by Angela Kim
I discovered I had a disability before I realized I was in an abusive relationship, but the two were interwoven in my life for many years.
My disability, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, made it difficult to cope with my daily life, let alone navigate the violent relationship I was in. My habits and compulsions were gradually consuming all my time and energy. But my relationship made it much more difficult to seek treatment and stay on life-changing medications.
Since leaving the relationship and becoming an advocate for others in similar situations, I’ve discovered that, although rarely talked about, disability and domestic violence often intersect. I was far from alone.
I’m sharing my story in the hopes that I can help others understand the connections between disability and domestic violence, but, as a journalist, I also wanted to talk with experts in the field and those who have had similar experiences to me.
One in 4 women will experience domestic violence at the hands of a romantic or sexual partner, according to the CDC. Similarly, 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. lives with a disability. Between these two statistics is an overlap so large it demands attention. Yet, there is little discussion or awareness that domestic violence and disability often intersect. In fact, studies from the American Psychological Association show that disabled people with disabilities are twice as likely to experience domestic violence than nondisabled people, and women with disabilities have a 40 percent greater chance of experiencing domestic violence than women without disabilities. Given this alarming reality, some domestic violence and disability rights advocates are calling for prioritization of disabled survivors in anti-violence work. This is particularly important because, even if someone doesn’t have a disability initially, domestic violence can cause both temporary and long-term physical or mental health disabilities.
For one, there are very few agencies with staff specifically trained in how to handle and support survivors with disabilities, says Rachel McCallum, a deaf disability justice advocate diagnosed with Anaplastic Astrocytoma. In her work auditing trainings in social work spaces, she quickly noticed that inclusivity and intake trainings rarely mentioned disability, deferring instead to more common modules on race and gender. Furthermore, in California, there are only a handful of shelters that specifically cater to survivors with disabilities, and most lack accessible facilities.
The inaccessibility of resources makes survivors with disabilities more vulnerable to abusers and often extends the duration of the abuse – in some cases, starting from childhood. People with limited communication abilities or cognitive disabilities may find it more difficult to report abuse effectively to authorities. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates that 70 to 85 percent of cases of abuse against disabled people go unreported.
“We struggle with ableism on institutional, interpersonal and internal levels,” said Tom Hartig, a 26-year-old domestic violence survivor with chronic depression and complex-PTSD. “When abusers take advantage of disabilities, it can become even harder to separate self-worth and self-love with how society sees us.”
When I finally sought treatment in 2013, first I brought it up with my immigrant Asian parents, who were skeptical, due to their cultural background. But my boyfriend was even more dismissive. Even after explaining it a dozen times, he thought I was pursuing therapy for the unforgivable sin of talking to someone about our relationship issues. He discouraged the notion, asserting that therapy was a sign of weakness and that it was improper to discuss “private matters” with strangers.
But I could barely cope with my life, so I decided to seek therapy anyway. It saved my life.
I started Cognitive Behavioral Treatment for my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The months undergoing CBT were the best of my life. Each week, my therapist and I would focus on tackling different habits through cognitive restructuring. She’d challenge me to explore situation exposure to rewire my brain’s neural pathways. I began to see immediate improvements, yet outside of that session, I was still dealing with an abusive boyfriend.
When I went on medication to treat my OCD, my boyfriend was unforgiving about the side effects, such as fatigue, severe migraines and lowered libido. I grew incredibly fatigued and would take naps throughout the day. During these naps, my boyfriend often bombarded me with controlling calls or text messages, questioning who I was secretly with or chastising me for ignoring him.
Over time, my therapist noticed how I would always hesitate before answering her questions about my boyfriend. She also picked up on how I said that I “walked on eggshells” around him. She was the first person in my life to recognize signs of abuse and introduce the concept to me. I am forever grateful for her intervention.
Partners who act abusively often strategically exploit disabilities to flex and maintain control. Hartig had similar experiences with a partner. Hartig’s depression caused him to have pervasive feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt. His partner took advantage of his low self-esteem and began to control not just the relationship, but his life, he said.
“She told me who I should hang out with, who in my own family wasn’t ‘good for me,’ what to do in my free time,” he recalled. “It was all about control.”
Since memory loss is a common side effect of depression, Hartig said his partner would use it to manipulate him into questioning his own sanity, an abusive strategy known as gaslighting.
“I used to take notes on my phone during arguments in case she insisted she or I said something different,” he said. “But I couldn’t even trust what I had written down.”
Hartig said his partner would tell him that his depression made him “a burden on everyone else,” which only served to compound his symptoms and discourage any thought of leaving the relationship.
Lack of accessible options
According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, survivors of domestic violence with disabilities can endure unique forms of abusive behaviors with complicated dynamics, such as:
- Denying access to mobility or communication aids, food, water or medications
- Controlling communication by acting as a communicator or caregiver
- Threatening or harming a service animal
- Controlling or spending disability and social security benefits
Sometimes, caregivers are the people causing the harm. People with disabilities, like those with abusive partners, are often isolated and dependent on a small circle of friends, family members and other caregivers for critical support.
Even when survivors with disabilities leave an abusive situation, it’s hard for them to find a shelter that can accommodate their needs. Most domestic violence shelters are old buildings that cannot accommodate mobility aids or larger assistive technology. This can make a survivor hesitant to leave a home that is already equipped and adapted to their needs, even if it means staying in an abusive situation.
“There aren’t many grants or funding sources that go into infrastructure building,” said Nicolle Perras, interim executive director of the Los Angeles County Domestic Violence Council. “Even if there were funding, many survivors would be hesitant to give up their shelter spaces for three to six months for renovations since DV shelters are always in high demand.”
Tatiana Dorman, the director of development at Rainbow Services, a domestic violence agency in San Pedro, shared similar concerns. Their apartment-style shelter has only one apartment accessible to people with mobility impairments, out of 10.
Rainbow Services’ director of legal services, Brenda Magid, and her legal team have helped hundreds of survivors of employment sabotage and economic exploitation. Most of the survivors they serve are low income and do not have a high school diploma, she said. Given California’s rising rent and high living costs, survivors with disabilities often must choose between becoming homeless or staying in an abusive home. For disabled people, securing financial independence can be difficult, due to discrimination in employment and housing, Magid said. In 2021, fewer than 1 in 5 people with disabilities in the U.S. were employed, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. These challenges mean a survivor’s finances and health often continue to suffer long after the abusive relationship ends.
The California Health Report spoke with several domestic violence and disability rights advocates about what could help address the specific needs of survivors with disabilities. Together, they identified four primary solutions:
People with disabilities need a greater range of policies and programs that boost their economic and employment opportunities, advocates said. For example, the YWCA of Berkeley/Oakland offers a five-week program that coaches survivors with disabilities on credit scores, savings accounts and financial planning. The campaign incentivizes good financial habits by giving participants a small stipend to kick-start their savings account. “It might not seem like much, but it can mean the world for someone whose abuser had all financial control,” said the YWCA’s executive director, Jennifer Radics-Johnson.
Training for Service Providers
Domestic violence organizations need to better train staff on the systemic discrimination and ableism that disabled survivors face, said advocate Rachel McCallum. Greater awareness among social service staff will lead to faster improvements in accessibility and overall services for disabled survivors, she said. McCallum recommended domestic violence agencies partner with disability rights organizations in their local communities to ensure that survivors can access services.
Access and Shelter
Domestic violence shelters need to invest more in making their spaces accessible to survivors with disabilities, said Tatiana Dorman. This is starting to happen but requires more state and local funding. For example, Rainbow Services ensured that a recent renovation of its emergency shelter complied with laws governing accessibility for people with disabilities. The organization also offers survivors with disabilities the option to stay at a hotel with accessible rooms.
Disability Justice and Pride
Inextricable from each of these, it is essential to deconstruct ingrained social myths around disabled people. Hartig explained that disabled people are often dismissed as passive, helpless, non-sexual and burdensome. Many individuals and even organizations embrace a curative view, where eradicating or curing the disability takes precedence over creating an accessible world for the disabled.
I encourage people to bring disability into their conversations not just around domestic violence, but in all facets of life. It’s counterproductive to shy away from discussing and learning about disability just because it is uncomfortable. Disability is something many Americans, especially younger people, believe you are born with or will only affect you late in life. However, this is untrue — more than a quarter of 20-year-olds will become temporarily or permanently disabled before reaching retirement age.
To center and uplift people with disabilities, we must first understand the ways in which the disabled community has been historically and currently marginalized. We must understand the ways in which the disabled community is more susceptible to abuse and advocate for those with disabilities. As Hartig said, “It’s already so hard living as a disabled person in an ableist and capitalist society, so spreading support, empathy and care is the key to attaining equity.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and are Deaf or Hard of Hearing, contact the National Deaf Domestic Violence Hotline at 855-812-1001 (Voice/VP) for videophone calls or voice phone calls. If you have questions about legal rights related to your disability, contact Disability Rights California at 1-800-776-5746 for referrals and support.
This story was produced in partnership with our friends at the California Health Report.
Photo at top of page courtesy of Center for Disability Rights, Inc