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Women and Disability


Disability rights is a conversation often neglected within Australian policy, culture and academia. Just like intersections of gender and race, disability is another marginalised group which experiences varying forms of disadvantage. Similarly, disability is recognised as a social construct (Frohmader & Salthouse, 2004). [1]

Globally, 1 in 7 people (1 billion) live with disabilities. Although people with disabilities have the same general health needs as people without disability, they are: [6]

  • 2 times more likely to receive inadequate health care

  • 3 times more likely to be denied health care

  • 4 times more likely to be treated poorly in the health care system

In Australia, 20% of the female population live with disabilities. Due to the intersecting categories of gender and disability (and any others e.g. race, class), women with disabilities are found to experience double-discrimination. This results in women with disabilities as experiencing higher levels of discrimination than men living with disabilities do and women without. This ableism, or discrimination against people living with disabilities, restricts options/opportunity for economic, social and political life. Discrimination is experienced attitudinally, economically, politically, psychologically and socially. [1]


Rates of disadvantage in women living with disabilities is estimated in the following categories:

  • Employment/Education/Income [1]

  • 51% of women with disabilities earn less than $200/week, compared to 36% of men who live with disabilities

  • 16% of women with disabilities earn over $400/week, compared to 33% of men with disabilities

  • 28% of men with disabilities are likely to have a secondary education, compared to 16% of women with disabilities

  • Government funded, Open Employment and Disability services, assists men with disabilities at two times the rate of assisting women

  • Over-represented in public-housing, comprising of 40% of all tenants

Abuse [7]

  • 40% more likely to be victims of domestic abuse than women without disabilities

  • 70% of women with disabilities have been victims of sexual assaults

  • Women with disabilities are 10 times more likely to experience sexual harassment

  • Women with intellectual disabilities are 10 times more likely to be assaulted

  • More than one quarter of rape cases in Australia are reported to have been against women with disabilities

  • More than two thirds of women with intellectual disabilities have been subject to sexual abuse before the age of 18

Crime [7]

Crimes against women with disabilities often go underreported, and when they are reported the investigations are inadequate, remain unsolved and result in minimal sentencing
Women with disabilities are far less likely to be believed

Definition of Disability

One of the difficulties with disability is the lack of a wholistic definition. The World Health Organisation (WHO) previously defined disability as:

‘Disability’ refers to ‘any restriction or lack of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being’. Disability may affect hearing, vision, intellectual functioning, learning, mobility, speech and/or mental health. It may also be the result of medical conditions such as epilepsy, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s Disease or AIDS/HIV.

This definition is based on the Biomedical Model. This model is critiqued by health and disability advocates as limited and problematic as it does not address causes of burden outside the body itself. Chadwick (1994) states that this approach leads to ‘victim-blaming’ stereotypes, stating that the problem is seen as residing from “within” the individual. [1]

The preferred model is the Social Model of disability which does not define disability as an outcome of bodily pathology, but rather as a social organisation. The social model defines discrimination within society as the obstacle to full community participation. These include: [1]


  • Built environment (e.g. no wheelchair ramps or rails)

  • Little community awareness/education (e.g. no mainstream schooling of Auslan - sign language)

  • Community attitudes (e.g. hostility or under-estimation in abilities)

What is domestic violence (DV)?

 DV is violent or intimidating behaviour meant to control, dominate, humiliate or scare another person. Abuse can be done against a man or a woman, but most commonly by a man against a woman. Abuse can be perpetuated by an intimate partner, parent, family member, carer or other person whom wishes to assert power over the other. Types of domestic abuse include: [2]


  • Verbal abuse, e.g. swearing, ongoing public or private humiliation, belittling

  • Psychological abuse, e.g. destroying property, abusing pets, threatening the custody of children, saying the police/courts could not help the victim

  • Emotional abuse, e.g. blaming the victim for relationship issues, emotional blackmail, suicide threats, undermining self-esteem/self-worth

  • Social abuse, e.g. isolating from family and friends, limiting outside contact, restricting car or telephone use

  • Financial abuse, e.g. controlling access to bank accounts, providing only small allowance, not allowing victim to have a job

  • Physical abuse, e.g. direct assault (choking, shaking, spitting, hitting), use of weapons or objects, assault of children, forcing victim from take drugs, withholding medication, neglect of care

  • Sexual abuse, e.g. any unwanted sexual acts, assaulting genitals, forced unsafe sexual acts, making victim perform unwanted sexual acts, using sexual insults

  • Stalking, e.g. following/watching, online harassment, GPS tracking, entering property without permission

Women, Disability and Abuse

  • 1 in 3 women experience domestic assault at some point in their lives.

  • For women living with disabilities, this number rises by 40%.

  • And 10 times higher chance of being sexually assaulted.

 Women living with disabilities are more susceptible to domestic violence and abuse due to the power imbalance. Many women with disabilities are acutely aware of their own powerlessness. Sobsey (1994) describes that people with disabilities often have limited skills and knowledge to protect themselves, adding to these power inequalities. [1]

When faced with danger, there are difficulties in attempting to escape: physical means of fleeing, access to transport, lack of place of refuge. Even if/after the woman has escaped, barriers to services can be grouped in the following categories: communication, information, attitudes, physical environment, lack of disability trained workers.

 Seeking support systems after abuse: family and friends are the first line of support. Unfortunately, for people with disabilities, ‘family’ often does not exist as a support system, because commonly, family is the site of oppression [1]. Thus, services and organisations are often an early point of contact for many people with disabilities.


Policy and Governance

The 2017 DPO Australia Report stated that women’s rights are an urgent unaddressed issue:

The National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children 2010-2022, is designed to prevent violence against women. However, many forms of violence perpetrated against women and girls with disability and the settings where such violence occurs, remain outside the scope of the National Plan. [3]

National Disability Strategy 2010-2020 (NDS) remains the primary policy framework for people with disability. While there has been critical reform under the NDS, most notably with the implementation of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), the NDS is not being driven consistently across government jurisdictions nor does it have the investment or concrete measures needed to deliver on its policy outcome areas.

The Disability Strategy aims to cover six policy areas: [4]

  • Inclusive and accessible communities – physical environment including public transport; parks buildings, housing; digital information and communication technologies; civic life including social, sporting, recreational and cultural life

  • Rights protection, justice and legislation – statutory protections such as anti-discrimination measures, complaints mechanisms, advocacy, the electoral justice systems

  • Economic security – jobs, business opportunities, financial independence, adequate income support and housing

  • Personal and community support – inclusion and participation in the community, person-centred care and support provided by specialist disability services and mainstream services; informal care and support

  • Learning and skills – early childhood and care, schools, further education, vocational education; transitions from education to employment; life-long learning

  • Health and wellbeing – health services, health promotion and the interaction between health and disability systems; wellbeing and enjoyment of life

Urgent Government Change

The main concern is that within the focus of women’s specific issues in the NDS and National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children, both address the intersecting issue of women and disability together.

The urgent need for systematic accurate collection of data about the incidence and nature of the domestic violence experienced by women with disabilities must begin. National, state and territory initiatives, policies and programs must be formulated, and followed up regularly. [1]

 Additionally, community visibility, action and programs about the local issues which women with disabilities face should become an issue in public consciousness. This can be done through school education programs, advertising, and screenings or programs. These should include and educate local women with disabilities as well as the wider public.

Other Organisations for People with Disabilities

  • The Disabled Peoples Organisation (DPO) Australia is an umbrella organisation supported by the following organisations: [3]

  • Women with Disabilities Australia (WWDA)

  • National Ethnic Disability Alliance (NEDA)

  • First People’s Disability Network (FPDN)

  • People with Disability Australia (PWDA)

  • Children and Young People with Disability Australia (CYDA)

  • Australian Federation of Disability Organisations (AFDO)

  • Intersex International Australia (OII)

  • Australian Centre for Disability Law Speech Pathology Australia Organisation

  • Disability Advocacy Network Australia (DANA)


Useful Numbers and Hotlines [5]

To report abuse or neglect call 1800 880 052 or TTY for callers with hearing impairments call 180 301 130

General People with Disabilities Australia call 1800 422 015 or TTY 1800 422 016

Australian Centre for Disability Law call 02 8014 7000 or TTY 02 9211 5549

Intellectual Disability Rights Service 02 9318 0144

Women With Disabilities Youth Network website

Research by: Patricia Chaar









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