Resource to help change the landscape

More needs to be done to help women and girls with disabilities.

A recently launched resource will help prevent violence against women and girls with disabilities by setting out the actions needed to stop the violence before it starts, a Federation University researcher says.

Dr Marg Camilleri, Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice, is a member of the national advisory group behind Changing the landscape: A national resource to prevent violence against women and girls with disabilities – a companion resource to Change the story – a national approach to preventing violence against women.

Dr Camilleri, who has a background as an advocate for victims with disabilities, said the resource was developed because more was needed to be done to help women and girls with disabilities.

"Sixty-five per cent of women with disabilities have experienced violence. They are also two times more likely to experience sexual violence than women without disabilities," Dr Camilleri said.

"We know that around 23 per cent of women (21,300) who experienced sexual assault in the last 12 months reported the most recent incident to the police, which was similar to the rate in 2019-20 (25 per cent).

"But with women who have disabilities, a much higher cohort is affected, fewer incidents are reported to the police and far fewer go to court and have positive outcomes."

Dr Camilleri said the resource highlighted the gendered stereotypes around violence against women and ableism – a form of discrimination and oppression, where policies and practices are typically written from an able-bodied perspective. The consequences of this exclude people with disabilities and privilege those perceived as 'normal'.

"In some cases, there's little thought given to the needs of people with disabilities in accessing services, or in the way that the services will impact people with disabilities," Dr Camilleri said.

"Another example of an ablest stereotype is when there is violence, people are more likely to believe the able-bodied person – the perpetrator in some cases – than the victim. Many people in the community have the perception that people with intellectual disabilities are not believable. This is one of the issues preventing women from going to the police, fearing they won't be believed.

"If we don't believe the women who report violence, then that perpetuates the violence, and offenders can act with impunity, essentially, because they know that women with disabilities will not be believed."

The resource was created with Our Watch, an national independent not-for-profit organisation seeking to prevent violence against women and their children in Australia, Women With Disabilities Victoria (WDV) and with consultation from other disability groups and experts.

"I was really fortunate to have been asked to submit an expression of interest to be part of this work. Since then, my other research has been around people who are non-verbal and their access to justice. I'm also looking at people with disabilities in rural settings and their access to justice," Dr Camilleri said.

Dr Camilleri said there was a lack of resources in rural and regional areas, and the understanding and perceptions around people with disabilities varied greatly from metropolitan areas.

"People are getting very diverse responses when they go to police stations, and in some cases, there are smaller towns where there is only one person at the station. It's important to get more data because there's very little about the rural experience of victims with disabilities," she said.

Dr Camilleri said there was still a lack of understanding of what drove violence against women, and the resource would be valuable to communities, schools, workplaces, disability and health services, and governments.

"Many people don't know what to look out for when working with women with disabilities who may be the subject of family violence or other forms of violence,” she said.

"Women with disabilities may also not be aware that what they're experiencing is a crime because it becomes normalised. But it's also for organisations and individuals who work in organisations to identify what behaviours, what presentations may give insight into that woman's experience of violence.”

"It's not always that a woman may present with a black eye or other physical injury, there could be other more controlling behaviour, such as coercive control, you may have situations where the partner or carer insists on coming along to their GP appointments under the guise of needing assistance, saying, ‘I need to be here’, but it's actually not about that.”

"For anyone connected with women with disabilities who experience violence and police, there's a lot of work still to be done in this space because there are too many assumptions and misconceptions about violence against women and disabilities."

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