British Columbia

Abused women with disabilities lack resources, advocates say

People with disabilities face special challenges in their everyday lives. Sadly, those challenges include abuse and discrimination. On The Coast's new series In Dignity: Disabilities, Freedom and the Fight for Security looks at this problem in B.C.

2012 survey showed 70 per cent of Americans with disabilities reported abuse

Penny (a pseudonym) lived in fear of her boyfriend after he physically abused her numerous times, including smashing her property and setting her hair on fire. Advocates say that disabled women are particularly vulnerable to abuse. (Ash Kelly/CBC)

Laurette Yelle felt her privacy was violated when two staff members of the group home she lived in barged into her room while she was taking a bath.

"The woman on day shift brings in this brand new staff person, and she says, 'Hey Laurette, I want you to meet so-and-so,'" she said. "And there I am, in the tub, and they're right there in the room. After I got dressed, I pulled the woman aside and said, 'Don't you ever do that again.'"

Yelle lives with cerebral palsy, and she says that situation is just one example of the kinds of abuse people with disabilities face every day.

Yelle is the director of The Voice of the Cerebral Palsied of Vancouver. Advocates like her say that when someone has a disability it can open them up to financial abuse or theft, bullying, employment discrimination, or a lack of respect for personal boundaries.

"We are the ideal, perfect targets [for abuse]," Yelle said. "We can't fight back. We can't run away."

CBC Radio One's Vancouver afternoon show On The Coast is launching a new series this week called In Dignity: Disabilities, Freedom and the Fight for Security that looks at issues of abuse and discrimination faced by people with disabilities, and what needs to change to address these inequalities.

70 per cent of Americans report abuse

In 2012, the National Survey on Disabilities found that 70 per cent of respondents with disabilities had experienced some abuse, most more than once.

It also found that only a third of those abused ever reported it, with some afraid to talk about it because they worry about retaliation.

One person in that position is Penny. We used a pseudonym for her protection.

She has cerebral palsy and suffered abuse at the hands of her boyfriend who she said was jealous and controlling.

"He used to push me down. If I needed help with something, he'd make me struggle instead of helping me out. He set my hair on fire once," she said.

Another time, when her boyfriend couldn't reach her on the phone while she was out with friends, he flew into a rage and smashed the furniture, plates, and electronics in their home.

"I was going to phone the police, but then I was afraid of what he would do," she said.

"He would tell me that I was lucky to be with him because I was disabled, and if I didn't stay with him, then I'd be on my own."

Penny eventually left that boyfriend when her son turned two, but it wasn't easy.

She said people didn't listen to her when she asked for help and didn't take her seriously, and when she was ready to leave, she couldn't find affordable, accessible housing. She ended up moving back in with her mother.

Lack of literature, resources

Penny lives on her own now and spends her free time volunteering with the Pacific Disabled Womens' Network, advocating for disability-specific resources for abused women.

But she still has trouble talking about her abuse and says it's made it hard for her to trust people.

She thinks there needs to be more services aimed at women who have disabilities.

"We need more wheelchair-accessible transition houses. We need a lot more counseling, that's for sure," she said.

According to the Disabled Womens' Network of Canada, women with disabilities face a heightened risk of abuse compared to able-bodied women.

They say a lack of literature and resources dedicated to helping women with disabilities recognize, report and escape abuse, is contributing to the "invisibility" of the issue.

In Dignity: Disabilities, Freedom and the Fight for Security is a series from On The Coast, CBC Radio One's Vancouver afternoon show that explores the issues of dignity and quality of life faced by British Columbians with disabilities. The series runs Oct. 13–16.

Tune into On The Coast 3–6 p.m. on weekdays at 88.1 FM and 690 AM. In Vancouver. Follow us online @cbcvancouver

With files from Ash Kelly


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