Regressive government policies have disproportionately affected the ability of disabled women who have experienced violence and abuse to access the services they need, according to a new report.
Shaping Our Lives (SOL), which has written the report, says some services have been discriminating against disabled women under the Equality Act because of a lack of knowledge and training, and a “pitiful” lack of accessible buildings.
It says that these failures are a clear breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
The report, A Refuge for All, was published this week after two years of research led by disabled women with experience of violence and abuse.
It compares the situation with the findings of the Making the Links report published 10 years ago by Women’s Aid, which found that although disabled women were twice as likely to experience domestic violence and abuse as non-disabled women, they faced significant barriers in accessing services.
SOL’s report concludes that little has changed in the last 10 years and in some cases provision has worsened.
Because of cuts to services, disabled women have often not been able to secure local support, and they have faced lengthy waiting-times and have had to travel long distances to secure support.
Just as there was 10 years ago, there is a lack of accessible information; refuges and other buildings providing services are still inaccessible; and there is still a lack of knowledge and understanding by professionals.
Disabled women also still face the risk of having their children removed by social services if they escape an abusive or violent partner.
Research suggests that the number of disabled women experiencing violence and abuse has been increasing, says the report, while disabled victims of domestic abuse “suffer more severe and frequent abuse over longer periods of time than non-disabled victims”.
The project worked in two areas, Bexley in south-east London, and Birmingham, to examine how local services could be made more inclusive for disabled women.
The report concludes: “The pilot site interventions demonstrate that training and advice from disabled women and user-led organisations can have an enormous impact on services’ readiness to work confidently with disabled women and that a number of small inexpensive adaptations can improve the accessibility of the service delivery.”
SOL’s Becki Meakin, the project manager and author of the report, said: “It was very worrying to hear about the experiences of disabled women seeking support from violence and abuse.
“I expected to see progress in the last 10 years, but instead access to services has worsened and sometimes was non-existent in a woman’s local area.”
She added: “The regressive funding policies for violence and abuse services has reduced provision for all women, but it has disproportionately affected access for disabled women who in turn are almost three times more likely to experience violence and abuse.”
The report was funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s Tampon Tax Fund.
Among its recommendations for improvements, the report calls for a central resource of information for disabled women; investment in more accessible refuge spaces; disability equality training for staff; access action plans for each service; and co-production of services with disabled women.
Meakin said: “I believe that only by listening to and working equally with disabled women experiencing violence and abuse will we be able to increase their sense of self-worth and remove the practical, prejudicial and systemic barriers that exclude them from using violence and abuse services.”
The project has also published a toolkit which can be used by services to assess themselves against best practice and devise a plan of action for improvement, often at low cost.
Ashley Stephen, co-founder of Disabled Survivors Unite, who helped with the project, said: “This project is vitally important and showcases the unique barriers that disabled women face in accessing domestic abuse services.
“One disabled woman being turned away due to an inaccessible refuge is too many.”
Disability Labour also said the report was of vital importance.
Fran Springfield, co-chair of Disability Labour, said: “As someone who is a survivor of domestic violence, I know how inaccessible refuges can be.
“It is important that women fleeing domestic violence have a safe space, not only in terms of physical and emotional safety, but also that it meets their accessibility needs.
“We know that domestic violence services are receiving far less money than they need to be able to provide these crucial services, which undoubtedly save lives.
“We would encourage councils to ringfence such funding and look to supporting refuges to enable much-needed adaptations to be made.”