Health & Wellness

Behind Closed Doors: Domestic Violence and Women with Disabilities

By MSF Staff
Domestic violence refers to control by one person over the other person in a dating, marital, or live-in relationship. It is a social issue that knows no boundaries. It affects people of all ages, cultures, socioeconomic, and educational backgrounds.
Abusers may use various behaviors to isolate, intimidate, and control their partner. A partner who seems thoughtful and protective at first may later turn out to be frightening and controlling. Abusers come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and personality types. Stereotypes do not apply. Victims are not always petite, passive, and insecure. Abusers are not always macho, violent, and hateful.
Domestic Violence and Women with Disabilities
Certain individuals are especially vulnerable to domestic violence. Women who are physically or financially dependent on the abuser often fall prey to domestic violence. According to a study conducted by Baylor University, women with disabilities will stay in dangerous conditions significantly longer than their able-bodied peers because of emotional, physical, and financial reasons.
Many women with disabilities regard themselves as “damaged goods” because of their inability to fulfill certain conventional female roles. This belief, along with repeated physical or emotional abuse, can erode the woman’s self-esteem, rendering her hopeless, depressed, fearful, and even suicidal. The stress may worsen her fatigue and she may also suffer from stress-related problems, such as headaches, stomach upset, and anxiety.
Unfortunately, women with disabilities are often dependent upon their abuser to meet their daily needs. This provides the abuser with additional opportunities to exert control such as withholding assistive devices, medications, help with personal care and grooming, and transportation to visit family and friends. Many women with disabilities accept such behavior because they feel they “deserve” it or truly believe that no other options are available to them.
Furthermore, if the woman has children, she may fear for their future and financial security should she opt to “rock the boat.” If she is unable to work or has cognitive or physical limitations, she may even fear that she will lose custody of her children. For many women, such fear is paralyzing and they feel trapped in the cycle of hopelessness and abuse.
Shelter from the Storm
Currently, accessible accommodations for disabled victims of domestic violence and services to effectively meet their unique needs are limited. Funding is sorely needed to create accessible shelters, and to train staff, police officers, judges, and service providers to understand and meet the special needs of such individuals. But we’ve come a long way. In 1970, there was no such thing as a shelter for abused women. Today, there are more than 2,000 shelter and service programs. The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA) was a significant breakthrough in civil rights for women. It provided $1.6 billion to enhance investigation and prosecution of the violent crimes perpetrated against women. Awareness, advocacy, and additional funding are critical if individuals with disabilities who are victims of domestic violence are to obtain equal access to shelter, services and assistance.
Usually, victims of domestic violence are afraid to report the abuse and have been warned and threatened by their abuser not to do so. Crisis line staff advise women to be cautious with their computer and telephone use. Whenever possible, they suggest using a friend or neighbor’s computer or telephone so that the abuser will not be able to track searches or phone calls for assistance. If you or someone you know is in a violent situation, the following national resources can help you find assistance in your community.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Advocates provide crisis intervention, safety planning, information and referrals to agencies in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Assistance is available in English and Spanish with access to more than 140 languages through interpreter services. Visit:
The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline and offers programs toprevent sexual assault, help victims, and ensure that rapists are brought to justice. Visit:
Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE (4673) 
(Last reviewed 7/2009)