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Houston, Texas

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Violence Against Women with Disabilities - Access to Domestic Violence Programs

Facts About Programs Delivering Battered Women's Services to Women with Disabilities

In 1997, CROWD mailed questionnaires to 2,703 domestic violence programs nationwide that deliver abuse-related services; 2200 came from the National Domestic Violence Hotline database of programs self-reporting wheelchair accessibility. We received 598 responses.

Characteristics of Women with Disabilities Served by Abuse Programs

The most common number of women with physical, mental or sensory disabilities served by a program during the past 12 months was 20, but the number served varied widely from one program to another, ranging from 0 to 12,000 women.

The disability type most likely to receive services from an abuse program was mental illness, whereas programs were the least likely to serve those with visual or hearing impairments. On average, 10 percent of the women served by each program had physical impairments, 7 percent had mental retardation or developmental disabilities, 21 percent had mental illness, 2 percent had visual impairment, and 3 percent had hearing impairment. For nearly half of the programs, less than 1 percent of their clients served within the past year had physical impairments.

Service Delivery

Abuse programs on average provided two services targeted to women with disabilities; 89 percent of abuse programs provided less than five special services for women with disabilities.

The most commonly provided service available to women with disabilities was accessible shelter or referral to accessible safe house or hotel room (83 percent). A majority of abuse programs provided individual counseling (80 percent), and group counseling (73 percent). Nearly half (47 percent) provided an interpreter for hearing impaired women. Less than half (40 percent) presented workshops or other training on recognizing potentially violent situations. Approximately one-third offered safety plan information modified for use by women with disabilities (36 percent), and disability awareness training for program staff (35 percent).

The service least likely to be offered was personal care attendant services, available in only 6 percent of abuse programs.

Sixteen percent of programs have a program staff member who is specifically assigned to provide services to women with disabilities. Respondents identified one-quarter of these 79 staff members as being social workers by training, while the second most common primary field of training or expertise for this staff member was peer counseling (22 percent), meaning that the individual had personal experience with abuse or disability, then rehabilitation counseling (15 percent), and psychology (13 percent). Only a very few (less than 5 each) program staff for disability services were nurses, other types of mental health specialists, legal or paralegal specialists, sign language interpreters, substance abuse specialists, or community volunteers.

Outreach

When participants were asked to describe the most effective outreach services for making women with disabilities aware of the abuse services offered by a program, 49 percent of respondents suggested community presentations and training, followed by printed materials (40 percent), then collaboration with agencies and advocacy groups that serve women with disabilities (26 percent), and direct service outreach and referrals (18 percent).

Although 49 percent of respondents considered presentations in the community focusing on the needs of abused women with disabilities to be the most effective outreach method, only 16 percent of programs offered it. Distributing printed materials was the second most frequent suggestion for outreach made by abuse programs, but only 13 percent had printed information targeted specifically to women with disabilities.

Abuse programs were also unlikely to educate law enforcement personnel about disability-related abuse; 12 percent of programs provided this service.

Conclusions

Although women with mental illness are being served by battered women's programs, very few women with physical, visual, or hearing impairments are receiving services from these programs.

The majority of the programs that responded offer accessible emergency shelter, yet few women with physical disabilities call them to request services. Outreach in the form of presentations in the community and distribution of printed materials is needed to make women with disabilities aware of programs that can help them resolve abuse.

Battered women's programs need to collaborate with personal care attendant agencies and independent living centers to enable the provision of personal assistance services for women with severe physical disabilities at emergency shelters.

The sensitive handling of domestic violence and sexual assault against women with disabilities should be a mandatory part of the training of law enforcement personnel in every city. They need to be aware of the additional measures that may be needed to keep a woman with a disability safe from the perpetrator.

The proportion of battered women's programs that provide disability awareness training for their staff needs to rise from one-third to 100 percent of all programs.

Battered women's programs that did not return surveys and that do not provide services to women with disabilities should network with programs that do serve women with disabilities to discover how to finance and provide these services.

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Policy Issues Related to the Accessibility of Battered Women's Programs

For women who are in life-threatening abusive situations, crisis intervention includes escaping temporarily to a woman's shelter, escaping permanently from the abuser, and having an escape plan ready in the event of imminent violence if the woman must remain with the perpetrator. These options may be problematic for the woman with a disability if the shelter is inaccessible or unable to meet her needs for personal assistance with activities of daily living, if there is no accessible transportation to the facility, if the shelter staff are unable to communicate with a deaf or speech-impaired woman, if she depends primarily on the abuser for assistance with personal needs and has no family or friends to stay with, or if she is physically incapable of executing the tasks necessary to implement an escape plan, such as packing necessities and driving or arranging transportation to a shelter or a friend's home. She may also be unable to make arrangements to take her children with her, and worry about leaving them alone with the perpetrator. She may have to devise a safety plan with a trusted friend or relative to help her make arrangements to escape.

Andrews and Veronen (1993) list four requirements for effective victim services for women with disabilities. First, service providers need to provide adequate assessment of survivors, including questions about disability-related issues. Second, survivor service providers should be trained to recognize and effectively respond to needs related to the disability, and disability service providers should be trained in recognizing and responding to physical and sexual trauma. Third, barriers to services should be eliminated by providing barrier-free information and referral services, by ensuring physical accessibility to facilities, by providing 24-hour access to transportation, to interpreters, and to communication assistance, and by providing trained personnel to monitor risks and respond to victims receiving services through disability programs. Finally, persons with disabilities who are dependent on caregivers, either at home or in institutions, may need special legal protection against abuse.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault, inaccessibility in battered women's shelters is a serious problem. These programs generally operate on very thin budgets and covering the cost of accessibility modifications and services is a substantial challenge. There is currently a very high and growing demand for these shelters, making bed availability a problem for all women. According to Veronica Robinson, former director of the abuse program at Access Living in Chicago, (personal communication, November 11, 1996), making shelters accessible and generating an expectation that women with disabilities can be served there will only create cynicism when no beds are available. Vigorous advocacy is needed to increase funding for these programs and to expand options for temporary or transitional housing.

Despite these serious financial barriers, quality standards must be implemented for battered women's programs. Buildings must comply with the architectural requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, state laws, and local ordinances. Auxiliary aids and services must be made available. Program staff should receive training on basic disability facts, ways to communicate with women with disabilities, and the unique vulnerabilities and reduced escape options faced by women with disabilities living in the community and in institutions. In this way they can increase their sensitivity to disability issues and be more effective counselors. Women with disabilities should be hired as program staff and administrators.

A point of debate is whether every shelter needs to be accessible or is it acceptable to establish a limited number of fully accessible shelters that serve only women with disabilities. One side of the argument is that one accessible shelter is better than none, which is the unfortunate reality for most communities. Also, the needs of women with disabilities would be met more effectively by a highly trained staff and a totally accessibility facility. The other side claims that segregated facilities create the perception that general programs are absolved of their responsibilities to accommodate women with disabilities. Further, the demand is so great that one program in a community could never meet the needs of abused women with disabilities seeking help.

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Recommendations

We offer the following recommendations for increasing the accessibility and availability of battered women's services for women with disabilities.

  1. Modify shelters for battered women so they are fully accessible, including barrier-free access to sleeping rooms and common areas, architectural features that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, visual and auditory alarm systems, available interpreters, and TTYs for telephone communication.
  2. Ensure that all services offered by battered women's programs are fully accessible and integrated for women with disabilities, including hot lines, individual counseling, and support groups.
  3. Provide or refer legal assistance for obtaining restraining orders and managing court systems.
  4. Keep statistics on the number of women with disabilities who call crisis hot lines or use other program services.
  5. Assist and encourage police in recording disability status in their crime reports, as well as encouraging adoption of a separate category for perpetrators who are caregivers.
  6. Train staff on how to communicate with persons who have hearing, cognitive, speech, or psychiatric impairments. Staff should understand environmental barriers faced by women with physical and sensory disabilities when offering advice or referrals for obtaining shelter.
  7. Have on hand an extensive network of community referrals and contact numbers, including volunteers or other community resources for obtaining personal assistance.
  8. Offer training to disability-related service providers, including independent living centers and churches, on recognizing the symptoms of abuse and the characteristics of potential batterers. Service providers should be familiar with and able to refer to resources for battered women in their community.

Based on excerpts from Nosek, M.A., Howland, C.A., Young, M.E. (1997). Abuse of Women with Disabilities: Policy Implications. Journal of Disabilities Policy Studies, 8 (1-2) 157-76.

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