Changing the response for women with disabilities experiencing domestic violence

    HALIFAX: Women with disabilities experiencing domestic violence are some of the most vulnerable people in Nova Scotia – they are often physically, socially, and geographically isolated.

    The ‘Not Without Us’ project was created to give a voice to women with disabilities who experience domestic violence.

    According to the Canadian Survey on Disability, conducted by Statistics Canada in 2017, 30 per cent of Nova Scotian’s age 15 and older have at least one disability – that’s higher than the Canadian average of 22.3 per cent – of those Nova Scotians with at least one disability, 32.4 percent are female, compared to 28.1 per cent male.

    Sherry Costa, provincial coordinator with the Nova Scotia League of Equal Opportunities, and Joanna Bernard, president and CEO of Easter Seals Nova Scotia, partnered on the ‘Not Without Us’ project to research the needs of women with disabilities experiencing domestic violence and hear their stories and solutions.

    Over the course of 12 community sessions, the project heard personal stories from women with disabilities who’ve experienced domestic violence, and the staff from various organizations that serve these women providing input on resources and knowledge they need to assist women with disabilities.

    “Most women with disabilities have experienced some type of violence or abuse. Most of them,” project coordinator Suzanne Rent said. “We’re not talking about the odd woman. We’re talking about most. Yet the system is not set up to provide them with support. That needs to change.”

    In their recently released report – of what they heard – their recommendations were shaped by the stories and ideas shared by everyone who took part and their focus was about changing the response for women with disabilities experiencing domestic violence.

    Between July 2019 and December 2019 Rent organized and hosted meetings in communities across Nova Scotia. Originally, five meetings were scheduled however, after conversations with primarily the leadership at transition houses, several more meetings were scheduled – including a stop in Port Hawkesbury.

    Rent highlighted how the conversations were organic and often led by the women participating. During sessions, the women discussed various topics including accessing transition houses, housing, policing, transportation, stigma, financial barriers, and more.

    “There were challenges reaching out to women with disabilities currently in situations of domestic violence. These women simply cannot safely leave their situations,” Rent said. “Many of the women we met with were able to safely access transition houses and they often attended sessions with staff members of those organizations.”

    She explained staff provided significant insight into the challenges women with disabilities face and their input was invaluable to this research.

    Accessibility was different in each community where they hosted a session and Rent wanted to provide snapshots of what that accessibility looked like.

    “We compiled data on all elements women with disabilities need to navigate their communities,” Rent said. “This not only affects their abilities to leave situations of domestic violence, but also how they can live healthy lives after leaving”

    For each community, they provided details on transition houses or women’s resource centers, accessible housing, transit and transportation, and policing.

    In the Port Hawkesbury session, the project learned there was one transition house, Leeside Transition House which serves Richmond and Inverness counties, and the Town of Port Hawkesbury.

    The first floor of the building is accessible with accessible washroom and shower, however the kitchen is not accessible and the laundry is located in the basement of the building.

    As for transportation, the Strait Area Transit has accessible vehicles, however Dave’s Taxi, Harper’s Taxi, and Ed’s Taxi do not.

    Over the course of the meetings, several trends were noticed; home care, the needs of women with intellectual disabilities, policing and lack of knowledge and training around accessibility issues, housing, transit and transportation, internet and communication, and the stigma over domestic violence and disabilities.

    Rent advised when a woman calls a transition house for support, she’s asked if she can live independently; meaning she can clean and cook for herself, take care of her own personal care, and healthcare.

    “If a woman relies on homecare for support, and some women with disabilities do, she often can’t go to a transition house,” she said. “Homecare doesn’t transition with the woman.”

    Women with intellectual disabilities can physically access safe spaces, including transition houses, but often have challenges navigating systems, including legal and medical, which are a part of the process after leaving a situation of domestic violence.

    The issue of stigma was raised in all of the community sessions.

    “There is still a significant amount of silence surrounding domestic violence and how and who should resolve it,” Rent explained. “As well, there is still a lack of support for those with disabilities in these communities. Stigma around domestic violence further isolates women with disabilities who are already socially and often geographically isolated.”

    Among the project’s key recommendations includes completing accessibility surveys of all the transition houses in the province as well as other safe places such as women’s resource centre’s; develop a program on accessibility for police and staff at organizations that serve women with disabilities leaving situations of domestic violence; creating a community awareness campaign on domestic violence in accessibility and a community task force that can help understand, implement, and monitor accessibility in their communities.

    “One of the benefits of the community sessions was a networking opportunities they provided for survivors of domestic violence in the staff of the organizations that serve these women,” Rent said. “We hope this project has created tools that can be implemented in communities across Nova Scotia and customized by the organizations that work with women with disabilities experiencing domestic violence.”

    This research and the recommendations have the potential to make a much larger impact in Nova Scotia, and she advises much of the work will also assist other women experiencing domestic violence and anyone living with a disability.

    “When improvements are made to transportation, the built environment, communication, and further education around domestic violence in accessibility in Nova Scotia, this will connect us all.”