The International Day of Persons with Disabilities
If we asked the question “what are you able to do”, what would you say? The odds are that no two readers would respond with exactly the same list. There are so many possible answers. If we flipped the question to ask “what are you not able to do” the numbers of examples would be equally large. You might describe your talents or the everyday activities you take for granted. You might list extraordinary things that you’ve dreamed of or the ordinary things you never learned or were able to do. Our abilities are complex and in many ways they dictate what we do in the world, what we have access to, and how we are viewed and valued by the people around us.
Our society systematically devalues people with disabilities. A combination of ableism and stigma around asking for assistance creates a society full of barriers which prevents equitable access to services, opportunities and ultimately limits people with disabilities. December 3rd is the Day of Persons with Disabilities and as part of Violence Prevention Grey Bruce’s 16 days of activism series, we invite you to consider the relationship between disability, ability, and violence.
There are many types of disabilities, including intellectual, physical and mental health related disabilities. Ability is a spectrum. It fluctuates for each of us and at different stages in our lives we may have varying abilities. For example a bout of depression can leave us in need of more support as we adjust our commitments or a broken leg can mean that we cannot take the stairs the way we are used to doing. We recognize physical disability most easily but many disabilities are invisible. People live with different physical, social, and mental capacities that affect their ability to navigate the world. People living with a disability often require support and that dependence — no matter how great or small — increases their vulnerability. Abuse might be emotional, physical, sexual, or financial and all of these can be devastating.
The DisAbled Women’s Network Canada (DAWN) reports that “women with physical and cognitive based impairments and differences experience violence at rates two to three times that of women who don’t currently live with impairment or bodily difference”. There are many reasons for this shockingly high rate of violence. If a person cannot communicate easily or verbally it is difficult for them to disclose abuse. People living with cognitive disabilities might not fully understand what they experienced or know that it was wrong. Discrimination is another risk factor because a person with a cognitive or physical disability is also more likely to be ignored or dismissed as unreliable. The issue becomes more complicated when we learn that perpetrators of violence against people with disabilities tend to be caregivers; a role that gives them increased power over their victim and that makes the victim fear further violence or suffering if they report.
DAWN reports that one third of Canadian women with disabilities live below the poverty line. This is not surprising because women with disabilities are underemployed.With limited income, people with disabilities are more likely to be financially dependent on their partners and more vulnerable to manipulation and abuse. The combination of these vulnerabilities also increases their risk of human trafficking and exploitation.
The risk factors we’ve just explored have one thing in common; they’re strengthened by our culture’s discrimination towards people living with disabilities. This is called ableism. When we create systems that treat people with disabilities as less valuable and that dismiss their abilities, we dehumanize them. When we’ve begun to view them as less than human it’s easier to treat them poorly, ignore their voices, and resent or dismiss their particular needs. If you can walk up steps, you might not notice that there is no ramp into a building. If you can hear, you might not notice when information isn’t provided in writing. If you can read and comprehend this article, you might not think about the lack of general education around consent. Not noticing the barriers that other people experience is not a failure but ignoring those barriers when we’ve been made aware is.
Locally, adults living with disabilities can receive support through Community Living, Adult Protective Services, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and the Canadian Mental Health Association. Provincially, the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services runs Report ON, a program that allows people to report actual or suspected abuse of adults with developmental disabilities. Stopgap.ca is working to provide simple ramps to make buildings and businesses more accessible across Canada
We might not always think about the ways our abilities shape our lives, but they do. For some people our abilities make life easier, for others it makes us vulnerable. People living with disabilities deserve lives free of violence and it’s up to all of us to work to create a world where that is possible.
By Jon Farmer – Coordinator
Violence Prevention Grey Bruce
with notes from Michelle Solero