Traditional violence prevention and response services don’t do disability well. If you’re white, non disabled and living in a metropolitan area, you have a reasonable chance of accessing vital frontline services. But if you don’t fit that profile, you’re likely to be left – sometimes literally – out in the cold.
Disabled people who are experiencing violence and abuse often hear ‘we’re not funded to do that’.
We hear it from the disability service providers, whose core business is to care and support, not send victims or survivors of violence on endless referral roundabouts or to inaccessible dead ends.
We hear it from the underfunded refuges and domestic and violence services, who deal with an endless queue of non disabled women and don’t believe that disabled people are their business.
It’s long been a barrier to disabled people, especially those who are living in institutional settings and those whose perpetrators might not fit the narrative around ‘intimate partners’ or male perpetrators. We don’t fit the mould, and so we’re excluded.
But now that tired old catch cry is increasingly less relevant. With the advent of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, disabled people can access their own supports. Your refuge might be inaccessible to wheelchair users, but disabled women can now access external care and support if they are being abused by a caregiver. For the first time, there are real possibilities for disabled women (and men) escaping violence. So – where are the gaps?
There are many.
Like Aboriginal people, sex workers and trans women, we don’t necessarily fit into a neat little box labeled ‘gendered, intimate partner violence’. We’re different. The domestic violence sector recognised this years ago after much lobbying by indigenous groups, and changed their language to include family violence. Still, family violence is not well understood when it is placed within a disability context. Nor is the idea that ‘domestic violence’ may occur within a variety of settings for disabled people, including those who live in institutions and group homes.
To understand the types of violence we experience, you need to look at the experiences of disabled people themselves.
Take Kyla Puhle, for example. She was killed by her parents, who slowly starved her to death whilst they attended the school that they both worked at. Kyla had been withdrawn from her day program prior to her death, and the family had many hours of respite available to them. Kyla was deprived of food and hydration, left at home in a beanbag. Her father shot himself upon being arrested, and her mother walked free on a suspended sentence.
There was Peta Doig, whose home was Graylands Hospital, a psychiatric hospital where she’d been institutionalised for decades before her death in 2013. The Coroner, who chronicled her death, said that she was ‘vulnerable to sexual exploitation by other patients’ – she’d been assaulted so many times during her 58 years that she could no longer bear anyone touching her. Not even to examine her – she died in agony, banging her head repeatedly, until her heart stopped.
And then there are the boys, usually autistic or intellectually disabled, who upset the gendered and intimate partner violence narrative completely.
They are murdered in droves by family members – sixteen year old Peter Eitzen and ten year old Jason Dawes were stabbed and suffocated by their parents, Mark* and Thomas* were bashed to death by their stepfathers.
Eleven year old Matthew* froze to death in a garden shed, bound to the chair where he slept most nights by packing tape and ratchet straps. His stepfather rubbed his face into his faeces before putting him in a cold shower and leaving him in the shed in freezing weather – his mother listened to his death on a baby monitor from her warm bed.
There are literally hundreds of accounts of violence and abuse against disabled people, many painstakingly collected by a Senate Committee who handed down an ‘urgent’ report into disability violence late last year.
The report, which laid out a series of recommendations including the need for a Royal Commission, has been steadfastedly ignored by the Liberal government for over ten months – the same government who authorised a Royal Commission into the abhorrent practices of Don Dale within a scant twelve hours.
Without a public outcry, it seems, there’s no need for action.
For all of the people listed above and thousands more, there was and is no clear pathway to safety.
'We’re not funded to do that'. Our language isn’t even the same. The domestic and family violence sector speaks of domestic and family violence and prevention and response whilst the disability sector talks about safeguarding and violence, neglect and abuse.
Disclosure means something different when the person being abused doesn’t use spoken language, and disability sector workers aren’t trained to understand signs of trauma. In the courtroom where Peter Kasatchkow admitted raping five disabled women in his taxi, the court heard evidence that the sexually assaulted women were medicated for ‘their behaviour’.
The DFV sector doesn’t understand disability and the disability sector doesn’t understand responses to and prevention of violence. Even the National Plan for the Prevention of Violence Against Women and their Children is flawed – children are regarded as appendages to beaten women, not individuals who are abused, tortured, forcibly sterilised and murdered in their own right. The Plan would do nothing to protect Peter, Thomas, Mark, Matthew, Jason* or thousands of other disabled boys and girls.
So where to from here? Well, the National Disability Insurance Scheme provides new opportunities for disabled people who are experiencing violence.
Those tired old excuses for dereliction of duty will no longer hold up – women are women, no matter where they live, regardless of whether their perpetrators are paid to ‘care’ for them.
We’re just as raped, just as murdered, just as abused as non disabled women – yet our existence is erased, despite being more at risk of violence and abuse than any other minority group.
It’s about time we came together and listened to each other. Disabled people have been segregated and isolated for so long that it’s become natural for policy areas to work in silos.
It’s time to smash paradigms designed around non disabled white women, shift ableist attitudes and make sure we’re accommodated on the same playing field as our non disabled peers.
We're your business. Whether you like it or not.
*Not his real name. Courts in NSW prevent publication of the names of disabled children who are victims of violence