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WARNING: This story contains graphic content related to violence and abuse, and may be disturbing to some readers.
The names and identities of the victims in our stories have been changed to protect them.
Their stories and circumstances aren’t unique. Thousands more are being silenced as their trauma continues daily behind closed doors. These are just some of their first-hand accounts.
To watch this story in Punjabi, click here.
According to the 2014 General Social Survey on Victimization, women with a disability were twice as likely to have been a victim of violent crime as women who did not have a disability.
Canadians with a disability were also more likely to be victimized in their own home, a traumatizing experience Rosie was forced to live through with her husband at the time.
“My first husband was extremely abusive and he became more so [as time went on],” Rosie said.
“I was beaten up a number of times, severely; to the point that I had broken ribs. I had black eyes. I had many, many bruises all over my body.”
Rosie also suffers from a rare type of inflammatory arthritis that causes fevers, rash and joint pain. She said stress was a big trigger behind flare-ups of her condition, which made it even harder to protect herself.
“With all of the stress of his abuse and my illness and sensitivity towards stress, my illness kept getting worse,” Rosie said.
“I didn’t know what to do, basically. I didn’t know what to do. I was too afraid.”
Difficulty of leaving
Fear of retribution from an abuser is a common reason many victims are too afraid to leave, but Rosie said her disability added another layer of concern for not only her own well being, but for her children’s.
“I never knew what battered wife syndrome was back then, but now looking back I know I had it,” Rosie said. The condition refers to a form of PTSD during which women develop a sense of helplessness, wrongly believing they deserve the abuse.
“I didn’t believe that I could do things on my own. I didn’t believe that with my chronic health condition, that I would be able to take care of my children. I just did not have the confidence and I was afraid.”
Eventually Rosie did build up the courage to call 9-1-1. Though she hoped the police would be able to quietly whisk her ex-husband away and put an end to the abuse, Rosie quickly realized the process was much more complicated than that.
“After I called the police, there were numerous steps that took place,” Rosie said.
“I didn’t know the steps that would happen. I’m just completely in the dark. I don’t understand what’s going to happen whatsoever.”
When it came time to go to court, Rosie said her ex-husband’s lawyer used everything in his power to prove his innocence, including using her disability against her. She said they presented outdated medical books to claim the bruising and broken bones from his abuse were actually a side effect of her medication.
“He tried to twist everything,” Rosie said.
“He manipulated everything to make it seem like all of these problems were part of my disability; were part of my illness.”
The strategy worked. Rosie said the judge ruled in her ex-husband’s favour and her husband was released from jail, leaving Rosie vulnerable.
“From that point, I had to live in fear and I had to take a lot of precautions because I was terrified of what he was going to do to me,” Rosie said.
Failings of the judicial system
Rosie did her best to get as far away from her abuser as possible, applying for a job in a city far from the neighbourhood her ex-husband was living in.
“I was fortunate enough to get the job and what happened was my ex-husband went to his lawyer and they made a motion to try to prevent me from moving, try to prevent me from getting my job, using my disability against me,” Rosie said, adding he tried to claim she wouldn’t be able to take care of their kids by herself.
That is a common example of ways people see their disabilities used against them in the system.
“The justice system has always been very hard on persons with disabilities,” said Meenu Sikand, founder and CEO of Accessibility for All, a small non-profit organization that promotes inclusion, equality and accessibility services for persons with disabilities.
“If you look at custody battles, if one partner has a disability they always tend to lose custody of the child. So for that reason, sometimes those with disabilities stay in the abusive relationship because they do not want to lose custody of their children.”
The disconnect between people with a disability and the justice system can end up with dire consequences for victims of abuse.
Rosie now helps others navigate the system, including someone who was non-verbal being abused by her caregiver but couldn’t get the law to protect them.
“The police came back to me and told me that because she has difficulties communicating, because of the severity of her disability, that it would not hold up in a courtroom,” Rosie said.
“That woman had to go back to that same environment after making the complaint, that’s the only place where she could live. That’s what can happen.”
Persons with a disability at higher risk of of facing violence
“People with disabilities face a much higher risk of abuse,” Rosie said.
“Because there are so many people that come into their lives, whether it’s through home care, attended care; a lot of these individuals enter their personal space.”
Depending on the severity, people with a disability may be dependent on others for their care. Rosie said many can end up stuck in abusive situations with their caregivers or aids without even realizing they are a victim of abuse.
“When you’re living your life with a disability, you learn to let down your natural guard with regards to space and what’s appropriate because so many people are bathing you, taking care of you. So they lose this sense of what’s proper,” Rosie said.
“They need to understand what is abuse, because it’s never discussed with them,” Sikand said.
“Hey, what is a good touch or a bad, especially if you are relying on others for your personal care. So that means as a kid, as a young person or an adult, you’re using somebody else to get you dressed, how do they know when the person providing services is crossing the line?”
But the trouble remains that because these cases often take place behind closed doors,
“It’s very difficult to find those numbers because nobody is collecting them,” Sikand said.
“Especially for women with disabilities, even when you see the reports, they are mostly narratives of their stories.”
Even funding towards support services often requires a proven need for help, something Sikand said can be hard to demonstrate without data.
“We live in a time where evidence is needed to create any programs or any interventions,” Sikand said.
“Without the numbers, we see that the majority of women’s foundations are not focusing on women with disabilities because the numbers are not there.”
Even without data, Sikand said it should be up to the government to make sure any grants or funding serving victims of abuse are accessible.
After leaving her ex-husband 30 years ago, Rosie began working to help others in situations similar to her own. While improvements have been slow, Rosie said she can see the progress being made in accessible support services.
“When I was going through this, women’s shelters weren’t accessible. They didn’t provide accommodations for people with disabilities. I never thought of even going there because I just didn’t think anybody would understand what I was going through,” Rosie said.
“But now there’s at least more partnerships between women’s shelters, violence, service providers and disability organizations.”