Starting in 2010, UK Disability History Month takes place annually to commemorate and explore the history of the disability rights movement and the ongoing fight for disabled people’s equality and human rights. This year, in light of the lasting impact of the pandemic and increasing cost-of-living crisis on disabled people’s rights, the theme for UK Disability History Month 2022 is: Disability, Health and Well Being. Freedom from domestic abuse is essential to the health and wellbeing of everyone – with disabled people more likely to experience domestic abuse than non-disabled people, it is essential that we address the unmet needs of disabled victim-survivors and the systemic gap in responses to perpetrators of domestic abuse in relation to this. In the following blog, we explore the past, present and future of the disability rights movement and the intersecting nature of disability and domestic abuse.
The Disability Rights Movement
Beginning in the 1970s, the UK’s Disability Rights Movement was led by a group of disabled people who, after breaking out of a facility in which they were institutionalised, fought for their right to independent living within the community(1). This in itself was not just about living freely, but living freely from the abuse that disabled people faced within these institutions.
In the following decade in 1983, Dr Mike Oliver, a sociologist from the University of Kent, coined the Social Model of Disability; which became the foundation on which the disability history rights movement continued to build and grow(2). Unlike the medical model of disability, which seeks to ‘fix’ disability to fit with society, the social model of disability argues that it is societal barriers that disable individuals, not impairments.
The 1990s saw the start of political and policy progress in addressing barriers for disabled people with the introduction of disability benefits, which has continued in a non-linear progression towards equality and human rights for disabled people in the decades since – eventually reaching legislation in the Equality Act 2010(3). While there has been good progress in a relatively short period, the stigmatisation and abuse of disabled people has been entrenched in society for centuries, and there is a long way to go before we reach true, sustainable and systemic change. To do this, it is essential that we address the intersection of disability and domestic abuse, centre the voices of disabled victim-survivors, and improve perpetrator responses across systems in relation to this.
Disability and Domestic Abuse
In 2020/2021, the Family Resources Survey estimated that 14.6 million people in the UK were living with a disability – representing 22% of the population, with prevalence rising with age(4). Broken down further, these statistics represent around 9% of children in the UK, 21% of working age adults and 42% of adults of pension age(5). According to the Office for National Statistics, disabled women are more than twice as likely to experience domestic abuse than non-disabled women, and Deaf and disabled people are at higher risk of abuse and sexual violence than their non-disabled peers(6).
Research has also found that disabled victim-survivors of domestic abuse suffer more severe and frequent abuse over longer periods of time than non-disabled victim-survivors. In fact, disabled victim-survivors typically endure abuse for an average of 3.3 years before accessing support, compared to 2.3 years for non-disabled victim-survivors. Even after receiving support, disabled victim-survivors were 8% more likely than non-disabled victims to continue to experience abuse (7). From all of this data, it is clear that – despite representing a smaller percentage of the population than non-disabled people – disabled people are not only more likely to experience domestic abuse than non-disabled people, but this abuse will be more severe, frequent and sustained.
Despite the number of disabled people in the UK and rate at which they are likely to experience domestic abuse, disabled victim-survivors face a range of additional barriers in accessing support and escaping domestic abuse, and are underrepresented in services. For instance, disabled people are often marginalised from society, which can impact their ability to recognise abuse and seek support. In turn, society holds misconceptions about disabled people’s relationships, which can mean that they are less likely to consider that a disabled person could be a victim of domestic abuse.
There may also be fewer opportunities to raise concerns with professionals – for example, the abuse faced by disabled people is unique as it is often directly linked to their impairments and can be perpetuated by people who they depend on for care, such as intimate partners and family members. These individuals might additionally act as carers – enabling them to be present in healthcare or other private settings that could be opportunities to disclose domestic abuse – and this position of power can further a widespread and pervasive means of coercive control and social isolation.
Finally, if abuse is successfully disclosed, it can be harder to access support as – despite the Equality Act 2010 – there is still limited accessibility for disabled people in services across the domestic abuse sector. Not only do many service providers not have any readily available information on their accessibility, but with no mandatory workforce training on disability, service providers can lack an understanding of how to recognise a disabled person and properly support them.
Even if an accessible service is available, there are further challenges posed by the societal infantilisation and desexualisation of disabled people (8); which can make it harder for disabled victim-survivors to be believed. Considering that disabled people are not only more likely to experience domestic abuse than non-disabled people, but also face a range of additional barriers, it is critical that we address this systemic gap in both accessible service provision for disabled victim-survivors and enhance perpetrator responses in relation to such.
As outlined in this blog, there is still a long way to go before disabled people’s rights are fully realised, and tackling domestic abuse against disabled people is an essential step towards this. At the Drive Partnership, we are considering how we can work towards realising this goal, and we are starting by acknowledging that statistically – with an estimated 14.6 million disabled people in the UK – a significant portion of our service users and associated victim-survivors will be disabled. This is even more statistically likely as the Drive Project intervention allows for those who may struggle to access services to receive support. As a result, we are in the process of improving internal Drive practices around disability and have been developing guidance for use across our Drive Project sites.
Moving forward, we hope to be able to incorporate this strand into our existing work on National Systems Change; which seeks to address systemic gaps and develop sustainable national systems that respond effectively to all perpetrators of domestic abuse. Across the sector, we must enhance responses across both victim-survivor and perpetrator services, ensure that disabled people are represented across the workforce, and shine a light on the experiences and voices of disabled victim-survivors.
Alex and Viv, The Drive Partnership
Looking for advice or information?
If you’re experiencing domestic abuse, please visit the UK Government guidance website, Domestic Abuse: how to get help, for contact details of services across the UK.
For further information and resources, you can visit the Disability Matters Hub – a free eLearning resource for the UK workforce.
(3) Gov.uk (2010)
(7) SafeLives (2017)
(8) SafeLives (2017)