Women with disabilities make up 25.7% of the population of Greece, according to a European survey carried out in 2018. Despite the fact that this is ¼ of the population, with all its variations in the type, degree, and experience of disability, there is a lack of research, actions, and policies aimed at the multiple connections between disability and gender-based violence, as well as, it’s handling. As a result, survivors of gender-based violence with disabilities are marginalized on many levels.
On the other hand, available evidence internationally indicates that women with disabilities face a higher risk than the general population of experiencing gender-based violence, violence in more complex forms, by more people, and in different settings.
The types of gender-based violence experienced by women with disabilities are of course no different from those experienced by women without disabilities. It is physical, verbal/emotional, sexual, and financial violence, either in public or in private (intimate/domestic violence). But often in the case of disabled women, gender-based violence also takes on non-disabled dimensions and forms: from the emotional degradation linked to the disability or deliberate neglect, to the denial of access to accessibility and communication aids, the deprivation of medication or the deprivation of benefits and other financial assistance that a disabled woman can receive.
It is worth noting that 90% of abusers are men whom disabled women already know and often have relationships of intimacy and trust with (Mays 2009). These are partners/spouses who, if necessary, take over their daily care, or other, paid helpers and/or relatives, who systematically take care of their personal needs. This results in their increased dependence on the abuser/caregiver, depending on the degree, type, and needs of the disability, on an emotional, practical, and/or financial level.
In some cases, cases of abuse are recorded in institutions or in medical wards and even multiply when there is a need for long-term care.
Disabled survivors have been documented to remain in the abusive environment for longer as they face increased social barriers to reporting and escaping the abuse they experience.
It is characteristic that the higher rates of unemployment and poverty they face compared to non-disabled women, but also disabled men, increase the chances of exclusion and economic hardship, often trapping them in abusive relationships.
At the same time, they often encounter difficulties in accessing the available support structures: inaccessible spaces, lack of sign language interpreters and/or staff trained in orientation and mobility issues, non-specialized staff of the structures who do not have information and training on issues of disability and gender-based violence.
In addition, the general lack of care for accessible built spaces often makes women with disabilities hesitate to leave their homes, due to their concern that they will find it difficult to get used to a new residential environment and the surrounding routes that they will have to travel every day.
Finally, accessible information about their legally recognized rights regarding abuse and the existence of structures where they can ask for help is completely absent.
An important obstacle is also the social construction of disabled people, especially women, which is reproduced by many professionals. For example, in the case of deaf women, one encounters the stereotype that sign is not a “normal” language, creating doubts among hearing people about the seriousness or truth of the events it conveys.
Some professionals do not understand the many complex forms that abuse can take, so they focus on the disability instead of gender-based violence or downplay allegations of abuse.
At other times, the social construction of women with disabilities as asexual leads some professionals to not recognize the possibility of disabled survivors entering into sexual and partner relationships.
Often the caregivers/abusers are treated as “caring heroes”, and thus beyond any suspicion of abusive behaviour.
The social construction of disabled women as subordinate, helpless, weak, and passive often creates feelings of guilt and low self-esteem in disabled survivors, the perception that “I’m not good, because I’m not capable, so I welcome violence”, such as they reported to focus groups organized by the Diotima Center within the framework of the SAFEable program.
This data increases their concern that they will not be believed if they report what is happening to them. It also increases their fear that they and/or their children may be locked up in an institution, due to the fact that they are socially considered incapable of properly performing the social roles of a partner/wife and mother.
Despite justified fears and existing obstacles, a woman with a disability can escape from an abusive environment. By receiving comprehensive information about her rights and options, and specialized support, a safe way out of gender-based violence can be found for her and her children, always according to her needs and wishes.
The specific text draws from the Diotima Center’s contact with disabled women in the context of the SAFEable project, as well as international literature. See for example: Jennifer M. Mays (2006). Feminist Disability Theory: Domestic Violence against Women with a Disability, Disability & Society 21, no. 2: 147-58; Jennifer Nixon (2009). Domestic violence and women with disabilities: locating the issue on the periphery of social movements, Disability & Society 24, no. 1: 77-89; Ravi K. Thiaraa, Gill Hagueb and Audrey Mullenderc (2011). Losing out on both counts: disabled women and domestic violence, Disability & Society 26, no. 6: 757-771; Eleni Dalaka (2022), Violence against Women with Disabilities: Concepts, Institutions, Policies, Social Policy, 16, 59-75.