar to me.  I attempted to leave 2 years later, and returned, due to lack of support available. On both occasions, I found there was a lack of awareness amongst professionals, around issues related to both disability and domestic abuse. I left for the final time in 2012. Since leaving, I have achieved three university degrees and am blessed to have been able to build a life for my self—a life where, I can make basic choices, without fear.

Research suggests that disabled women are twice as likely to experience domestic abuse, including gender-based violence, compared to their non-disabled counterparts (ONS). Shockingly, the abuse is often perpetrated by those whom they rely upon for care and support. When they do attempt to seek help, they are often faced with inaccessible service provision, including a lack of information in accessible formats, and inaccessible refuge provision.

A Perfect Storm, published by Women’s Aid, found that abusers had started using lockdown restrictions or the Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences, as part of abuse. As opportunities to leave the home and seek help are limited, it is imperative that health and social care professionals are vigilant and aware of the additional barriers faced by disabled women trying to flee abuse. Talking about domestic abuse is still approached with reluctance and fear by many, and is further exacerbated when a woman has a disability. It is important to remember that a healthcare appointment may be the only opportunity a woman has to seek help. Therefore, that one conversation may save a woman’s life.

On this International Day of People with disabilities, I call upon organisations to ensure that their services are accessible to all women, including disabled women.

This includes producing information in accessible formats, and ensuring accessible refuge provision. I also wholeheartedly support the recommendation by Stay Safe East for the repeal of the carers defence clause in the Serious Crime and Domestic Violence Act (2015). For abuse of any form is indefensible. As the Domestic Abuse Bill makes its way through Parliament, I call upon the government to ensure that no woman is left behind.

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