Domestic violence is a sad reality for women as well as men, for people with and without disabilities. Below is a letter Insights received from Joanne Carron, a woman with Spina Bifida who courageously shares her experience in the hopes of helping others.
“The most important thing I want to share is to please, please trust your instincts. Listen to that little voice in the back of your mind whispering to you, screaming at you— something is not right!” Joanne Carron
e was my high school sweetheart. Shy, unassuming, big doe eyes, and oh so thrilled and surprised that a girl would be interested in him. At least that’s the way he presented himself. I never imagined he would become my worst nightmare. I stayed for five years. He was my knight in shining armor, the one who would save me from the situation I was living in. At least that is what I thought he would be. I never imagined that the second man I loved and trusted would become the second abuser in my life. I stayed for 5 ½ years. You may be thinking to yourself, “Why did she stay?” or “I would never put up with abuse.” Well, I lived it and can say from experience that one can never judge a person who doesn’t leave immediately. Abuse is so insidious, it can start with just a comment. Slowly but surely, as they gain your trust, play on your insecurities, slowly isolate you from friends and families, abusers can convince their victims of almost anything. As a woman with Spina Bifida and a survivor of two abusive relationships—the first more physical and the second more mental and emotional—I can say with confidence that it doesn’t have to be the only life a victim has to
know. No matter how bad it seems—that no one knows, that no one will understand—you can get out. I feel it is crucial that people become more educated and aware of the fact that abuse happens, and yes, it happens to individuals with disabilities. Please know also, the types of things the abuser can do to someone who is more vulnerable and reliant on the abuser can be very different from the experience of victims without a disability. Many people with a disability feel that they “can’t do any better,” “I’m lucky to have a partner,” or “I deserve it.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Some of the forms abuse can take are medications being taken away, being left alone without access to a wheelchair, or being left in a vehicle on the side of the road without hand controls (with the threat of being left there with your chair in the trunk). Emotional and verbal abuse can include being mocked for incontinence, mocked for abuse from previous relationships, or affairs with other women. None of these are things we as people with disabilities have to tolerate! After getting out in my own time, when I was ready, I went to counseling, read about
Insights | Spring 2010
signs and effects of domestic violence, and read every self-help book I could get my hands on. I learned about who I am now—myself as a survivor. But that was after the fact. I implore those who are in an abusive relationship to please get help. Work on getting out. For those of you who are dating, thinking about dating, or have a family member in a relationship, educate yourself on the signs of abuse. The most important thing I want to share is to please, please trust your instincts. Listen to that little voice in the back of your mind whispering to you, screaming at you—something is not right!
to ask them about it. Linda suggests, “Let the person know that you care about her. If she needs to talk, to get away, you are there for her. Give her your work and cell phone numbers so she can reach you any time of day.” Many times a victim may acknowledge abuse but is not prepared to leave. “While you can’t force someone to leave or take action, you can assure him that your door is always open. Keep the lines of communication open,” Linda says. In some cases, it may be wise to make a plan for getting help in an emergency, such as agreeing on a codeword that a friend knows to interpret as “Call 911.”
I wish I had.
Accessing Community Resources
Signs of Abuse
There are resources available for abused and battered men and women. There is a National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-7233, www.ndvh.org). Many cities also have a domestic violence hotline or a domestic violence liaison officer through the local police station. These resources can help you in various ways: obtaining a list of attorneys, assisting with getting locks changed, and filling out an order of protection form. Many cities also have shelters for individuals or families who need temporary support and housing, however it is important to ask if these facilities are accessible. Check to see if common areas are easily accessible to people using wheelchairs, doorways are wide enough, and bathrooms are able to accommodate someone with a physical disability.
Linda Miller is a domestic violence survivor and is currently the certified domestic violence advocate who consults with many victims of domestic violence through Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital in Chicago and its Disability Resource Center. The examples of abuse cited in Joanne’s letter are ones Linda hears often. “It can be hard to pinpoint warning signs since they can depend upon a person’s limitations,” she said. For instance, a person with visual impairments may encounter abuse when her spouse or care provider mistreats her helper dog or takes away her television— one of her primary gateways to the outside world. “Abusers often mistreat victims in subtle ways,” says Linda, who uses a wheelchair as a result of childhood polio. She was married to her first husband for three years, and the abuse escalated over time. He would often apologize after an abusive event, but later the apologies stopped and it became “her fault” for mouthing off or talking back to him, which could result in choking, slapping, or being kept out of her wheelchair for hours. “I depended on him for transportation to work,” she says, “and he would use that against me—refuse to take me or make me late on purpose.” Domestic violence—also called intimate partner abuse, intimate partner violence, and domestic abuse—takes many forms. In her work with other individuals with disabilities, Linda sees abuse that is physical, emotional, and sexual. It can also involve neglect. Examples of abuse can range from medications being taken away or sold to personal care attendants who steal money and jewelry, or who put someone to bed early and don’t assist the person with getting out of bed and dressed until late the next morning. Sexual abuse can range from demanding sex for help, or taking advantage of a person with limitations. And remember, abuse can happen to men. About 30 percent of Linda’s clients are men who encounter all forms of abuse.
“You deserve to live free of fear, and life can go on,” says Linda, who is married to her second husband of 23 years and has a son. “You can make that happen by taking steps to protect yourself and reaching out for help.”
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How to Help “Don’t be afraid to ask someone if he needs help,” says Linda. When her friends and family took notice of her black eye, they assumed she fell from a chair. “No one asked,” she said. Today she works with many health care providers and others who see the signs but find it difficult to believe that someone would abuse or hurt someone with a disability—and therefore dismiss the signs and assume it happened some other way. “People don’t like to think that someone would hurt a puppy, but it happens,” Linda said. “And the reality is there are people that hurt people with disabilities.”
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How do you broach the subject with someone you are concerned about? According to Linda, many victims acknowledge that while they weren’t able to verbalize their situation to others, they were desperately wanting someone
Insights | Spring 2010
www.spinabifidaassociation.org | 800-621-3141