How are women with disabilities affected by violence that is different from other women?

Often overlooked, women with disabilities can experience unique types of abuse. According to one study, women with disabilities are two times as likely to report severe physical violence and three times as likely to be forced into sexual activity.1

Vania Sukola, who is a registered psychotherapist and lead counsellor for women with intellectual disabilities who have experienced violence at Family Service Toronto for the past 11 years, discusses some of the particular challenges faced by women with disabilities when confronted with violence.

Family Service Toronto is developing a new curriculum and training to help lawyers be more trauma-informed when working with women who have been abused including the experience of women with disabilities.

  • LAO: How are women with disabilities affected by violence that is different from other women?

  • VS: Abuse is experienced in many ways, whether it is physical, sexual, emotional, financial or psychological. Any woman can experience abuse in any number of these ways but women with [sic] dis/abilities experience unique examples of these types of abuse that can be different from other communities of women. For example, women with dis/abilities experience physical abuse when a partner, family member or caregiver uses violence purposefully targets the part of the body that the woman needs support with, or they get called hurtful and derogatory names connected to their disability.

    Women who are labelled with intellectual dis/abilities can experience forms of sexual abuse that are unique to this group. There are myths and stereotypes that perpetuate the idea that women with intellectual or developmental disabilities either do not know what sex is, cannot consent, or cannot identify that they did something without consent. It is said that close to 80 percent of women with intellectual dis/abilities experience some form of sexual assault.

  • LAO: Do women with disabilities confronting violence face unique challenges in Toronto or Ontario, legal or otherwise?

  • VS: Different communities of women do experience unique forms of abuse. For instance, newcomer women experience abuse that is culturally situated—they may experience a threat to their sponsorship; women who are in same-sex relationships may be threatened to be outed by their abuser. In general, abuse in Toronto is not unique. One thing is that while there are special programs for housing support [for women confronting violence], there are few buildings that have accessible units and the wait for special priority housing is quite long. There are a few shelters in the city that are accessible, but they are typically full and do not have attendant care programs attached to them.

    There is a new program in Ontario that is geared to support adults who are labelled with intellectual disabilities. It is called ReportON and is in place to support families, friends, workers, and the community when abuse is suspected.

  • LAO: Is violence against women with disabilities well understood by the public?

  • VS: I don’t think it’s very well understood at all. I think that women with disabilities are seen in a way that others them, and separates them from those of us that are able-bodied. I think that there are negative and discriminatory internalized views and stereotypes that can impact how those of us who don’t live with disabilities view them. I further believe that children are not taught how to be accepting and inclusive at a young age. This misguided belief carries into our adult lives, and instead of respect and inclusion, we look to people who are different than us with pity or embarrassment.

  • LAO: What steps need to be taken in Ontario to eliminate this phenomenon?

  • VS: It would be helpful to have people work together to lessen the barriers and to in fact create change and opportunities. Having lawyers (criminal, family, estates, employment and immigration) work alongside abused women’s advocates can make that change more possible. Instead of keeping the silos up that separate the work and sectors, working from a more community-focused perspective is a more proactive way to make change happen. This can be done when advocating for better housing, for more safety for women, for more substantial sentencing of abusers, for believing survivors, for having better options for mothers, newcomers and refugees.

  • LAO: What role can organizations like Legal Aid Ontario play in accomplishing this? How do you work with them and others?

  • VS: I think it is imperative to help women feel like they are being supported.

    It is important to meet them where they are at, be it physically or mentally. For instance, that may mean spending a longer period with them to explain the legal process or legal terms. It may mean learning more about what it means to be trauma-informed. One place to start to make this shift is to bring lawyers together and engage in training and discussions around trauma-informed practices, abuse and how to be a good support to your clients.


  1. Violence Against Women with Disabilities – Violence Prevention Review, February 2011
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