The UK government is complicit in the disproportionately high levels of domestic violence experienced by disabled people, because of its welfare cuts and the failure to invest in support services, young campaigners have told MEPs.
Four disabled co-founders of the user-led group Disabled Survivors Unite (DSU) spoke about their work and their own personal experiences at a hearing on domestic violence and disabled people, in the European Parliament in Brussels this week.
They told the hearing that disabled people were often forgotten in conversations about domestic violence and other abuse.
The event was organised by the Swedish MEP Soraya Post, from the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, and the campaign Europe Needs Feminism.
Alice Kirby, one of the founders of DSU, told the hearing that many of the services needed by disabled survivors of domestic violence could not afford to make adaptations to their buildings or services to make them inclusive and accessible.
She said: “The UK government urgently need to reverse the cuts that have left these services underfunded and they need to inject more money into them so they can afford to become accessible to disabled people.”
Kirby said that significant cuts to social security had left many disabled people poorer, and “we know that the poorer a person is the less likely it is that they will be able to escape abuse”.
She also pointed to the closure of the Independent Living Fund and cuts to social services, which meant many disabled people were forced to rely on their abusers for care, so were less likely to be able to leave that abusive relationship.
The acute shortage of accessible accommodation also “forces people to remain in abusive relationships”, she said.
Ashley Stephen, also from DSU, told the hearing that abusers often take advantage of the isolation of their disabled victim, withholding their food, care or medication.
They said that DSU was founded “on the realisation that disabled victims and survivors are often ignored in the fight against abuse and sexual violence”.
One male survivor told DSU that he believed that the court system often discriminates against disabled survivors of abuse, “using our disability against us, framing us as unreliable witnesses because of our conditions”.
Bekki Smiddy, from DSU, called for the recognition that disabled people experience domestic abuse “at a disproportionately high rate” to be “embedded in policy, legislation and services, rather than an afterthought”.
She described how one survivor of domestic violence, who was a wheelchair-user, had to be “shuffled from women’s refuge to women’s refuge”, and even carried up the stairs, because none of them were wheelchair-accessible.
Eventually, she was left with no choice other than to return to her wheelchair-accessible home – where she had lived with her abuser – against police advice.
Smiddy said there was only one specialist domestic violence service for Deaf people in the UK, and only one specialist service designed to meet the needs of people with learning difficulties.
DSU is now researching the number of accessible safe houses, because there is currently no data available.
She said that 17 per cent of refuges had been forced to close because of funding cuts, while local cuts to services had “fallen most harshly on people from minority ethnic communities, LGBTQ women and disabled women”.
Smiddy told the hearing: “We require a needs-led approach with user-led organisations at the heart of development.”
Her DSU colleague Holly Scott-Gardner said that the domestic abuse of disabled people was often not recognised by care providers, support services or even friends and family.
She told the hearing: “In the last few months alone, I have talked with countless survivors whose abuse was ignored or grossly misunderstood.
“They have told me about wheelchairs and other necessary equipment being damaged to prevent them from leaving the house, benefits money going to a partner, who withheld it from them, and being abused, and the physical effects of that abuse being hidden by their abuser, who blames it on their clumsiness, which is a symptom of their disability.”
She added: “We are often taught that our disabilities are inconvenient, that they cause all of our problems, and it can be easy to blame terrible things that happen to us on the fact that we are disabled.
“It can be hard to recognise that we are not the problem, that we are not the one to blame.”
Kirby told the hearing that the UK government’s welfare reforms had been “a targeted attack on disabled people” and that “not only do they perpetuate domestic violence by making it incredibly difficult for victims to leave their abusive partner, but these policies are themselves abusive”.
She called on the government to carry out an “urgent” assessment of the impact of its welfare reforms “and recognise how living in these circumstances prevents disabled people from escaping abuse”, and to invest long-term funding into accessible and inclusive support services.
Kirby pointed to November’s report by the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities, which found the UK government guilty of “grave or systematic” violations of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as a result of its programme of social security reforms and cuts.
She said: “The government needs to acknowledge the failings outlined by the UN report and follow its recommendations.
“Until these changes are made, our government will remain complicit in the abuse of disabled people.
“We want equality, nothing more or less, and we will continue to campaign until this is achieved.”
Eleanor Lisney, a founding member of the disabled women’s collective Sisters of Frida, and also representing the European Network on Independent Living, spoke later at the hearing about the barriers disabled victims of domestic violence face in accessing their rights.
She said disabled women face even greater barriers if they are from minority ethnic backgrounds and religions, or do not speak English as their first language, and particularly if they are immigrants.
She said research in 2014 found that only about 15 per cent of rapes recorded by police as crimes had resulted in rape charges being brought against a suspect, while more than 80 per cent of people reporting rapes to the Metropolitan police were vulnerable to sexual attack because of psychosocial impairments or because they had learning difficulties.
But she said that these impairments meant such cases were less likely to result in a suspect being charged.
Research also showed, she said, that nearly one in five women who report rape have a mental health issue, but such women were 40 per cent less likely to have their case referred to the Crown Prosecution Service for prosecution, while people with learning difficulties were two-thirds less likely to be referred.
She said: “This shows that disabled women are so much less likely to have access to justice.”
Picture: (From left to right) Holly Scott-Gardner, Alice Kirby, Eleanor Lisney, Labour Co-op MEP Julie Ward, Bekki Smiddy and Ashley Stephen