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Raising the voices of disabled women in conversations about violence

Introduction by Croakey: Disability advocates have called for the voices of disabled women to be central in national discussions about violence against women.

The call comes after a report about domestic violence and its consequences, ‘The Choice: Violence or Poverty’, by Dr Anne Summers AO was recently discussed on ABC’s Q and A program.

The report, based on ABS data, examines the issues facing single mothers who have left a violent partner, including poverty, anxiety, fear, physical and emotional injury.

The report also states that 45 percent of the single mothers had a disability or long-term health condition, compared to 18 percent of all Australians. The available data provides “no insight into how long these women had had their disability nor – importantly in my view – how it might have been acquired”, according to Summers.

In response to a question from the Q and A audience by Women with Disabilities Australia board member and CEO Kat Reed, Summers said:

… one of the most disturbing figures, in fact, in the report is the rate of disability amongst women who have experienced physical and sexual violence. The rate is – just must check it – is 45 percent of the women in this survey suffered a physical or an intellectual disability compared with 18 percent for the entire population. One of the questions that I ask, and can’t be answered from this, ‘cause this is a cross-sectional survey … It only surveys, gets information, from a certain point of time. It doesn’t give you what happened before and what happened after. But the extent of the disability is so severe, particularly the physical disability, and it seems to me it correlates so closely with the descriptions of physical violence that are meted out towards women in these family situations, that there has to be a cause and effect there. So, I think that we need urgent study and urgent investigation into the extent to which the disabilities are the result of domestic violence. They also can then become a cause of domestic violence because we know that women who experience disabilities are then… Often, that triggers violence in their partner, even if he’s the person – or even particularly if he’s the person – who has caused the disability in the first place. So, I think it’s a really hugely important issue and it’s one that needs to be investigated.

This statement raised concerns because of an implication that disabled women are responsible for men’s violence towards them (suggesting disability is “a cause of domestic violence”) and “reinforces negative disability stereotypes”, according to Nicole Lee, disability advocate.

Summers declined to comment after being contacted by Croakey to respond to these concerns, and rejected the characterisation of her statement.

Lee, also Director of People with Disability Australia, writes below: “Unfortunately, words are interpreted on face value, and whilst they may seem innocuous in isolation, together they form the broader narrative we’re working to change”.

In her report, Summers states: “The changed behaviour patterns of a brain-damaged woman may also trigger a violent reaction from her abusive partner. In other words, brain injuries can be both the result
of, and a trigger for, partner violence.”

The episode also raised concerns about the lack of representation on the Q and A panel of women with disability, especially given the high prevalence of violence they experience.

Q and A has also previously come under fire from Indigenous scholars for not including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in panel discussions on domestic and family violence.

Q and A panellist Veronica Gorrie, Gunai/Kurnai woman and award-winning author of the book Black and Blue, pointed to the lack of information about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander single mothers in the report.

Croakey has previously reported on calls for a separate plan to address family violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and this week, Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney met with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Council on family, domestic and sexual violence.

Other findings from the ‘The Choice: Violence or Poverty’ report:

Approximately 60 percent of single mothers with all children under 18 years surveyed in the ABS Personal Safety Survey in 2016 – where the report’s data came from – had “experienced violence from a previous partner”, the report found, whereas 22 percent of all Australian women have experienced violence from a current or previous partner.

Half of the single mothers rely on government benefits as their “main source of income” – less than one-third of the single mothers were employed full-time.

Cash flow was highlighted as a major problem for the 185,700 single mothers who had left a violent partner, with almost 60 percent experiencing considerable problems paying bills, car registration and rent, among other items.

As Summers reports, this highlights the need for improved or new policies to better support single mothers who have experienced family or domestic violence.

Her report’s recommendations also include:

  • Change eligibility for, and increase the Parenting Payment Single allowance rate
  • Abolish Mutual Obligation requirements for recipients of Parenting Payment Single allowance and provide optional job-training and job-seeking opportunities to parents who want them
  • Undertake a scoping study to determine feasibility of a longitudinal study to include the behaviour of perpetrators as well as information on financial and technological abuse
  • Include all population groups, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who are currently not included in the Personal Safety Survey.

The draft National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children 2022-2032 has been supported by ministers at all government levels, and a final version is expected to be released in October.

In February, the Public Health Association of Australia made a submission on the draft National Plan, saying they supported its broad direction.

While the PHAA agreed the Plan reflected the needs and experiences of diverse communities including women with disability and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, it did not reflect the needs and experiences of older women, LGBTQIA+ people or migrant and refugee women.

Lee writes more below, with clear calls for action to include women with disability in national discussions about domestic and family violence, increase affordable disability-accessible housing, educate judges about the drivers of violence against women with disabilities, and make education disability-inclusive for girls.


Nicole Lee writes:

Women with disabilities experience violence at far greater rates than women without disabilities, and yet the following two statements were made in relation to violence and murder of disabled women.

One was said in a coroner’s court in 2015:

he was under immense pressure in many aspects of his life, including living with (her) disability and her changed personality and may have simply just snapped.”

The other only a few weeks ago on ABC TV’s Q and A program:

we know that women who experience disabilities are then… often, that triggers violence in their partner.”

Our Watch and Women with Disabilities Victoria (WDV) have identified two main intersecting drivers of violence against women and girls with disabilities; gender inequality – “condoning of violence against women” – and ableism – “accepting or normalising violence, disrespect and discrimination against people with disabilities”.

Statements such as these – “disability triggers violence” and “being under immense pressure… including living with her disability… and may have snapped” – normalise and justify the violence women with disabilities encounter, while shifting the focus from where our efforts should be directed in regards to prevention, early intervention, and crisis responses.

Our community has generally grown to not tolerate blaming a woman for walking alone at night or wearing short skirts.

Yet, the comments from the courtroom and Q and A are both examples of using “deficit language, where a person’s disability is depicted as making them vulnerable to violence or making violence inevitable” and implied that disabled women are responsible for men’s violence towards them.

In 2018 after the murder of Eurydice Dixon a police officer said “so just make sure you have situational awareness, that you’re aware of your surroundings”.

As a community, we, including Premier Daniel Andrews called out this comment as it led to an implication that women are in some way responsible for the harm inflicted on them, and the same should have happened after what was said on Q and A, irrespective of who said it or the good will and intentions of the individual saying them.

Unfortunately, except for disabled women who had a visceral response to what was said on Q and A, the rest of the community stayed silent. Maybe this can be attributed to the fact that it was said by Australian feminist, Dr Anne Summers, who has contributed to much of the national gender equity discussion and is highly respected for it.

Perhaps it is due to the lack of disability allyship and inclusion in our community, and the consequential excusing and condoning of violence against us, a matter also raised in decades of literature including the latest Our Watch and WDV report.

Unfortunately, words are interpreted on face value, and whilst they may seem innocuous in isolation, together they form the broader narrative we’re working to change. Further to this, it also forms a bigger picture that reinforces negative disability stereotypes that play out in the media, court rooms, and our everyday lives.

The Our Watch and WDV research report explains that it is not a woman’s disability which triggers her partner’s violence, but rather, “men who use violence against women become skilled at targeting women who they perceive to be socially isolated, less able to successfully disclose violence, easier to discredit, less likely to be believed, or more ‘vulnerable’.”

I respect that Summers was under pressure on live TV and faced with the unfamiliar topic of disability. But she, just like that police officer mentioned above, has implied that disabled women are somehow responsible for men’s violence against them. Even when I’m sure that wasn’t her intention.

The bigger piece missing here, that is easily addressed and something the disability community has raised many times, is the lack of representation of disability on the panel of Q and A when discussing gender-based violence.

Had the disability community been represented in the discussion, the framing of disability could have been addressed. Instead, it was left unchallenged. Disabled women (Kat Reed, CEO of Women with Disabilities ACT) were relegated to a space in the audience (once again) to ask a question with no right of reply in the face of a response that was inaccurate, and given with an air of authority, when it was evident Summers was struggling with words.

In all fairness to Summers, she should not have been placed in this position. If Q and A listened to our repeated calls for representation from our community in these discussions it would never have happened to begin with. But it has, and this is not an attack on Anne Summers, but rather the unfortunate choice in words that places us on a slippery slope of normalising and condoning of violence against disabled women.

It’s on this slope that the drivers of violence against us are formed (gender inequality and ableism) and snowball into statements made in court rooms such as the one’s above from the coroner relating to the murder of Kim Hunt (a disabled woman) and her three children by her husband and father of their children.

Disability was positioned numerous times as the trigger for her own murder:

Clearly the deaths were not premeditated. But we also know that Kim was in a very bad mood… Kim had a very serious car crash that had a major impact on all family members and indeed is likely to have been pivotal in their deaths.”

Geoff was under immense pressure in many aspects of his life, including living with Kim’s disability.”

At the time, the media reported the murderer as a caring dad who had burnt out, and is an example of how far spread ableism in our community is, from the courts through to media.

Similarly, Ann Marie Smith was depicted in the same light where disability was used to explain and excuse the neglect that resulted in her death:

There is no doubt that the victim was a stubborn and difficult person….stubborn, demanding and the defendant just didn’t have the strength of character or personality to overcome what the victim demanded.”

No woman is responsible for the violence they experience, whether it is institutional abuse, rape, murder, or other forms of violence. But far too often women’s disabilities are positioned as the instigator, rather than accountability being attributed to perpetrators.

If Q and A had put someone qualified to speak about violence against women with disabilities on the panel, Summers would not have been placed in this position. She could have shared a conversation to hone language and model listening and learning from disabled women to the audience. The panellist could have spoken to the work that’s been done to date and refuted the idea that we need urgent studies into violence against women with disabilities.

The Disability Royal Commission has been underway since 2019, and delivered tonnes of reports. We have decades of work from Women with Disabilities Australia and WDV. We have the Our Watch / WDV ‘Changing the Landscape’ framework, along with research done by Melbourne Centre of Research Excellence in Disability and Health.

It’s disappointing that none of this research was spoken of.

Neither was a call for action – we need to move past researching the well-established problems and doing action research to find out what works.

There are also immediate actions we can be taking which we know will make positive change, such as increasing affordable disability accessible housing, educating judges about the drivers of violence against women with disabilities, and making education disability inclusive for girls.

Action is something we look to the National Plan to address violence against women and their children.

What is the simplest immediate step we can take to change the landscape?

Raise the voices of disabled women. We experience a greater amount of violence than women without disabilities, so put us on the national panels which are discussing violence against women.

  • Nicole Lee would like to acknowledge Jen Hargrave for contributions to this article

Responses

A spokesperson from Q and A / ABC

While not all contributors to Q+A choose to disclose details of disability, people with disability, advocates and carers regularly submit questions and appear on panels and the program regularly covers disability issues. For example, this year Q+A has featured Australian of the Year and tennis champion Dylan Alcott and next week writer and disability advocate Hannah Diviney will join the panel. For the episode in question, “The Choice: Violence or Poverty”, the question Anne Summers responded to was asked by Kat Reed, CEO of Women With Disabilities ACT.

While we can’t speak for panellists, the transcript of Anne Summers’s entire reply clearly shows she was talking to the correlation between disability and violence, not assigning responsibility to women who have a disability.

Dr Anne Summers

Anne Summers was contacted by Croakey to respond to the concerns raised by Nicole Lee but said in an email she would not comment on “this totally inaccurate and unfair characterisation of what I said”.

Further reading


See Croakey’s archive of articles on disability rights.

 

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