Violence Against Women with Disabilities--One Woman's Story
In 1990 Traci was Executive Director of an independent living center in Ontario, Canada. She was an articulate woman, a leader among people with disabilities in her community. Friends and co-workers noticed that she was often exhausted, but Traci explained this as a result of her illness. She had Still's disease, a form of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis What no one knew was that Traci was in an abusive relationship with her husband, Steve. "There I was, playing Ms. Executive Director by day and getting beaten by night."
The abuse had begun about 1 ½ years into the marriage, when Traci was pregnant with her first child. The first incident was fairly mild, a slap on the side of the head. Both Traci and her husband were shocked by this incident. He apologized, and both believed it would never happen again. During the next two years, there was no more physical abuse. However, Steve isolated Traci from her friends, always had to know where she was and who she was with, and was extremely jealous of her.
The physical abuse resumed when Traci and Steve moved to South Africa due to his business. Traci was isolated, far away from friends and family. Steve began to batter her more and more often, once hitting her in the head so hard that she lost most of her hearing for two months. After every beating, there would be apologies and promises to change. After each incident, Traci convinced herself that this time was the last, that the abuse would never happen again. They tried counseling, and finally returned to Canada, hoping this change would give them a chance to start over.
Eventually Traci obtained a position with the local independent living center. She put most of her energy into initiating new projects and helping other people. She began to gain confidence in her own abilities and skills and in her ability to support herself and her children. Traci is not sure why it took her so long to leave her husband. She does recall that she didn't feel she could manage on her own. She feared no one would believe her if she disclosed the abuse-Steve could be very charming and likable with other people. Traci also sometimes believed she was at fault for the abuse, especially when Steve would tell her "You made me so mad. If you hadn't done that, I wouldn't have to hit you." Finally Traci realized she needed help, and she separated from Steve.
Traci filed assault charges against Steve, and was relieved when he was jailed while awaiting trial. By this time she was terrified of him. He had become more and more abusive, and had threatened to kill her and her children. Unfortunately Traci's experience with the legal system made her feel victimized again. Her disability became a major issue in Steve's trial. "I was made to feel as if I was the one at fault and my disability explained why I was beaten. My husband's lawyer held up a picture of a naked woman, her body twisted and misshapen, and said, isn't this the type of disease you have? Isn't this what you will look like?' What did it matter what I looked like now, then or in the future? I had been assaulted! How dare they try to use my disability against me." Steve's lawyer also suggested that her broken bones and bruises were due to her heavy use of steroid medications. Steve eventually pled guilty to one assault charge, and was sentenced to 30 days in jail, and two years probation. He was allowed to serve his jail time on weekends only. After serving only three weekends, Steve jumped probation and left the country.
Traci went on with her life, and continues her work on disability issues. She says, "I am finally becoming the Traci that I want to be. I am a much stronger person because I know that I have the skills and ability to manage my own life and make my own decisions." Traci has chosen to share her story with others, because she wants people to know how "how real, prevalent and devastating abuse is. I want abused women to know what they can realistically expect and what they will need to get through it all: a strong support system and courage to keep telling their story until someone listens."
(Condensed from an article in Abilities Magazine, Canada's Lifestyle Magazine for People with Disabilities, Spring, 1995.)