Invisible No More: Creating Inclusive Services Without Re-inventing the Ramp

Invisible No More

Creating Inclusive Services Without Re-inventing the Ramp

Springtide Resources

215 Spadina Ave. Suite 220

Toronto, ON, M5T 2C7


Tel: 416 968 3422

Fax: 416 968 2026





Twitter: @springtide_vaw

Facebook: Springtide Resources


Published in 2015, Toronto, Canada.

This needs assessment was funded by the United Way of Toronto




1. Overview (2)

2. What is the need? (3)

3. Purpose and methods (4)

4. Key findings (5)

4a. Peer support programs: a model, not the solution (6)

4b. Ableism as exclusion (6)

4c. Contrasting voices(7)

4d. Limitations of the AODA Legislation (10)

5. Inclusive service strategies for addressing gaps(10)

6. Key recommendations (12)

7. Resources and links(13)


Invisible No More

Creating Inclusive Services Without Re-inventing the Ramp



“Persons with disabilities are still often ‘invisible’ in society, either 

segregated or simply ignored as passive objects of charity.” 

(UN Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner, 2006) 


While disabled people are often invisible in our society, so too are the barriers they face. Although physical barriers are viewed as the main obstacle, we must acknowledge that systemic ableism strongly impacts the freedom and equity of people with disabilities (PWD) and Deaf people.


Since 1998, Springtide Resources’ Women With Disabilities and Deaf Women’s (WWD/WD) program has supported accessibility in Ontario’s Violence Against Women (VAW) sector. Our ongoing work and current research reveals that ableism remains persistent and acts as the main, invisible barrier to inclusive VAW services. 


Disability is both visible and invisible, and the range of disability is diverse, including mobility, sensory, psychiatric, cognitive and chronic conditions. Deaf culture and language are recognized as distinct from disability. 


Ableism is a form of discrimination which shapes societal attitudes toward people with disabilities. It can be intentional or unintentional. Ableism shapes public and social programs that often exclude disabled people. For example, intentional ableism is where someone expresses to a person that is using conventional public transit that they should only travel in non-peak hours. Unintentional ableism is designing a public transit system that leaves out people with disabilities. 




Action comes from recognizing where we fall short and proposing a 

plan as to how we can better work together. We need to provide safe 

spaces for women of all abilities, and this can only happen through a 

sector-wide response. 



“Up to 83% of women with developmental disabilities have experienced sexual assault.”

(Smith & Harrell, 2011)


60% of women with a disability experience some form of violence.”

(Canadian Women’s Foundation, 2011)


It is well-documented that women with disabilities and Deaf women

face a high risk of violence. The rates have remained steep for decades, and reveal different levels and types of abuse as identified in Canadian and International research.


“Women with disabilities, compared to people without disabilities, are more likely to experience more severe victimization, experience it for a longer duration, be survivors of multiple episodes of abuse, and be

survivors of a larger number of perpetrators.”

(Smith & Harrell, 2011)



There are also unique risk factors, including: 

widespread ableism 

physical barriers 

lack of decision making power 

lack of accessible social services 

reliance on caregivers 

social isolation 




Ideally, social services should be designed to fit client needs. To accommodate women with disabilities and Deaf women, organizations could: 


Book qualified ASL interpreters or personal support workers 

Create plain language documents and captioned/ASL videos 

Advocate for safe, affordable, and accessible housing and transportation 

Outreach and engage with WWD/DW communities 

Facilitate emergency and accessible transportation to support services 

Better understand dynamics of abuse as experienced by disabled and Deaf women 


Instead, when women with disabilities seek assistance from the Violence Against Women sector, the multiple barriers they face in wider society also exist there. 


“In most counseling situations, there’s no disability lens—you spend 

so much time educating your counselor before time is up and they 

don’t get a chance to help you…Counselors should better understand 

disability culture, and [the impact and dynamic of] disability within the 

relationship, in order to have an idea on how to approach the situation.” 

Peer Program Coordinator 




In 2013-2014, Springtide Resourcesconducted a needs assessment tounderstand why barriers persist withinthe VAW sector, despite the high riskof violence facing disabled women. An independent contractor carried outthe research, and many diverse voiceswere represented, including Springtidestaff and program participants, Managersand Executive Directors in the VAWsector and key informants knowledgeablein both Disability and VAW sectors.




There were five main stages to the research:

Literature Review 


Interviews with 4 past and present WWD/DW Program staff 


A3hour focus group with 5 disabled and 2 Deaf Springtide program volunteers 


Over 20 hours of interviews with 13 key informants: Disability Service sector workers knowledgeable about VAW, and VAW workers who have worked with Springtide’s WWD/DW program. 


Two online anonymous surveys in the VAW sector: one for Executive Directors of Toronto shelters and another one for Ontario-wide VAW managers and workers. For both surveys combined there was a total of 42 participants. 



This summary document highlights the key findings and recommendations of the needs assessment. We view it as the beginning of a dynamic conversation, and hope it will inspire action for more inclusive VAW services. 


The full report is available at 



Across the interviews, focus group, and surveys, themes emerged in these main areas of concern: 


Peer Support programs offer valuable models of engagement and support for disabled and Deaf women, but are not a substitute for accessible VAW services. 

Ableism, as a form of exclusion, is pervasive and is often unconscious bias. 

There are contrasting perspectives on how accessibility can be achieved in the sector. 

Limitations of AODA legislation for the VAW sector. 

4a. Peer support programs: A model, not the solution


Historically, disabled women’s stories have not been their own to tell. Their personal experiences with violence are not always believed, relationships with caregivers can complicate experiences of abuse, and there is an overall lack of social support. 


Yet women with disabilities and Deaf women are experts of their own lives, with a keen sense of how their needs can be met. 


Springtide’s Building Bridges Across Barriers (BBAB) is a group working across differences. Women self-identify as having disabilities, being Deaf and/or coming from ethno-racialized communities. Participating in the program builds a heightened sense of community and stronger advocacy skills. 


As one participant notes: 


“By standing up for myself, I stand up for other women.” 


In validating personal experience and offering support, peer programs 

such as BBAB provide an essential model of engagement. However, these programs emerged because of service gaps, and are not a substitute for accessible VAW services. As another peer participant points out: 


“We have a lot of work to do (for service providers) to change their attitude and to accept us as we are; just doing that would be very supportive.” 


4b. Ableism as exclusion


The call for attitudinal change and acceptance points to how often ableism goes unrecognized. Ableism as a systemic form of oppression is not well understood in society, yet Key Informants with backgrounds in both VAW and disability services consistently indicated it was the main barrier to access. Ableism manifests: shelter space: 


“What many folks take for granted—an accessible emergency shelter bed with portable attendant care—took high-level and groundbreaking planning to achieve. This speaks to the system being shaped for an able-bodied reality.” 

(Operations Manager for PWD Housing) 


...while accessing services: 


“When you have a woman facing violence, the issue is not only, 

‘Should I stay or go’, but is at the same moment: ‘Where am I going 

to go?’ ‘Is it accessible?’ ‘How will I get there?’ ‘What about my 

service dog?’ ‘When I get there, will I have the supports I need?’ 

‘What about my children?’ This is where the complications of 

disability impact on VAW service.” 

(PWD Community Development Worker) 


...and in organizational culture: 


“The biggest barrier for women with disability is attitudinal—as long 

as myths and stereotypes exist, WWD will be more susceptible to 

violence and it will be difficult to support WWD facing violence.” 

(WWD Peer Counselor) 


4c. Contrasting voices


Despite these recurring examples of ableism in the sector, surveys with VAW leaders showed varying levels of understanding. Many do not identify ableism in agency practice and policy as an issue of concern. Instead, funding restrictions, limited resources, and competing priorities were viewed as the main obstacles to accessibility. 


“If we can overcome the funding obstacles, YES we will be thrilled to achieve full accessibility to our offices.”

(VAW representative)


“There is fear of the unknown—meaning, ‘As a shelter, we are scrounging by, we find it hard to be open to Women with Disability because wehave not been accessible and can’t do it.”

(VAW staff trainer) 


This is in marked contrast to the Key Informants, who consider ableism to be the primary stumbling block for organizational change. 


“We need to use an anti-oppression model to identify and name ableism when we say: ‘We don’t know how to serve disabled women.” 

(Shelter Manager) 


The table below further illustrates these differing viewpoints. It’s important to note that divergence is where future learning and partnership can take place. 




VAW Sector Representatives 

Key Informants 




Goal is Accessibility 

Goal is Inclusion 




AODA compliance is sufficient and promotes accessibility





AODA compliance is the bare minimum for access; we need VAW services to broaden its reach to be inclusive of Deaf and disabled women who face violence and abuse



Main barrier to accessibility is the built environment 


Main barrier to accessibility is attitudinal (ableism) 




Accessibility is costly 

(built environment) 




Accessibility does not have to be expensive –small and inexpensive changes to policy and practice can have big impacts




(continued) VAW Sector Representatives 


Change comes through policy and procedures 




(continued) Key Informants 



Change comes through engagement with women with disabilities and Deaf Women to help determine changes in policy and procedure 



Overwhelmed by financial pressures, various legislative requirements 

Overwhelmed by ableism and lack of accessible social services 





Often does not recognize forms of ableism within own systems


Unintentional ableism which shape existing systems needs to be acknowledged




VAW services exist for all women. Particular accessibility is provided on an ad hoc basis





VAW and trauma counselling are not readily available for disabled and Deaf Women (due to lack of trained counselors, lack of disabled and Deaf staff, lack of physical access, lack of systemic accommodation)





Wants more information on disability, more resources to help with accommodation


Needs to know that VAW resources are in place for disabled and Deaf Women




Training and technical supports are needed to work with disabled and Deaf Women


Relearning is needed so that VAW staff can anticipate accommodations and provide disability-inclusive counseling




4d. Limitations of the AODA Legislation


Many responses from Ontario’s VAW sector agencies report compliance with AODA legislation. However, the legislation does not mean that accessibility or inclusion are being met. 


The legislation relies on organizations to largely self-assess 

accessibility requirements. Accessibility and Reporting requirements 

are minimal and not VAW-specific. 


It is not mandatory to connect AODA compliance to robust 

organizational change, which includes a comprehensive framework for Disability Inclusion Policy and Practice (see section 5.3) 


AODA does not require organizations to engage with disabled 

and Deaf women on identifying or planning for reducing and 

eliminating barriers which affect them. 


Lastly, the legislation does not provide tools to discuss the history and stigma around disability in order to address individual, organizational and systemic forms of ableism. 



5.1Many VAW leaders cited increased demands on programs with no increase in program budgets; as a result, accessibility is not prioritized. 

What is needed: 

Start with an Accessibility Review to determine gaps and identify needs. 

Accessibility does not have to be expensive; implementing small changes can have a big impact. 

Acknowledge that unconscious ableist bias has shaped existing systems. 

Plan for a process of organizational change. 

5.2 There are some case-by-case referral relationships between disability organizations and VAW services, but little integration for learning or partnerships. Many in the VAW sector have had little engagement with disabled and Deaf women to explore their nuanced needs and requirements for support. 


What is needed: 

Build local networks and outreach with women with disabilities and Deaf women and Disability Sector organizations. 

Use existing peer support models and best practices. 


5.3There are requests for short-term or “Disability 101” training for newstaff, and crisis intervention support as needed, rather than creating a cohesive organizational change strategy. Many VAW organizations do not have specific policies, procedures, standing committees or inclusion statements on disability. 


What is needed: 

A Comprehensive Framework for Disability Inclusion Policies and Practice for the VAW sector. This framework would use the AODA legislation as a baseline, and be developed to address the specific needs and risk factors of disabled and Deaf Women. The development of this framework for policy and practice should be done incollaboration with disabled and Deaf women and could include: 

A guiding anti-ableist philosophy. 

An administrative and systemic response to identified gaps and needs. 

An organizational change model that includes: staff training, clear objectives and goal setting, a designated time frame, 

and an adequate budget for costs of accommodation. 


“If the staff is [non-disabled] in an organization that says they are accessible, then there must be some kind of audit to assess that standard of accessibility, from the point of view of disability.” 

(Shelter Manager) 




The following key recommendations provide a starting point for a 

comprehensive framework and disability inclusion planning for the 

VAW sector. 

6.1 Focus VAW Leadership on Challenges of Ableism 

Disability inclusion needs to be explored on a deeper level and in 

collaboration with organizations that work from an Anti-Racist/ 

Anti-Oppressive perspective. A select group of leaders could 

make a case to VAW service networks to prioritize the challenge 

of ableism and create a sector-wide response, grounded in the 

lived experiences of disabled and Deaf women. 


6.2 Promote a sector-wide shift toward Disability Inclusion 

Service Excellence: The sector can strategize to meet and exceed 

the requirements of the AODA legislation and ensure excellent 

service suitable for all women across Ontario. A sector-wide shift 

would provide consistent policy and practices, and support for 

barrier-removal and full inclusion. 


Unified Front: The leadership can promote a systemic VAW 

disability planning process to funders, setting the stage for a sector-

wide approach. Springtide Resources’ WWD/DW program has the 

institutional knowledge and trust of VAW and disability communities 

to support this planning and explore sustainable funding. 


6.3 Develop collaboration between VAW and Disability sectors 

Both sectors have expertise that needs to be shared, and must work 

together in meaningful ways. We can learn from successful models 

in the United States, which have addressed a similar Disability/VAW 

service gap. 


6.4 Meaningful engagement with disabled and Deaf women 

Meaningful engagement acknowledges that decision-makers within 

organizations are often not representative of the people they serve. 

There is a tremendous amount of energy to be tapped from disabled 

and Deaf women. Springtide Resources has developed disability peer 

programs, training resources, service models and program planning 

which can be adapted by VAW organizations to enhance engagement. 


6.5 Addressing Budget Concerns on Costs for Accommodation 

Designate a separate budget line for access needs accommodations, inclusive strategies) which are separate from program costs. Projects 

and programs are then not viewed as compromised, and ensures that 

Deaf or disabled women can participate. 


“By building capacity and providing support to disabled and Deaf women to convene in local communities, you can unlock the potential for communities to develop and strategize.” 

(VAW and Disability researcher) 




Springtide Resources: Springtide Resources Women with Disability and Deaf Women’s Program has in-person and on-line resources for VAW organizations:



To arrange for a Springtide Resources Accessibility Review of your 

organization, or to discuss your staff training requirements, please 

contact the Women with Disabilities and Deaf Women’s Program Manager at Springtide Resources: 



Phone: (416)-968-3422


For more information please access the full report at:


Published in 2015, Toronto, Canada.

This needs assessment was funded by the United Way of Toronto





Research and report: Margaret Hageman 

Advisory: Fran Odette, Marsha Sfeir, Lynda Roy 

Editing: Melissa Brenner 

Report Design: Azza Abbaro –


Further Resources and Publications:


Forging New Collaborations: A Guide for Rape Crisis, Domestic Violence and Disability Organizations, by Smith, N., & Harrell, S. (2011) VERA Institute of Justice. New York: VERA



Report on Abuse of People with Disabilities: Victims and Their Families Speak Out by Baladerian, N., Coleman, T., Stream, J., (2013):



Research and Advocacy Digest, 5 (3), (2003)



Canadian Women’s Foundation. Violence Against Women in Canada: 

Who is most at-risk?



DisAbled Women’s Network Canada. Communicare #1:


Working with Women with Disabilities by Lucy Costa-Nyman