“Understanding disability and ableism is the work of every revolutionary, activist and organizer—of every human being. Disability is one of the most organic and human experiences on the planet. We are all aging; we are all living in polluted and toxic conditions and the level of violence currently in the world should be enough for all of us to care more about disability and ableism.”
-Mia Mingus, Leaving Evidence (2017)
In Canada, people with disabilities (both physical and intellectual), especially those who are women, girls and gender-diverse people, experience violence at rates that are higher than those without disabilities. Despite this, studies and statistical data on Gender-Based Violence (GBV) against people with disabilities remains scarce, and often lacking disaggregation by race, gender, sexuality, type of disability and other important intersections of identity.
Although specific data regarding the prevalence of GBV against people with disabilities is unclear, the consensus among activists, community members, and what research does exist demonstrates that people with disabilities experience disproportionate levels of violence throughout their lifetime.
At BWSS we know that safety changes everything. As a part of our participation in National AccessAbility Week (NAAW), we invite you to join us in considering how disability and ableism intersect with GBV, and how we can learn from and be in solidarity with disabled survivors’ wisdom and dreams of a world without violence.
Gender-Based Violence Against Women, Girls and Gender-Diverse People with Disabilities
Research has found that women with disabilities are 3 times more likely to experience violent victimization than women without disabilities, and are 4 times more likely to have experienced sexual assault than women without disabilities. Another study indicates that 60% of Canadian women with disabilities are likely to experience some form of violence over the course of their adult lives.
Women, girls, and gender diverse people with disabilities experience the same forms of GBV as individuals without disabilities, and also face unique forms of violence which are specific to and mediated by ableism. DAWN-RAFH Canada reports that, “Women with disabilities experience a wider range of emotional, physical and sexual abuse: by personal attendants and by health care providers, as well as higher rates of emotional abuse both by strangers and other family members. “Disability specific violence” can include, but is not limited to:
- Being denied or withheld wheelchairs, canes, respirators, and/or other assistive devices, or being threatened with their removal;
- Being denied or withheld support for personal hygiene activities or eating, or being threatened with their removal;
- Being withheld interpretive supports with service providers to undermine a person and their decision-making ability;
- Being threatened with institutionalization;
- Devaluation of skills and strengths.
Intersectionality and Gender-Based Violence
People with disabilities who identify with more than one marginalized group are at an even higher risk of experiencing GBV. As Sins Invalid write “…able-bodied supremacy has been formed in relation to intersecting systems of domination and exploitation. The histories of white supremacy and ableism are inextricably entwined, both forged in the crucible of colonial conquest and capitalist domination. We cannot comprehend ableism without grasping its interrelations with heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism and capitalism, each system co-creating an ideal bodymind built upon the exclusion and elimination of a subjugated “other” from whom profits and status are extracted.” Throughout Canadian history, the confluence of ableism, colonialism, and racism has justified legislation that sought to forcibly assimilate Indigenous peoples into Canadian society, criminalize, institutionalize and sterilize populations deemed “unfit”, and restrict the immigration/entry of groups considered “undesirable” (i.e. racialized, poor, disabled).
Ableism at its intersection with colonialism, racism, immigration, and cis-heteropatriarchy continues to marginalize people who are queer, trans, disabled, Indigenous, racialized, and and/or immigrants. For instance, rates of disability for Indigenous and Black women are above 30 percent. And violence among women with a disability who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual is over 2 times higher than among women with a disability who identified as heterosexual.
The Canadian Women’s Foundation, Women’s Shelters Canada, Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, Anita Olsen Harper (National Aboriginal Circle Against Family Violence) and Jihan Abbas (DAWN-RAFH Canada) jointly contend that, “The process of racialization is deeply intertwined with the process of ableism and together, they perform the function of marginalization by pathologizing those bodies that are not seen to be in service to the colonial project — a project that privileges white, heterosexual, cisgender, masculine, able bodied subjects.”
Barriers to GBV Services for Survivors with Disabilities
“We know that we are powerful not despite the complexities of our bodies but because of them. We understand that all bodies are caught in these bindings of ability, race, gender, sexuality, class, nation-state and imperialism and that we cannot separate them. These are the positions from where we struggle. We are in a global system that is incompatible with life.”
- Sins Invalid, (2016)
There are various barriers that impede or prevent people with disabilities from reporting or disclosing GBV and accessing support services. These barriers can include but are not limited to; difficulty in making contact with shelters or other intervention services, lack of access to information about available services, difficulties in accessing transportation, fear of losing their financial security, necessary caregiving supports, their housing or their welfare benefits and fear of being institutionalized.
Research presented by DAWN-RAFH Canada has also shown that when an incident of GBV is reported, persons with disabilities are more likely than persons without disabilities to say they were very dissatisfied with the police response (39% compared to 21%). Other studies indicate that only 1 out of 10 survivors with disabilities get the support they need at a shelter or transition house, with the most cited reason being lack of accessibility. To this end, Elliott Fukui has made the contention that “Disabled folks have never been able to rely on the systems that are in place or those systems have been incredibly harmful to us.”
Disability Justice and Access as Revolutionary Love? Lessons for the Gender-Based Violence Sector
Principles of Disability Justice can better inform support for all survivors of GBV. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and Elliott Fukui propose “In response to heightened levels of abuse and violence experienced by people with disabilities, disability justice organizers have developed tremendous knowledge and creative approaches to care, safety, and preventing and stopping violence without relying on the state.”
Specifically, Disability Justice is “a movement building framework was invented in 2005 by Patty Berne, Leroy Moore, Mia Mingus, Eli Clare and Sebastien Margaret, Black, Asian, poor white, queer and trans disabled activists. It is an intersectional framework that centers the issues and demands of disabled Black and brown/queer and trans people and looks at how ableism intersects with racism, capitalism, and more.” Patricia Berne, Aurora Levins Morales, David Langstaff, and Sins Invalid articulate 10 key principles within the framework of Disability, each “offering new opportunities for movement builders” including those of us situated within the GBV sector.
For instance, Courage to Act, an initiative preventing GBV on Canadian campuses proposes that we might use principles of ‘Interdependence’ and ‘Collective Access’ to inform better consent education. According to Dr. Jessica Wright, re-rooting consent education in principles of “Interdependence” might look like “including discussion of how trauma survivors who grew up being abused by parental figures may really struggle to understand and express their needs. It might include acknowledgment that the survivors’ partner needs to check in with them frequently and allow them time to reflect on how they’re feeling.”
Inviting us to “see the liberation of all living systems and the land as integral to the liberation of our own communities,” a principle of “Interdependence” also lends itself to the development of consent education practices which understand the land and body as intimately connected. As the Women’s Earth Alliance and Native Youth Sexual Health Network jointly write, “In order to increase the recognition of free, prior and informed consent over Indigenous territories, we need to simultaneously build up the ways that consent is supported around people’s bodies.” To this end, scholars such as Seán Kinsella propose that we “make our consent education practises more inclusive of considerations around intergenerational trauma and displacement, environmental degradation and decolonial practice using a strong basis in interconnection and relationality.”
As Mia Mingus writes “Interdependency is both “you and I” and “we.” It is solidarity, in the best sense of the word.”
Resources for Further Reading & Action
Disability Justice offers us new ways of building community, offering support, and building a future where all survivors are safe.
This National AccessAbility Week and beyond we invite you to join BWSS in thinking about access, challenging ableism and other structures of oppression impacting survivors with disabilities. There are many excellent resources to explore, below are just a few that we recommend.
GBV & Disability
Gender Equity Learning & Knowledge Exchange Resources
- Right to be Safe: Creating Inclusive Services for Women with Disabilities Experiencing Violence
- Inclusion in Practice: Helping People with Intellectual Disabilities Experiencing Gender-Based Violence
- Intersecting Oppressions Shape Experiences of IPV Faced by Women with Disabilities
VAW Learning Network
- 10 Principles of Disability Justice
- What Is Disability Justice?
- Sins Invalid: An Unshamed Claim to Beauty (English Captions, Visual Descriptions)
Even More Resources
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