Workplace Domestic Violence: Supporting Workers with Disabilities

 

For employers, the obligation to protect workers who may be experiencing domestic violence and who also have a disability requires sensitivity and training on multiple and unique barriers that increase vulnerability. Women with disabilities cross all demographics. Race, class and ethnicity are elements of a person’s identity that combine with disability to create additional social disadvantages. A racialized woman with a disability is likely to have experienced multiple forms of discrimination based on her race, gender and ability. These are not discrete elements that can be added or subtracted in any kind of meaningful way. Instead, developing an understanding of the many ways that personal identity intersects with society requires a strong equity commitment on the part of leaders to unearth and challenge inevitable stereotypes and biases that function to make it more difficult for those experiencing abuse to come forward or seek support. Discrimination does not only happen at an individual level. A regular and thorough review of policies and practices is needed to reveal invisible barriers that are normalized in workplace culture, structure and operations.

 

 

Forms of Abuse

Understanding that women with disabilities report unique forms of abuse in their relationships that are particular to their disability can help raise the visibility of warning signs. These can include:

  • Partners who deny the use of services or devices, such as refusing to charge the battery of a power chair or other assistive device
  • Being blamed for needing assistance or accommodation
  • Being excluded from decision-making or participation in social events
  • Being denied support to seek employment or promotion
  • Tactics of using language and communication, such as a seeing partner who communicates visually using body language, gestures or writing to exclude a partner who is visually-impaired
  • Experiencing physical and psychological harm from a range of people who make assumptions about ‘helping’, touching or moving a person without asking
  • Being made to feel like less of a person because of a disability

Negative Messages and Stereotypes to Address

  • The belief that no one would hurt a person with a disability.
  • People with disabilities are frequently desexualized and it is assumed that they do not have intimate relationships.
  • Assumptions that people who have mental health issues are not intelligent, or that their reality is not the same as others. They may not be believed if they disclose abuse because of this stigma.
  • Assumptions that people with disabilities are helpless and dependent
  • A woman with a disability may fear the consequence of disclosure because of the stigma of disability. She may fear that her ability to look after herself and her own children would be questioned.

The relationship between disability and the social context in which the person with the disability lives, works studies and carries out their daily activities matters greatly. Disability is experienced in a “social space”. When impairments are viewed as problems or deficiencies, power imbalances inevitably result.

Progressive employers can do a lot to create respectful, safe and supportive environments for all workers. In addition to teaching everyone in the organization to recognize and respond to the warning signs and risk factors of domestic violence, equity oriented, anti-oppression and human rights training and education can help to create the conditions where workers with disabilities who are experiencing abuse at home can find safety and meaningful support at work. Disability etiquette for the workplace can also be found online to guide equitable and respectful practices through recruitment, interviewing and onboarding processes with attention to a range of abilities.[1]