Access Denied: Crisis Centres and Disabled People

You’ve just been severely beaten by your partner, and you want to call the local crisis line for help; you’ve seen their number around town, so you dial it, only to discover that they don’t support TTY. Your caregiver has been subjecting you to recurrent sexual assaults, but when you roll up to the women’s centre to ask for counseling and help, their front door is up a flight of stairs, and the counselor who comes out to the sidewalk says they don’t have services for ‘people like you.’ Your partner, who is also your caregiver, is depriving you of medication and necessary care, but when you try to ask for help, people say they don’t know what to do. You want to learn more about your options for finding a shelter, but none of the materials are available in audio or Braille.

Welcome to the world of being disabled and in need. Domestic violence and sexual assault services around the world are supposed to be available to assist people in crisis as well as those who are undergoing long term abuse and are ready to seek help. Yet, all facilities are not created equal, and the amount of help available to you very much depends on who you are; discrimination against trans women, for example, is a recurring problem, but so is discrimination against disabled people, who may find services inaccessible or actively hostile.

In some cases, it’s the result of pure ignorance. Staff members don’t bother to educate themselves about disability issues, and don’t take the time to work with the local disability community to learn more about what they could do for disabled people in need. Consequently, their services aren’t accessible; they don’t have materials in a variety of formats, their buildings may be physically inaccessible, they lack interpreters and other support services to help counselors connect with disabled people.

This problem also stretches deeper. Without understanding issues and needs specific to the disabled population, a crisis centre is not equipped to handle situations like caregiver abuse, for example. It doesn’t know how to deal with these situations and has few resources available for people who need to get out of abusive situations but could be in danger if they leave; not just from a jealous ex-partner, but because their partners were the ones providing them with medical support and they can’t access a care provider for their immediate needs. This same lack of understanding can make it hard or impossible for counselors to connect with disabled clients seeking services because they don’t comprehend the issues their clients face and don’t take the time to educate themselves so they can offer resources.

And sometimes it also includes outright hostility; the ableism which extends through society also covers sexual assault and domestic violence services. While lack of understanding, unwillingness to work with the disability community, and poor resources for disabled clients are an outgrowth of internalised ableism and social structures that discount disabled people, active rejection of disabled clients is another matter. And it’s a problem that exists, much though advocates for such services might like to claim it doesn’t; sadly, some domestic violence and sexual assault centres turn people away because they are disabled and counselors don’t want to deal with them, think they’re lying, don’t believe in extending services to them.

The lack of services for disabled people is sometimes chalked up to a funding problem, or to a suggestion that such services aren’t as critically needed so they can be back-burnered. This despite the fact that disabled people are much more likely to be victims of exploitation, abuse, and sexual assault than their nondisabled counterparts; if this is a cold calculation being performed purely on the basis of metrics, they need access to these facilities every bit as much as nondisabled women, and they need full access and accommodations. They need services and assistance, not to be turned away at the door by a facility that doesn’t want to, or can’t, handle them.

The disability community has been actively involved in outreach to improve understanding at domestic violence and sexual assault centres, lobbying for better training, better facilities, and better accommodations. Yet, the feminist community by and large hasn’t risen to the challenge, which is extremely disappointing. While this community was instrumental in getting such services set up in the first place, and plays a very vital and active role in pushing for more funding, expanding services, and promoting the development of programmes, it remains silent on the disability issue.

Despite the fact that some disabled women in abusive relationships specifically report being afraid to go to a counseling centre because they think they won’t get help or might be put in a more vulnerable position. Despite the fact that some disabled people go for help, may even make it into a shelter, and then end up returning to abusive relationships because they’re isolated and don’t get the services they need; better the abusive boyfriend who knows sign language than the shelter where an interpreter is only provided when absolutely necessary and everyone stares at you because you’re Deaf. Despite the fact that the disability community is asking for help, it’s not being provided, even though the feminist community positions itself as an advocate for women and a force for justice in the world.

What is just about only advocating for some women? Why aren’t feminists, especially prominent ones, taking up the issue of accessibility in counseling and crisis services? It’s a critical issue made even more so now by funding cuts, which are leaving disabled people even more vulnerable. Where are you, feminists?