International Day of Persons with Disabilities; NZ research explores abuse of disabled women

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December 3 marks the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The United Nations theme for 2018's International Day is "Empowering persons with disabilities and ensuring inclusiveness and equality."

This year, the Secretary-General of the United Nations is launching a flagship report on disability and development. The report will provide "... an evidence base for disability-inclusive policy-making, implementation and monitoring and evaluation of an inclusive, accessible and sustainable global development agenda."

Related research: Barriers to response and prevention of violence against disabled women 

Dr Debbie Hager's doctoral thesis has explored the paradigms or patterns that prevent the violence and disability sectors from effectively responding to and addressing the abuse of disabled women in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The thesis begins with overview of the issue identifying a lack of funding or clear practical approach supporting providers to prevent or address the abuse of disabled women. Referring to the New Zealand Disability Action Plan 2014-2018, Dr Hager says:

"There is no provision to upskill providers in either the disability or sexual/domestic violence sectors or to create accessible and responsive justice and violence services to ensure that those who disclose abuse will have safe and appropriate services to respond to their needs." (page 2)

Chapter two examines the literature as well as data and current policy and practice in New Zealand. This review identified gaps in research, data, policy, legislation, practice and strategies. Chapter three explores paradigms for understanding and investigating violence against disabled women, finding significant challenges to communication and collaboration between disability and violence sectors globally. 

For the research, Dr Hager interviewed 87 people working in the violence and disability sectors and related government organisations and Ministries. She identifies four layers of findings (see Chapter 4, page 104):

  • Pragmatic reasons for non-collaboration: Resource and competency issues
  • Paradigms and practice: Individual deficit and socio-political paradigms
  • Exclusion: The process of exclusion and invisibility
  • Vulnerable: Paradigm that underpins the practice, paradigms and exclusionary practices.

Chapter five explores the level of interaction between the disability and violence sectors and barriers that prevent these sectors from working together: 

"This level of analysis uncovers the lack of value given to dis/abled women and the role of caring and enabling within the community; the resulting poorly funded, underresourced services; the lack of mandated qualification requirements for people working in the violence and disability sectors; the lack of service specifications directly related to the prevention or identification of the abuse of disabled women; the lack of information and understanding about the abuse of disabled women; and the inaccessibility of the various services." (page 110)

Chapter six explores practitioner and organisational models of practice. In addition to exploring models that are barriers, Hager identifies an enabling factor shared across the sectors focused on the desire to help people. However, she discusses how different understandings of helping can be either effective or damaging for women.

Chapter seven looks at paradigms that contribute to the continued exclusion and marginalisation of disabled women and women generally:

"What the participants described in this chapter is how disabled women are excluded – through the hierarchy of hegemonic ideals, via myths, stereotypes and stigma and via objectification - all of which allow non-disabled people to ignore the circumstances and lives of disabled women." (page 194)

Chapter eight explores the concept of vulnerability and how this affects the lack of interaction between sectors to address the abuse of disabled women. This chapter explores how disability is socially constructed as a vulnerability. Dr Hager suggests that women and disabled women are not inherently vulnerable and that the social construct of vulnerability creates a cycle of harm. Dr Hager states:

"Therefore, I contend that it is this social construction of vulnerable that enables the abuse of dis/abled women and the consequent ignoring of this abuse by government, violence and disability services and civil society." (page 213)

In her conclusion Dr Hager notes that her research "... uncovered limited enablers and multiple barriers to action" (page 214). She goes on to argue that "... until we refute this concept of vulnerability, with its concurrent assumption of the inevitability of violence and predation, there is very little societal incentive to respond" (page 224).

Chapter ten includes recommendations from participants and Dr Hager at both government and organisational service provider levels.

Read the full thesis online: Not inherently vulnerable: an examination of paradigms, attitudes and systems that enable the abuse of dis/abled women (2018).

Related news

On the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Minister for Disability Issues Carmel Sepuloni has launched a new guide, Leading the way in accessible information (Ministry of Social Development, 2018). The Accessibility Guide gives the state sector guidance on how to increase accessibility to information through the use of inclusive language and design, and alternate formats such as New Zealand Sign Language, Easy Read and Braille. The guide will be used by Government agencies that have signed up to the government’s Accessibility Charter, which addresses accessibility in communication, services and information provided by state sector agencies.

In December 2016, the Office for Disability Issues launched the New Zealand Disability Strategy 2016-2026

The Office for Disability Issues and the Disabled Peoples’ Organisations Coalition are holding workshops to listen to ideas about what should be in the new Disability Action Plan 2019 – 2022.  

Related reports

ANROWS, Australian's National Research Organisation for Women's Safety, commissioned the report Women, disability and violence: Barriers to accessing justice: Final Report (2018). The report summarises findings from interviews with 36 women about their experiences of seeking justice and security in the context of violence that they had experienced. It also includes findings from interviews with 18 service providers.

Monash University has published resources for service providers. The resources are designed as self-directed tools to help family violence and disability providers consider holistic approaches to women’s needs and build skills in listening and responding effectively to the voices of women with disability. The resources were developed from the Women, Disability and Violence: Knowledge Translation and Exchange Workshop.

See the Clearinghouse library for additional research and resources related to people with disabilities. 

Selected media

Disability and support sector at funding breaking point 'waiting on a tragedy', Stuff, 09.12.2018

Launch of Accessibility Guide for Government Agencies, Beehive Press Release, 03.12.2018