Episode 96: "What can intimate partner violence look like for disabled people?"Support the show
On today’s episode, we’re answering a question from local teens about what it can look like for disabled people experiencing abuse from romantic partners.
This is Jessica Skultety, Outreach and Prevention Manager at Safe+Sound Somerset. We are Somerset County, New Jersey's lead domestic and sexual violence response organization, providing services at no charge to survivors for over 40 years.
Today's question from local teens is: “Dear Ava, What can intimate partner violence look like for disabled people?”
First, a quick note about language because it’s important. We know there are many ways that people define themselves. Many people use the term “disabled people” while some prefer “people with disabilities.” We choose today to use the phrase “disabled people” to make things shorter for the podcast, and to honor the many people in the disability community who are asking to be described like this. The main thing in all situations is to listen to what a person tells you to call them.
So, the media and American culture might make us think that intimate partner violence and sexual abuse only happen to young, able-bodied people – especially women, transgender, and gender non-conforming folks. It’s true that these are high-violence populations.
But research shows that intimate partner and sexual abuse happens to disabled people of all ages at high rates, too. In fact, the abuser may even use a survivor’s disability as a way to gain more power and control over them, which is the definition of abuse.
We think it’s important to say here that people who have a disability are not “less than” because of their disability. This is a myth that people believe sometimes and is also supported by the media.
Often, disabled people are not represented accurately or even in a positive light, or they are only talked about because of their disability. Disabled people are more than just their disability, yet it also does make up a part of who they are. Also, people are disabled because we have not created spaces that are inclusive of them.
There are many forms of disability, so today we’ll mention some general ways that an abuser may use power and control against their disabled partner – that probably don’t exist for survivors without disabilities. In a relationship, a nondisabled person or the other partner might keep necessary medicine away or destroy or harm objects the other person needs to function every day – like a wheelchair, translation services, or a service dog as an example.
This makes the disabled person more dependent on their partner. The abusive person might argue against what a doctor or professional recommends, and suggest that they are the only ones who love the disabled person and know what’s best for them.
The nondisabled partner or other partner might question the “realness” of the disability which can be dehumanizing and harmful. They also might say that “no one will believe you because of your disability.” Abusers often tell survivors that no one will believe them, but this has an extra part to it. Over time, the survivor may grow to believe their abuser because they’ve been told so many times – that they’re alone and no one will help them if they ask.
In this case, the abusive partner might be abled-bodied in mind and/or body, and can do things that their disabled partner can’t do easily. The abusive partner may use this privilege against them by making all the decisions in the relationship or insisting that they are the ones to manage all the money. This is another example.
Even if one person cannot do some things easily or at all, the abusive partner here is not promoting an equal relationship where both people can make decisions for themselves and the relationship, give or take away consent, and set boundaries.
All of these examples can make it hard for disabled people to get help for the abusive relationship. Service providers, including domestic and sexual violence advocates, may have biases about disabled people that change the ways they serve them. For example, this can look like someone not believing the survivor completely.
Here’s another example: if a survivor is trying to get a restraining order in court, it might be more difficult for them, or they might be treated like more of an inconvenience than a person (if they need translation services, equipment to communicate, or physical needs like a wheelchair or service dog). While the United States has laws that makes discrimination illegal, that doesn’t mean disabled people are always served with dignity and respect.
We also have to point out that some survivors of abuse become temporarily or permanently disabled because of abuse from a partner. These disabilities could be visible (like broken bones) or more invisible (like problems with cognition or memory after head trauma, or PTSD that affects someone’s ability to work or live). They could be invisible things that the rest of society doesn’t see, but that very much effect the survivor.
We’ll record another episode soon about sexual abuse that disabled people may experience. The more we talk about the reality of abuse, the more we can all make it easier for people to look for safety in the way that looks best for them.
To speak with an expert about dating or sexual violence, call or text the Safe+Sound Somerset 24/7 confidential helpline at 866-685-1122 for supportive listening, information, and safety planning.
Want to “Ask Ava” a question? Visit our website at www.safe-sound.org/ask-ava. Thank you for listening today. Join us next time here on Ask Ava.