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Abuse of Disabled High

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Starphoenix (Saskatoon), December 28, 2005.

The Saskatchewan Voice of People with Disabilities is gearing up to appeal to provincial politicians to better help women with disabilities escape abuse.

The move comes after the organization did a study on abuse that found 83 percent of women with disabilities in the province are being abused.

"I knew that it was going to be high, but I didn't think it was going to be that high," Voice's executive director Bev Duncan said.

The abuse is physical, verbal, sexual and emotional, and often comes from the woman's primary caregiver or spouse, Duncan said.

Women with a disability are also less likely to report an abusive spouse than women without a disability, she said.

What's keeping many women silent is isolation and fear, Duncan said.

"It's the whole idea of retaliation," she said. "It still happens. A family (member) could be a caregiver for an individual and if they don't do as they're told, maybe they won't get them out of bed. They might not provide them with things that are required for them, say, catheterizing someone, as they should be.

"This then leads to a criminal act, because that's a life-threatening thing. Yet, it's still not being dealt with. And people are afraid to say something because it's their family."

There's also the challenge of logistics. If a physically challenged woman wants to leave her home, she's got to find reliable transportation to a safe place.

That safe place may also require wheelchair ramps, elevators or low counters. Since 74 percent of Canadian women with disabilities are unemployed, many have no source of income to live independently.

"And then, of course, the person is thinking, 'Well I deserve this, because I'm disabled, and with my disability, this person is being such a great guy by being with me,' " Duncan said.

Women who live in remote areas have even fewer choices. The only police in town may be related to the abuser, Duncan said.

She relayed one anecdote where a woman who uses a wheelchair decided to leave her home and was wheeling down the road when her husband caught wind of the plan. He tried to run her off the road with his truck.

For people with an intellectual disability, often if they are in an institution or receiving care from a home-care worker, the victim can't communicate what has happened, and if she does report it, the authorities may not believe her, Duncan said.

The study found that when women with disabilities do look for help, they embark on a bureaucratic journey of referrals. The information they need isn't often in accessible forms like large print, audio and braille, and few shelters are able to house or care for disabled women.

Joanne Crofford, the minister responsible for disability issues and the minister of community resources and employment, said services are there to help women with disabilities. What needs work, she said, is how the government gets the information to them.

"I was wondering myself when I reviewed this (file) whether there's enough direct communication with persons with disabilities," Crofford said. "I don't know . . . how easy it is to identify those with disabilities in our caseload, but that's certainly something we could look at doing, making sure they receive some information directly."

Only 11 percent of people with disabilities are using the government services available to them, Crofford said.

Government-funded institutions and group homes must also have strict policies on abuse, she said, including staff training and a formal reporting process. The government also relies on staff to report abuse of people who have multiple disabilities that impede their ability to communicate, she said. This policy is currently under review, she added.

"A person's in a pretty vulnerable situation," Crofford said. "So, even though they can disclose it, they could not be aware that they can, and also, they could be worried about repercussions if they report it."

Any person who suffers abuse and needs shelter, but is getting shunted around, should call her office directly, Crofford said.

Two Saskatoon women's shelters say although they never turn anyone away, their facilities are not designed to house women with disabilities for the long term.

Barb Macpherson, executive director of the YWCA, said although the shelter is fully wheelchair accessible, it's designed for women who can live independently.

"When someone phones and they're in crisis, our first goal is to get her into safety," Macpherson said. "It may not be somewhere she can stay for any length of time, but to get her out of the sense of emergency and into a safe place and then work with the rest of it."

Possible places the women can go include social housing or a health region facility, she said.

Although Interval House is not wheelchair accessible, the shelter doesn't turn people with disabilities away, executive director Sharon Cunningham said. The shelter staff will phone around to find the right place for that person to live and receive care if necessary, she said.

Cunningham said home-care workers can come to care for clients at Interval House, and in longer-term shelter Adele House, just as they would in a person's home.

Cunningham said Interval House is planning to open a newer, wheelchair-accessible shelter in the future. What she wants most of all is more public awareness about the abuse.

"It's hard for the general public to understand how anybody could rape a woman in a wheelchair," she said. "How anybody could rape and rob a blind woman. How anybody could steal from a deaf, 83-year-old lady. That's all happened here in my tenure. The public doesn't understand, because most of them are good people."

The Saskatchewan Voice for People with Disabilities is currently choosing three or four priority recommendations from their report to present to the government in hopes of preventing further abuse.


Above is Ruth with two of her children