Domestic violence programs and rape crisis centers are two types of victim services organizations. These systems have a lot of experience working to end violence and help victims of abuse. Yet, barriers exist when it comes to helping people with disabilities who have been abused.
Here are some of the barriers that people with disabilities have reported:
- I didn’t know where to turn for help.
- They told me I needed mental health treatment before they could help me.
- I wasn’t admitted to shelter because the shelter policy required that I be in immediate “physical danger.” My abuser withholding my medication didn’t qualify.
- I wanted to attend a support group, but it was held on the second floor and they don’t have an elevator.
- I couldn’t understand all of the paperwork they gave me.
- Their shelter wasn’t accessible, so they said I’d have to go to a nursing home.
- They couldn’t afford a sign language interpreter, so we just wrote back and forth. It was hard to understand and absorb everything.
- They wouldn’t let me participate in their confidential programs because I needed to bring a personal care attendant with me.
- They made all the decisions for me.
Why Barriers Exist
There are a number of factors that contribute to the barriers survivors with disabilities face when trying to get help from domestic violence programs and rape crisis centers. Here are the most common:
Providers aren’t aware of the problem.
Despite high rates of domestic and sexual violence among people with disabilities, people with disabilities and their experiences with abuse are often invisible to victim service providers. Limited research exists on the problem and the research that does exist isn’t widely known. In addition, providers don’t routinely receive specialized training on people with disabilities or their unique experiences with abuse and subsequent service needs.
Services are inaccessible.
Although some domestic violence and sexual assault programs have worked on enhancing their accessibility, many remain inaccessible, as they weren’t designed with people with disabilities in mind. For example:
- The gateway to many programs remains phone-based crisis lines, which prevent some people – especially those with speech disabilities and Deaf and hard of hearing people – from making a connection with these programs.
- Physical spaces – buildings, meeting rooms, shelters, etc. – also prevent some people from getting in the door, especially those who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices.
- Some policies and practices – such as those that prohibit guests, including personal care attendants, from coming into emergency shelters – unintentionally exclude some victims with disabilities or prevent them from benefiting from the full array of services the program provides.
- Attitudes that some staff hold and the actions that follow make people with disabilities think they are unwelcome or that the services offered aren’t appropriate for them or won’t address their unique needs.
When it comes to removing access barriers or creating accessible services, victim services organizations lack an understanding of what to do, how to do it, and the funds to support it.
Services aren’t tailored to account for the unique needs and realities of people with disabilities.
Without an awareness of the problem and the needs of this community, victim service providers can’t tailor their services to meet the unique needs of people with disabilities or identify this community as underserved, which can spur reform efforts.
- Outreach: Educational curriculum and outreach brochures rarely mention people with disabilities or incorporate the unique types of abuse they face, such as withholding medication or hurting a service animal. Outreach is rarely conducted where people with disabilities congregate such as special education classrooms, disability-specific community events, or disability organizations and community groups.
- Intake: Most programs don’t routinely ask the people they serve if they need any accommodations to fully participate in services. Without this information, programs can’t make modifications necessary to effectively engage and serve each and every victim seeking their help.
- Individual Advocacy: Domestic violence and sexual assault systems understand how to provide advocacy, support, and safety planning, but they need to have a commitment to and understanding of people with disabilities to be able to apply these practices to their work with survivors with disabilities. Without these elements, advocates and counselors struggle to account for the unique realities of survivors with disabilities and to meet their needs.
- Systems Advocacy: Programs play an important role in closing gaps and addressing troubling trends in the responses of key systems—civil, criminal, and medical—related to survivors. Without an awareness of the problem and expertise in disabilities, they struggle to advocate with systems to eliminate barriers specific to survivors with disabilities.
Partnerships with experts in disability are rare.
Most domestic violence programs and rape crisis centers lack connections – informal or formal – with disability organizations and groups in their area. Without this assistance, they have no one to turn to when they have questions or need support when serving a survivor with a disability.