Disability & Domestic Abuse

What is domestic abuse?

Women’s Aid defines domestic abuse as: “An incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour, including sexual violence, in the majority of cases by a partner or ex-partner, but also by a family member or carer.”

Domestic abuse can be:

  • Emotional – e.g. belittling you, isolating you from friends and family, controlling where you go and who you talk to.
  • Threats and Intimidation – e.g. threatening to hurt/kill you, harassing or following you.
  • Physical – e.g. hitting you, shoving you, throwing things at you, choking you.
  • Sexual – e.g. pressures you into having sex, touches you in a way that you don’t want to be touched.
  • Financial – e.g. controlling your use of money, not giving you enough money to survive.
  • Coercion – e.g. controlling behaviours that include assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation to harm, punish or frighten someone to obtain compliance.

Would you recognise signs of domestic abuse? What would you do? Watch our Safeguarding Scenario here:

Disabilities and domestic abuse

A review by Public Health England in 2015 confirmed that people with disabilities are more vulnerable to domestic violence, experience domestic abuse for longer periods of time, and experience more severe and frequent abuse than non-disabled people.

People with disabilities also encounter differing dynamics of domestic abuse, which may include more severe coercion, control or abuse from carers.

Abuse can also happen when someone withholds, destroys or manipulates medical equipment, access to communication, medication, personal care, meals and transportation.

People with disabilities have also reported abuse through the form of intrusion and lack of privacy.

What makes people with disabilities more at risk of domestic abuse?

People with disabilities are often in particularly vulnerable circumstances. Certain disabilities, particularly physical disabilities, may decrease their ability to physically defend themselves and escape from abuse. Other disabilities can limit a person’s ability to understand and recognise potential signs of abuse.

Some disabilities can create social isolation via exclusion due to physical and environmental inaccessibility or via stigma discrimination in social activities. Therefore, many people with disabilities are left with a much smaller support network than those people without a disability. This makes it more difficult for family members and friends to recognise the signs of abuse. It also means that there are less people for victims to confide in or go to for support.

Frequent interactions with institutional and medical settings and personal care assistants coming into their homes may also increase the risk of domestic violence.  Their reliance on care can increase the situational vulnerability to other people’s controlling behaviour. This reliance can create power inequalities within a relationship. It has been suggested that perpetrators of abuse are more likely to target the most vulnerable to whom they have access.

Accessing support

People with disabilities are more likely to experience abuse for longer periods of time because they have difficulties and concerns when accessing the support that they need.

Their reliance on other people means that often they are reliant on their abuser for personal care or mobility. This sometimes means that they are reluctant to report the abuse because they are dependent on that person, they may also believe that the person enables them to stay out of institutional care.

It can be hard for some to disclose their abuse because they have no opportunity to see a health or social care professional without their abuser being present. This is especially true if their abuser is their carer.

If the person lives with their abuser, they may be concerned about moving out of their home as their home may have been especially adapted for their needs. Many feel trapped because they feel there are no other care options for them.

Health and social care services and domestic abuse services can sometimes be inaccessible for people with disabilities. Lack of a sign language translator, the information not being available in audio or large print or the staircase being the only entrance are all examples of practical difficulties people with disabilities face which can make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to engage with the services they need for support.

Not only are there physical barriers when trying to access support, often staff members aren’t trained to consider the needs of people with disabilities therefore can’t offer them the level of support that they need.

How can we help victims?

In order to improve the systems approaches to inclusion and diversity, more needs to be done to educate people of the heightened risks people with disabilities face when it comes to domestic abuse. This will hopefully lead to the signs of domestic abuse being spotted early on.

The system should also make itself more accessible by removing any physical barriers, for example by making sure there is disabled access to all service buildings, and also social barriers by giving staff the training they need to be able to fully support people with disabilities.

Key Statistics on Disability and Domestic Abuse

In 2016, the Office for National Statistics published a report on Intimate Personal Violence and Partner Abuse. It found that:

  • 16% of women with a long-term illness or disability had experienced domestic abuse compared to 6.8% of non-disabled women.
  • 8% of men with a long-term illness or disability had experienced domestic abuse compared to 3.2% of non-disabled men.
  • Victims with a disability were more likely to experience other effects as a result of their abuse, including mental or emotional problems, difficulty in other relationships and attempted suicide.

Women’s Aid produced a Domestic Abuse Report in 2017. Within the report they look at provision on Routes to Support. This is their online database which contains information about domestic abuse services in the UK, along with refuge vacancies. The report states that:

  • Of the 11,187 vacancies available during 2016/17, only 1.7% had wheelchair access.
  • Only 1/5 of refuge services said they were able to accommodate a carer.
  • Only 21.4% of refuge services offered support for women with learning difficulties.
  • Only 3.3% of refuge centres employ staff proficient in British Sign Language.

Ann Craft Trust Research

We have been funded by the Lloyds Foundation to research into reducing the risk of domestic abuse for disabled young adults.

Read more about the We Matter Too research project.

 Additional Resources

Read more about Ann Craft Trust’s Domestic Abuse Research.

Public Health England’s Disability and Domestic Abuse Review (2015).

The government’s Domestic Abuse Guidance

Office for National Statistics’ Intimate Personal Violence and Partner Abuse statistics (2015).

The following Women’s Aid guidance:

What is Domestic Abuse?

The Survivor’s Handbook Support for Disabled Women

The Survival and Beyond: Domestic Abuse Report

Information on the Routes to Support Directory

The following news articles:

Inside the Only Refuge Specifically for Women with Learning Disabilities from Inside Housing

Women with Learning Disabilities are Hidden Victims of Domestic Abuse from The Guardian

You can read about the other types of harm.


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