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Addressing the systemic gap in responses to the intersection between disability and domestic abuse

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UK Disability History Month takes place annually from 16 November to 16 December to commemorate the history of the disability rights movement and platform the ongoing fight for disabled people’s equality and human rights. This year, the campaign focuses on the experiences of disablement amongst children and young people; with the aim of challenging the societal stigma, stereotypes, negative attitudes and barriers that disabled children and disabled young people face. These experiences are a societal issue – as outlined by UK Disability History Month, “the way disabled children and young people have been and are treated is an indicator of how inclusive and rights respecting we are as a community and society(1)”. Disabled people’s experiences throughout their lives, and how systems fail to respond to such, further underlines this indicator. For example, despite disabled people being more likely to experience domestic abuse(2), with the abuse they experience more severe, frequent and sustained, and often uniquely linked to their impairments and/or perpetrated by those closest to them or care providers(3), there is a systemic gap in specialist responses to meet this urgent need. During this Disability History Month, we’re focusing on this systemic gap, and outlining how we’re seeking to address it through our National Systems Change work.  

Identifying and scoping the systemic gap   

The Drive Partnership’s National Systems Change work seeks to identify and address systemic gaps in responses to domestic abuse, including across children’s social care, housing, racialised communities, LGBT+ communities and, thanks to further funding from the National Lottery Community Fund, now includes the intersection between domestic abuse and disability, including mental health. This expansion began with an initial scoping period, including analysis of Multi-agency Risk Assessment Conferences and Domestic Abuse Perpetrator Panel data, through which we identified significant gaps in knowledge surrounding domestic abuse and disability; which limited agencies’ abilities to accurately identify and record information relating to disabled victim-survivors and perpetrators and, in turn, impacted the effectiveness of responses to meet the needs of disabled people. Within the initial scoping phase, we also carried out a rapid evidence review, which revealed gaps in academic knowledge regarding the intersection of disability and domestic abuse, alongside internal case audits in which service users or associated victim-survivors had identified mental or physical health needs. Through this initial phase of scoping and analysis, we were able to identify key areas of focus for the workstream moving forwards, including improving the identification of disabled people across services; increased knowledge on mental health as a disability; improved assessment of accessibility needs; and improving professionals’ and practitioners’ knowledge and confidence in practice. 

Following the initial scoping period, we’ve begun implementing learning into our own practice; working closely with colleagues across the Drive Partnership central team and Drive Project sites to improve data collection through case assessment forms and the case management system, and improving practice training to support case managers and multi-agency partners in assessing disability needs and reflecting this in their practice. We have also developed a mental health protocol to better respond to service users with more severe mental health needs, which will require expansion both nationally and beyond the Drive Project, alongside delivering training programmes specifically tailored to professionals working within mental health services, which sought to increase professionals’ ability to identify and engage perpetrators of domestic abuse using mental health services.  

Developing an informed workplan   

Through the initial review phase, we’ve gained further insight into the systemic gap in responses to the intersection between domestic abuse and disability, including mental health, which have formed the building blocks of the development phase. In the next phase of the workstream, we will continue to build on our tested approach to increase our understanding of how disability, including mental health, impacts domestic abuse perpetrators and victim-survivors, and how current practices and the wider system impact the effectiveness of responses for these cohorts. Central to this work has been the expertise of our colleagues who have previously worked for by-and-for disabled charities delivering domestic abuse support services; providing invaluable insights into the disability sector and how we can approach this work. The next phase of this work will be guided by our key learnings, which are outlined below.  

  • It takes time to develop meaningful and authentic relationships with specialist organisations and expert colleagues, but these relationships are critical to informed and equitable work that centres disabled people.   
  • It’s essential to not attempt to jump to solutions: to be sustainable, solutions must be informed by a deep understanding of the systemic gap that considers multiple perspectives and experiences, alongside thorough understanding of root causes.  
  • To ensure the workstream is centred on, and informed by, disabled people’s experiences, it must be flexible and open to responding and adapting to learnings gathered throughout the process, alongside opportunities that emerge in the wider context.  
  • It’s vital that the complexity of systems change is not underestimated, particularly in relation to minoritised and marginalised communities. 

Addressing the systemic gap  

Looking ahead to the next phase of development of the work strand, we will focus on four key areas of work. The first, systems scoping and mapping, will seek to increase the evidence base around the intersection of disability and domestic abuse, including mental health needs; develop understanding of current practice and the role of key partners, such as Adult Social Care; and build equitable partnerships with specialist by-and-for organisations to inform and co-develop the workstream. The second key area is training and workforce development, through which we will co-develop a training programme with specialist by-and-for organisations for multi-agency partners and domestic abuse practitioners to enable them to appropriately recognise and respond to mental health and disability needs in victim-survivors and perpetrators.  

Thirdly, we will seek to influence wider systemic and policy change through engagement with key legislation and policy and practice development, which impact how domestic abuse is or could be responded to by agencies working with disabled people, and will seek to campaign and work alongside by-and-for organisations on topics such as the Social Model of Disability to improve accessibility and response to domestic abuse. The Social Model of Disability, a human rights-based model that outlines how disabled people are disabled by a society that fails to meet their needs and seeks to identify and remove these barriers, is central to our systems change work to address gaps in response to the intersection between domestic abuse and disability. Finally, we will seek to utilise our learning to address the specific gap in specialist interventions and responses to the intersection between domestic abuse and disability, including mental health, by developing practice guidance to improve how services work with disabled people, explore opportunities for intervention development where a specific response is needed, and evidence improved regulation and standards relating to practice and commissioning.  

As with all of our systems change work, we’re not only aiming to address the systemic gaps in responses to domestic abuse across marginalised and minoritised communities in the work of larger, more generic organisations, but also seeking to recognise and respond to the systemic inequity that results in specialist by-and-for organisations themselves being marginalised in commissioning and funding; which is particularly stark across the intersection of domestic abuse and disability, including mental health. This is essential to authentic and sustainable systems change, and to addressing the urgent need for specialist responses to domestic abuse and disability, including mental health, and the long-term safety of disabled victim-survivors. 




(1) UK Disability History Month 2023: https://ukdhm.org/  

(2) Office for National Statistics, 2019: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/disability/bulletins/disabilityandcrimeuk/2019 

(3) SafeLives, 2017: https://safelives.org.uk/sites/default/files/resources/Disabled_Survivors_Too_Report.pdf