Triple Disadvantage: Disabled, Female, and a Survivor of Violence

In June this year, I attended a workshop at the University of Canberra exploring Violence against Women with Disabilities. It was incredibly heartbreaking to listen to Margie Charlesworth and Michelle Lee, two women with cerebral palsy, share their experiences of surviving abuse. The responses of crisis and justice systems to their situations made me feel sick. But the women did a huge service to everybody who attended when they discussed the realities of being disabled, female, and a survivor of violence.


The issue of violence against women with disabilities is not new. I cannot confirm when attention was brought to it. There have been a myriad of reports, studies and conferences that have explored this issue, yet there is hardly any awareness and very little has been done to resolve this complex and distressing problem.


Before I continue, I understand that the disability label is problematic for various reasons. There are also various meanings that can be applied to the word disability. I would rather explore these meanings, and why some are problematic, at another time. I would, however, like to point out that the correct antonym for ability is actually inability. Disability is actually its own category and should not be treated as a dirty word. In saying that, I understand that how one wants to identify themselves is a very personal decision.


I will also comment that because I am not a disabled person, my only intention (for this article and my general research) is to spread awareness and without speakingfor people who identify as disabled.


To clarify the realities of power relations between perpetrator and survivor, Maureen Sheehan, Head of the National Disability Insurance Scheme Taskforce, raised a very important point. She explained that, “when it comes to violence,the power imbalance is not caused by the powerlessness of the women with disabilities. It is due to the power of the perpetrator.” To further justify Sheehan’s point, Patricia Easteal, a law professor from the University of Canberra, argued that because disabled women are more prone to being on the margins, they are more prone to violence. Because they are more marginalised than non-disabled women, there are a wider range of abuses and perpetrators. The perpetrator is often their carer, spouse/partner, or a family member—exactly the people whom disabled women depend on the most, and exactly the people who can easily limit their economic and environmental independence. To confirm these facts, the Australian paper Double the Odds presented in 2004 revealed that 90% of women with intellectual disabilities have been sexually abused, and 68% of women with an intellectual disability will be subjected to sexual abuse before they reach 18 years of age. This prevalence is consistent with overseas studies that include Australia.


The high statistics are unsurprising considering that women with disabilities face a number of unique obstacles regarding disclosure or help-seeking in relation to domestic violence. Of particular importance are:


  • their greater social isolation
  • the impact of previous help-seeking experiences
  • the difficulty many experience in being believed or taken seriously (e.g. women with cerebral palsy may have trouble being understood in their natural accent so their testimonies are not considered valid)
  • the sheer practical obstacles they face in obtaining information or assistance
  • a lack of awareness and skill on the part of service-providers in dealing with women with disabilities who experience domestic violence
  • a lack of coordination and cooperation across services regarding these women’s needs.


Compounding these serious difficulties are stereotypes and mythology that act as barriers to their access to justice. This is true for all women, but especially true for women with disabilities.


Professor Easteal brought to our attention that women with disabilities tend to fall off the Madonna-Whore continuum. Why they fall off the continuum is virtually instigated by this mythology of disabled people not having any sexuality. As Chris Jennings colourfully explains in her report, Triple Disadvantage: Out of Sight, Out of Mind, “All that is seen is DISABILITY, DISABILITY, DISABILITY, not women, not mothers, not lovers and certainly not lesbians. Because women with a disability are perceived as being asexual, sexual orientation is not a consideration.”


History teaches us that violence and exploitation will not end. However, that fact is no excuse for not improving the quality of life of women with disabilities. Daniel Rosen (2006: 175) from D. Rosen Associates suggests the following:


1. We must educate women and girls with disability that they are entitled to a life free of violence and exploitation. We need to provide them with training, appropriate to their level, in a proactive fashion and from a young age.

2. We must train all citizens to know that women and girls with disability are entitled to a life without violence and exploitation, as are all other citizens. We must provide stricter enforcement of laws that protect women and girls with disability.

3. We must assist women and girls with disability to understand what resources are available to them, and, as a society we must ensure that all necessary resources are created.

4. We must educate all professionals: emergency medical technicians, firefighters, nurses, police, physicians, psychologists, social workers, and teachers about the systemic issues and their responsibility to actively protect and defend women and girls with disabling conditions.

5. We must create a singular system to completely and accurately keep track of the incidence levels of violence and exploitation against women and girls with disability to allow a better understanding of the breadth of this problem and to create appropriate punishments for abusers and exploiters.

6. We must continue to research this issue to ensure a fuller and more complete understanding of the problem and to be able to create solutions.


For a referenced version of this article, visit



Better Health Channel (2013) Domestic Violence and Women with Disabilities. Retrieved 9 September, 2014

Jennings, C. (2003) ‘Triple Disadvantage: Out of Sight, Out of Mind.’ DVRCV Victoria.

Keys Young (1998), Against the Odds – How Women Survive Domestic Violence: The Needs of Women Experiencing Domestic Violence who do not Use Domestic Violence and Related Crisis Services, Office of the Status of Women, Barton, A.C.T

Rosen, D. B. (2006), Violence and Exploitation against Women and Girls with Disability. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1087: 170–177.

Salthouse, S. and Frohmader, C. ‘Double the Odds: Domestic Violence and Women with Disabilities’ (Paper presented at Home Truths Conference, Melbourne, 15–17 September 2004).


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