Domestic abuse and disability: the need for refuge

Domestic abuse victims are at the forefront of conversations on those who need support during the coronavirus pandemic, but for disabled people it can be harder to access support. Emma Storr investigates.

Domestic abuse is a largely hidden crime, occurring primarily at home and affecting millions of people in the UK every year, but people with a disability are at an increased risk.

Understanding the signs of domestic abuse is key to identifying a dangerous situation. Abuse isn’t always physical, it is a pattern of controlling, threatening and coercive behaviour that can also be emotional, economic, psychological or sexual.

Isolation is already a tool used by many perpetrators to control sufferers of domestic abuse, but this was intensified by lockdown as people were forced to stay inside with their abusers for prolonged periods of time.

Andrew* is partially sighted and is a survivor of domestic abuse. In his previous marriage he was subject to verbal, emotional and physical abuse, often targeted at his disability. This including withholding visual aids and information to ensure he was reliant on his abuser.

“There’s a certain amount of control they’re withholding,” recalls Andrew. “It was almost like part of the abuse was trying to keep me dependent so that she could tell everybody what a martyr she was.”

As a survivor of domestic abuse, Andrew is now concerned about the isolation disabled victims have faced during lockdown.

Locked in

“If you have been self-isolating or shielding with somebody who is abusing you, and those restrictions are eased for the public, you may still not be able to get out and away from them because the world is a different and more hostile environment to you,” stresses Andrew.

Andrew’s concerns are echoed by Mark Brooks, chairman of ManKind Initiative, a charity helping men escape domestic abuse.

“There’s no respite from being locked in with the person who’s committing the domestic abuse against you,” worries Mark.

“Our concern is not just the level of violence that they will be enduring, but also the intensification of the psychological and emotional abuse that they will be going through.”

While being urged to stay at home, victims of domestic abuse are stuck with their perpetrator and unable to access help in their local community.

This has been exacerbated for people with disabilities who are completely cut off from their normal network of friends, loved ones and carers.

Saliha, who is blind, is a survivor of honour-based domestic abuse where every aspect of her day-to-day life was controlled by her community.

“They are more isolated because they are not able to go out and get relief away from their perpetrators,” expresses Saliha.

“It’s not just a physical entrapment, it’s also an emotional entrapment because as we know for a lot of women including women with disabilities, they are physiologically tormented and there are taunts around their disability.”

Equal access

Over the last few months there has been an increased focus on domestic abuse, including domestic abuse towards disabled people, but in order to provide adequate support there has to be equal access to services and refuges.

Saliha left her perpetrators three times, but returned on her first two attempts due to this lack of support.

“On my first attempt I went to a woman’s refuge when I was 16 and I ended up returning home because I found that there wasn’t support available for disabled survivors,” remembers Saliha. “There was a lack of awareness around honour-based abuse and disability, then the second time around I also left and retuned because of the lack of support.”

Without a change in the way support services are offered, disabled people will continue to have no escape from abusive situations.

“Whatever we do now it must be embedded in from the start when we’re making changes to services,” stresses Andrew. “We must think about how we make this accessible to disabled people, and we need to build it in from the outset.”

Throughout the coronavirus lockdown, disability organisation Leonard Cheshire saw an increase in people being placed in inappropriate care settings as a means of cost saving. The organisation reported that people were told to rely on family members to deliver their care needs, this in turn could leave disabled people in the hands of perpetrators with no respite.

Sophie Francis-Cansfield, senior campaigns and policy officer at Women’s Aid, says: “One of our concerns during the pandemic has been the changes to the Care Act 2014 in England through the government’s emergency coronavirus legislation.

“Whilst this was intended to enable local authorities to prioritise their services, the changes, however, affect established rights and safeguards, and have a significant impact on disabled people.”

“This is of huge concern,” continues Sophie. “Especially in the context of domestic abuse where abuse is often perpetrated by those whom disabled survivors rely on for care and support.”

Women’s Aid has been supporting calls from Stay Safe East, a charity supporting disabled survivors of domestic abuse, for paid and unpaid carers to be included within the list of a personal connected in the 2015 Serious Crime and Domestic Violence Act. These calls also include the repeal of the carer’s defence clause.

A key conversation throughout the pandemic has followed the need for diversity and equality in all sectors, and this should include domestic abuse.


“We need that to apply to domestic abuse, as much as any other area,” explains Mark. “It’s always really important that we take a 360-degree view of this.

“We need more education about how anybody can be a victim of domestic abuse, and that there are no boundaries with regards to race, age, sexuality or gender.”

In order to remove these barriers, domestic abuse campaigns need to highlight people from all backgrounds and minorities, but the public’s perception of domestic abuse and disability also needs to change.

“Discussions I’ve heard around the domestic abuse bill so far take too narrow a view of what can happen to disabled people and how they get abused,” explains Andrew. “Yes, it can happen in terms of the caring role, but it is more than that.”

Education and disability awareness training for domestic abuse support services as we move forward is vital in order to save lives and provide a safe haven for survivors.

Finding support

For people who are currently experiencing domestic abuse or want to help a loved one, there is support available in an emergency and more generally.

“Even though it might not seem like it at the moment, there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” reassures Saliha.

The police, national helplines and local support organisations are there to offer help to victims of domestic abuse.

While many aspects of normal life have changed, this support is still available. Lisa King from Refuge explains: “We want women to know that they can leave their home if they are experiencing abuse. They can call the Helpline, or the police if it is an emergency.

“Refuges are open as usual and there are refuge spaces for women who need to continue to shield once they have fled.”

If possible, keep your phone charged and with you at all times, Lisa says: “If you are preparing to leave the homekeep your bank cards, a little cash and car keys (if you have them) in a safe and accessible place.”

“If you are able, leave an overnight bag with friends or family. Include your ID, driving license and passport in the bag, or copies if you have them.”

If you don’t currently have access to a phone or internet device, ask a trusted friend to contact a helpline for you.


The National Domestic Abuse Helpline
0800 2000 247

ManKind Initiative
01823 3342 44


Women’s Aid

To use the Silent Solutions process for help in an emergency dial 999 then press 55.

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