Disability and domestic abuse

Family Law|Relationships|September 23rd 2019

As a close follower of family law-related news content, I often come across real-life stories in the media, detailing the experiences of people with family law-related issues. These days I’m afraid I don’t usually read these stories, as I simply don’t have the time to read everything I come across. However, the other day a headline to one such story caught my eye.

The story was about a topic that I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t really considered before: disability and domestic abuse. It appeared in The Guardian last week, under the headline: ‘I’m tired and desperate’ – a disabled victim of domestic violence on her struggle to survive. It details the experiences of ‘Sarah’, who suffers from several physical illnesses that leave her struggling to walk, as well as mental health problems, as she tries to escape the abuse that she has suffered at the hands of her husband. The story raises several very important issues.

Disabled more likely to be victims

The first issue is that a high proportion of domestic abuse victims have a disability. I confess I hadn’t thought about this previously (I don’t recall coming across it when I was practising). The story tells us that almost one in two disabled women will be a victim of abuse in their lifetime, according to research by the abuse support charity Women’s Aid, making them twice as likely as women without disabilities to experience abuse. We are also told that Refuge, the charity which runs 42 refuges across 23 local authorities nationwide, says that that one-third of the women it assisted long-term in 2017–18 had one or more disability.

Now, I haven’t verified these figures, but I have no reason to disbelieve them. Certainly, if they are anything like true they paint an appalling picture of heartless cruelty and exploitation. I can understand that when a relationship breaks down respect for your partner can disappear, but to take advantage of a disabled person is utterly inexcusable. And it’s not just about physical abuse. As we all know, abuse is often about control: Sarah described, for instance, how her husband would isolate her by taking away her Motability car, thereby keeping her housebound for days, or even weeks, on end.

Unsuitable refuges

Another issue that the story flags up, and perhaps the central one to Sarah’s story, is the lack of proper facilities for the disabled in refuges. This isn’t the fault of the refuges or their staff – Sarah stresses how kind staff at the refuge have been to her – but due to a chronic lack of funding. Sarah had to struggle up and downstairs due to the lack of a lift, and fell down them twice, sometimes effectively being confined to her room. She also had to manage without appropriate washing facilities.

In addition to this, Sarah is constantly concerned with inadequate state benefits and lack of freely available therapy, in an age of austerity. She has been seeing a private therapist twice a month to help her keep afloat but says that she just can’t afford it.

And Sarah’s problems didn’t end when the time came for her to move on from the refuge. The story tells of her difficulties finding privately rented accommodation whilst on benefits, social housing effectively-being unavailable due to huge waiting lists. And as for finding accommodation suitable or adapted for her needs, forget it.

All of this obviously adds insult to the injury that these domestic abuse victims have already suffered.

Clearly, Sarah is far from alone. There are many like her facing similar problems. What are we to do to help them? Well, obviously many of the problems could be addressed by proper funding from the state. But that only deals with part of the issue. The other part relates to the lack of respect given to the disabled. We have to ask: why are so many disabled people abused by their partners, and why does the state treat them so callously? I suspect that the answers would make very difficult reading.

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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