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Triple disadvantage - out of sight, out of mind

Triple disadvantage - out of sight, out of mind

Triple disadvantage - out of sight, out of mind

Triple Disadvantage – Violence Against Women with Disabilities

Did you know?

  • Women with disabilities are more likely to be subjected to abuse or violence than are other women, according to research.
  • Discrimination, a lack of access to financial and other resources to enable independence, and a lack of accessible services makes escaping abuse or violence extremely difficult for women with disabilities.

DVRCV’s Violence Against Women with Disabilities Project is advocating for improvements in service accessibility, and for government to recognise the value of providing a specialist service for women with disabilities.

This page provides information about the issue and an outline of DVRCV’s Project on Violence Against Women with Disabilities.


Our guide for women with disabilities experiencing family violence (also available in Vietnamese, Greek, Mandarin and Arabic); and a kit for service providers who work with women with disabilities.

These products draw on interviews with women with disabilities who have experienced violence. The women told their stories in the hope that it would help others to deal with abuse. The project was funded by the Telematics Trust.

Read stories from Getting Free From Abuse

Gender, Disability and Violence

The following is an extract from ‘Triple Disadvantage: Out of Sight, Out of Mind‘, a report from DVIRC’s project, prepared by Chris Jennings, Project Worker, Violence Against Women with Disabilities Project, October 2002-3. This extract from the report is from pp 11-13. References are at the bottom of this page.

To contexualise the work of the Violence Against Women with Disabilities Project, you need to think about the social constructs of gender, disability and violence. This will enable an understanding of the triple disadvantage of being a woman, having a disability and being a victim/survivor of violence.

Eighteen per cent of Australians over eighteen have a disability, and just under half of these people are women (Temby 1996: 11). Most statistics and information from research on disability perpetuate the invisibility of females with disabilities, as these statistics do not disaggregate the information by gender (Temby 1996: 11). Gender analysis of statistics is, for the most part, nonexistent; as is gender analysis of disability services. 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.

Disability has largely been understood in the context of a medical model. The result is that the medical label of the disability is assumed to be the core of a woman with a disability’s identity. It is assumed that women with disabilities are the disability – disability becomes the only lens through which such women experience life (Strachan 1997: 7).

Traditionally, disability has been seen as a personal failing or tragedy and primarily a matter for the medical profession. This fails to place the experience in a social context (Howe 2002). It is as though the disability itself is the cause of poverty, discrimination and violence, rather than a society’s social, cultural and economic response to disability (Strachan 1997: 7).

Many women with disabilities would claim the barriers they have often faced within the disability movement are barriers of hierarchy and male domination. However the women’s movement has largely failed to recognise disability as a feminist issue. Being relegated to a marginalised status by their disability, and further discriminated against through their gender, women with disabilities score ‘two strikes’. One consequence of this is that they are rendered virtually invisible in both the disability and the women’s movements (Chenoweth 1993: 22). This dual marginalisation exposes women with disabilities to grave risks of emotional, physical and sexual abuse, and when such abuse occurs they are likely to be ignored by both disability and violence-related support systems (Ireland 2002).

Women with disabilities would want us to frame our understanding and action on the experience of disability within a social model which sees disability as a social construct, in the same way that gender is a social construct. The experience of being a woman and having a disability takes place within a social context. Women with disabilities face a double disadvantage: as women they are discriminated against on the basis of gender, and as people they are discriminated against on the basis of their disability.

More often than not, women with disabilities live in a state of poverty. They are dependent on government pensions, are offered limited access to education, lack access to appropriate information on rights, experience a lack of choice in housing and transport, may be dependent on others for self-care, and live restricted social lives. It is this deprivation of experience and opportunity, and level of social and political discrimination, that renders women with disabilities more vulnerable to violence, rather than any actual experience of an ‘impairment’.

Women with disabilities are among the most economically and socially disadvantaged of all groups in society. Over 50 per cent live on less than $200 per week.

Compared with men with equivalent needs, or other women, they are:

  • more likely to be institutionalised,
  • less likely to own their own home,
  • less likely to be employed,
  • less likely to have completed basic schooling or obtain a university qualification,
  • less likely to successfully move from a rehabilitation program to employment, and
  • less likely to receive appropriate services (Frohmader 1999: 5).

The failure of the feminist discourse to integrate the experiences of women with disabilities leaves both women with disabilities marginalised and feminist analysis of social reality incomplete (Ireland 2002).

International research indicates that

regardless of age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or class, women with disabilities are assaulted, raped and abused at a rate of at least two times greater than non-disabled women, yet are much less likely to receive assistance or services if they experience violence (WWDA 1998: 5).

How is it that such high levels of abuse have gone unidentified for so long?

Keran Howe’s WWDA Research paper (1999) showed that there is no statistical information available in Australia on the rates of violence against women with disabilities, including domestic violence. However, anecdotal evidence from women with disabilities about the incidence of violence has been accumulating, and it is now so compelling it cannot be ignored (Sceriha 1996).

Violence against women with disabilities refers to a wide range of abuses, both individual and systemic. Some forms of abuse are unique to women with disabilities. For example, sexual abuse of a woman with a disability may include forced sterilisation or forced abortion. Physical abuse may include taking away a woman’s wheelchair, or bathing a woman in water that is too cold or too hot. It could involve rearranging the physical environment, which then increases risk of personal harm. Indeed, some disability activists would advocate that ‘failure to provide’ constitutes abuse. For example, many women with disabilities miss out on sex education. When abuse occurs, they know something is wrong but are not sure what it is. The ‘failure to provide’ places the woman in a more vulnerable position, and in the event she is abused, she has been denied access to the appropriate language and knowledge to report the assault as a ‘credible witness’. Women with disabilities’ lack of opportunity to think about themselves as women, or be accepted as women first, can lead to lack of access to sexuality awareness and women’s health issues. It therefore makes women with disabilities more vulnerable.

Not only are women with disabilities at a greater risk of abuse, but abuse can be the cause of disability. In 2003 a local newspaper covered a story of two young women living in a nursing home (Moreland Leader June 2003). Reading the article, you learned that one of the girls acquired her disability at 18 years of age, after a life-threatening asthma attack. Her younger room-mate acquired her disability after being beaten by her boyfriend. Once an average teenage girl, with dreams and aspirations. Now aged 17 and living in a nursing home, reliant on an electric wheelchair for her mobility and a machine to communicate her thoughts. This young woman’s disability is a legacy of her wanting to have a boyfriend, just like her other Year 9 friends.

Women and girls with disabilities live at the intersection of gender and disability bias. As a consequence, they experience higher rates of violence and lower rates of service access than do their non-disabled peers (Strachan 1997: 9). Indeed, it is not a disability itself that creates vulnerability, but the social and political reaction to disability (Strachan 1997: 10).

Violence against women is compounded by a society which disempowers women with disabilities by excluding them from community life, denying them opportunity or access to real education, denying access to political decision-making, and by all too often ignoring the violence. Women with disabilities are often treated as children, devalued or simply not thought of when programs are designed. The ever-present myth that women with disabilities are asexual in itself renders women more vulnerable to perpetrator violence.

Despite the high incidence of violence experienced by women with disabilities, services are frequently non-existent, inaccessible or inadequate to meet the needs of these victim/survivors. Disability service providers frequently fail to screen clients for abuse histories. In addition, women with disabilities are often not believed when they report sexual and domestic violence, or their cases are not taken seriously by the criminal justice system or service providers (Strachan 1997: 11).

The extent of violence in the lives of women with disabilities has to be viewed with deep concern, particularly in a society that espouses principles of social justice and human rights (Chenoweth 1997: 30).

The experiences and fears of women with disabilities are no less important and real than those for able-bodied women (Plunkett and Lasic 1998).

  • Order copy by emailing or phone (03) 9486-9866.  The report includes project learnings and stories from women with disabilities.
  • Download the full report below.


About DVRCV’s Women with Disabilities Project


During 1997, Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) investigated the barriers that women with disabilities experience when trying to access women’s refuges. This project’s findings were published in two reports:

  • The Woorarra Women’s Refuge Disability Action Plan identified many barriers faced by women with disabilities in gaining access to domestic violence services. The report also detailed a range of strategies that must be implemented before women with differing types of abilities can successfully access women’s refuges.
  • More than Just a Ramp is a guide to help refuges to develop a Disability Action Plan for to enable women and children with disabilities to have greater access to family violence services.

With the reports finalised, a working party called Violence Against Women with Disabilities Action (VAWDA) formed. Its membership included women with disabilities, representatives from disability organisations and the family violence sector. VAWDA continued to meet to work on the WWDA project’s documented implementation phase. In 1999 a proposal was submitted to the Community Care Division of the Department of Human Services (DHS) for a second project. However the project remained unfunded through several departmental restructures. Eventually, the submission received joint funding from both the Community Care Division and the Disability Division of DHS.

By the time funding was secured for the current project, auspiced by DVRCV, some of the momentum from the earlier projects had been lost. Therefore one of the earliest tasks of this project was to re-establish links with women who had been involved in the earlier projects.

Early project focus

The DVRCV Violence Against Women with Disabilities Project has developed expertise on the barriers, gaps and challenges that impact on the capacity of the service system to respond to women with disabilities. The project has fostered links between the family violence and disability sectors, and brought the needs of women with disabilities to the attention of policy makers.

The Violence Against Women with Disabilities Project is the only project of its kind in Victoria. It is a statewide project working in direct partnership with the Victorian Women with Disabilities Network and is endorsed by both Women with Disabilities Australia.

Phase One: In 2002 Community Care Division and the Disability Division of the Victorian Department of Human Services (DHS) jointly funded phase one of the project. The primary focus of phase one was to create partnerships between disability services and services for women experiencing violence in the Western Metropolitan Region, in order to better address the needs of women with disabilities who are marginalised by the service system. Improving access to inclusive support the ultimate goal.

Some of the major achievements of phase one are:

  • interagency agreements between a number of disability and domestic violence services in the Western Metropolitan Region;
  • the Western region family violence campaign theme for the ‘Week without Violence’ was ‘Women with Disabilities and Violence: Break Down the Barriers.’
  • training on Domestic Violence and Women with Disabilities, a statewide forum on the issue, and presentations at conferences, forums, and at individual agencies
  • the publication of a project report, Triple Disadvantage: Out of Sight, Out of Mind.

Phase two: In 2003 the Disability Division of DHS funded a second phase of the project. Phase two was to apply the learnings from working in the western metropolitan region across the State.

Some of the major achievements of phase two are :

  • an increase in the number of women with disabilities being accommodated in the accessible unit at a women’s refuge;
  • the Western Region disability service routinely screening clients for abuse histories;
  • the collection of new data on disability by the Magistrates Court and a commitment by Victoria Police to explore the feasibility of collecting new data;
  • the provision of a central contact point for information and consultation for government, disability services and domestic violence services;
  • the provision of consultation to various government and non-government initiatives.

Unfortunately, government funding for the project ceased at the completion of phase two in July 2004. Work continues with the financial assistance of the Reichstein Foundation.

Current Project Focus

Getting Safe Against the Odds is DVRCV’s (2007) project to produce a web-based and print guide to educate women with disabilities on surviving violence. The guide will be based on learnings of other women. It will also provide be a useful resource for service providers in the family violence and disabilities fields.

Please contact DVRCV if you would like more information about the project, or if you know someone who may be interested in participating in the research.

The project is funded by the Telematics Trust.

DVRCV also continues to advocate for government to maintain an ongoing focus on family violence and its impact on women with disabilities. The campaign has called on government to see the value of a dedicated focus on disability as part of Victoria’s integrated response to family violence.

What services can do

Change our definitions of ‘domestic violence’

  • To effectively provide services to this marginalised group of women, we must recognise that the perpetrators are not just intimate partners, but may also include those who provide personal care.

Learn more about interventions that are effective for women with disabilities

  • Consult with women with disabilities about how to improve service provision

Collect data on the use of services by women with disabilities

  • Ask whether or not your service collects data on women with disabilities. If not, why not?

Improve service accessibility

  • Improving accessibility requires consideration of physical barriers, policies and practices, communication, information and attitudinal barriers which might limit an agency’s ability to meet the needs of women with disabilities. Services can develop action plans to improve access in line with the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act.
  • For example, service information should be produced in formats that are accessible to all
    • See an article by Chris Jennings on ways to make service information accessible was published in DVIRC’s 2004 (Issue 2) newsletter… download the article (in Word).
    • DVRCV has attempted to improve the accessibility of our website, in consultation with Accessible Information Solutions.
    • DVRCV is re-writing some of our pamphlets on abuse and violence to make them more accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities.

Look at ways to improve coordination between disability services and family violence services.

  • If you are a disability worker, make contact with and find out more about the local family violence service. If you are a family violence worker, make contact with and find out more about local disability services.


Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) is the peak organisation for women with all types of disabilities in Australia. The site contains articles and papers on violence and abuse against women with disabilities.

Disabled Women’s Network (DAWN) Ontario Canadian website that provides a fact sheet on violence against women with disabilities.

Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services (ADWAS)
is a USA service which supports Deaf and Deaf-Blind victims of sexual assault and/or domestic violence

Responding to Violence against Women with Disabilites by Women’s Aid (Ireland) and the National Disability Authority (Ireland). This booklet outlines the steps for developing good practice with people with disabilities experiencing violence. Download 'Responding to violence against women with disabilities' (PDF) from the Women’s Aid (Ireland) website

References (from the Triple Disadvantage report above)

Australian Bureau of Statistics (1996), Women’s Safety Australia 1996, ABS, Canberra

Chenoweth, L. (1993), ‘Invisible Acts: Violence against Women with Disabilities’, Australian Disability Review, Vol. 2, pp.22-28

Chenoweth, L. (1997), ‘Violence and Women with Disabilities: Silence and Paradox’, in Cook, S. and Bessant, J. (eds), Women’s Encounters; Australian Experiences, Thousand Oaks, CA., Sage Publications

DisAbled Women’s Network (1994), We are those Women, A Training Manual for Working with Women with Disabilities in Shelters and Sexual Assault Centres, DisAbled Women’s Network (DAWN), Ontario, Canada

Frohmader, Carolyn (1999), Violence Against Women with Disabilities: A Report from the National Women with Disabilities and Violence Workshop, Melbourne, WWDA, Melbourne

Howe, Keran (1999), ‘Gender and Disability’, in Women With Disabilities Australia, Violence Against Women with Disabilities: A Report from the National Women with Disabilities Workshop, WWDA, Melbourne

Howe Keran (2002), ‘Human Rights of Women with Disabilities’, paper presented to the 16 days of Activism Against Violence Against Women Forum, December, Melbourne

Ireland, M. (2002), ‘Violence and Women with Disabilities’, paper presented to the Western Region Week Forum, October

Johnson, Kelley (2000), ‘Locked in … and locked out: Women with Intellectual Disabilities Coming out of the Institution’, WWDA News, Issue 18

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.

McPherson, Cathy (1991), ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’, Canadian Women’s Studies, Vol. 11, No. 4, pp.49-50

Morris, J. (ed., 1996), ‘Power in the House: Women with Learning Difficulties Organising Against Abuse’, in Encounters with Strangers: Feminism and Disability, The Women’s Press, London

Nosek, M. and Howland, C. (1998), ‘Abuse and Women with Disabilities’, paper prepared for the Violence Against Women Net website,

Partnerships Against Domestic Violence (1999), Mapping Pathways of Service Provision: Enhancement of Family Violence Protocols and Interagency Linkages, Consultancy Report

Plunkett, Karleen and Lasic, Slavica (1998), ‘Ability to Break the Silence’, Women’s Health West Newsletter, Women’s Health West, Footscray

Sceriha, M. (1996), ‘Women with Disabilities and Domestic Violence’, paper presented to the Domestic Violence Forum organised by the Office of the Status of Women, Parliament House, Canberra, September

Sobsey, D. (1994), Violence and Abuse in the Lives of People with Disabilities: The End of Silent Acceptance, Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. Inc., Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.A.

Southwell, Jenni (2002), Family Violence And Homelessness: Removing the Perpetrator from the Home, Discussion Paper No.3, Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria (DVRCV, formerly DVIRC), Melbourne.

Strachan, Fiona (1997), More Than Just A Ramp’: A Guide for Women’s Refuges to Develop Disability Discrimination Act Action Plans, prepared for Women With Disabilities Australia, Sage Consulting

Temby, D. (1996), ‘More and Less’: A Report of Health and Well-being Experiences of Victorian Women with Physical Disabilities and the Nature and Range of Health and Community Services they Use and Want, prepared for the Victorian Women With Disabilities Network

Women With Disabilities Australia (1998), Women with Disabilities and Violence: Information Kit, National Workshop, February 1998, Melbourne

Woorarra Women’s Refuge and Women with Disabilities Australia (1997), Woorarra Women’s Refuge Disability Action Plan, prepared for WWDA by Fiona Strachan, Sage Consulting, Women With Disabilities Australia and Woorarra Inc.