Emotional Abuse of Women with Disabilities

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by Fran Odette and Enza Ronaldi

This article is a general overview of emotional abuse and women with disabilities and is not meant to be a comprehensive review.

In keeping with the Independent Living Philosophy every woman defines her own abuse.  Women with disabilities deal with barriers, such as physical accessibility to services, child-care, employment, and inadequate support services. Some are dependent on their partner's for personal support, a circumstance abusers can use to reinforce their control. 

A woman may feel that she has no other options even if it means being emotionally abused. In addition, rehabilitation is often the primary focus of those intervening, so that all problems are seen as stemming from the disability, and what is occurring in the relationship is neglected.

This promotes the idea that it is not possible for someone with a disability to have a positive and equal relationship, and reinforces a woman's feelings of inadequacy and self-blame as she alone becomes the reason for the problems in the relationship.

Some of society's negative images and myths of women with disabilities increase the risk of being further emotionally abused:

1. A woman with a disability is not able to give or participate equally in an intimate relationship.  Often the disability gets used as the basis for the inequity in the relationship.

2. A woman with a disability is child-like and dependent.  The abusive partner perpetuates this by encouraging others to speak to him rather than her.  He may also never allow her personal time with anyone, including professionals such as physicians. His control tactics may be disguised as caring support.

3. A woman with a disability is considered to be a burden to her partner and family - always needing/taking. "My wife is a quad and now she can't do anything".

4. A woman with a disability is not considered a capable parent because of her need for support with child rearing.

5. A woman with a disability is asexual and not able to have a sexual relationship that is satisfying to her partner:  "no man would be sexually satisfied by you" or  "I need to find myself a real woman".

6. Society sees the partner as a martyr or hero for being in a relationship with a woman who has a disability.   "People wonder why I married you".

7. In some situations, women are blamed for their illness or disability, or may be told they are making it up or doing it for attention.

How can you help a woman with a disability?

Service providers need to work closely with a woman to explore her options and include her in all facets of decision making, so she feels that her actions can make a difference for her and her children. She may lack self-confidence if her partner has led her to believe that she is not competent or capable of living without him.

It is critical to consider the impact of disability as it pertains to limiting a woman's choices.  In some situations the process may be slower for a woman with a disability who is considering leaving her abusive partner as accessing housing, attendant care, and interpreters may take time.

In other cases, the supports a woman needs may simply not be available, such as the provision of Nurturing Support for women who have children and are in need of assistance with their care.

Fran Odette is a disabled feminist, and a trainer/educator on issues impacting women with disabilities for a number of years. She has worked closely with women's services and disability related organizations on issues such as violence against women with disabilities, access to services, sexuality and body image.

Enza Ronaldi is a consumer, a mother of two, and a trainer involved in promoting inclusion among people with disabilities in our community. She currently works as a Program Consultant with the Equal Opportunity in Disability Partnerships Unit in the Ministry of Citizenship, Culture and Recreation.