Merci. Good morning.
I want to thank everyone for having for having us here today.
I would like to acknowledge the Algonquin people on whose traditional lands we come together here today.
We're here to talk about the very important and serious issue of violence against women with disabilities. We talk about violence against women; I think we should talk about it as a public health issue.
I would like to open with a quote by Ms. Fran Odette from her paper “Ableism – A Form of Violence Against Women”.
Ableism permeates our society; it is a form of violence against self-identified women that occurs at both individual and systemic levels. Ableism defines a woman by her disAbility and focuses on her deviation from the “norm,” rather than on recognizing her individuality and specific sets of experiences. Ableism, sexism and other forms of oppression put self-identified women with disAbilities at increased risk of experiencing a range of violence and create barriers to accessing the very responses that can increase safety and facilitate healing. Policies and procedures need to include ableism as a form of violence and to address it through program audits, supervision, training curricula, and public education campaigns. While concerned about the impact of ableism and audism on men and women, the goal of this paper was to name ableism as a form of violence against women, to increase awareness and understanding about its existence and serious impacts, and to ensure it is on everyone’s agenda.
Violence against women affects us all. Even if we are not directly affected by violence, as women we are certainly taught to fear it. It affects every aspect of our society, from the missing and murdered aboriginal women to the events occurring in our own government.
In our talk today we will explore how violence against women is both an effect of being disabled and a cause of disability. Abuse takes many forms.
Women with disabilities are abused more often. Rather than go into all the facts behind it, we need only look at article 6 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which highlights women and girls with disabilities as being at specific risk for poverty and violence. The abuse is magnified because of the number of people who interact with women with disabilities, the nature of the disability, by the greater number of types of perpetrators we are exposed to, and to more forms of abuse.
Some people’s disabilities put them at greater risk because their socialization emphasizes greater obedience to authority. I hear all the time about how only the lowest form of humanity would ever abuse a disabled person. At this point, I wish to highlight several examples of how the intersection of women, violence, and disability creates a perfect storm of pain and death.
I would like to begin first with the woman with intellectual disabilities from Winnipeg who was brutally sexually assaulted while her caregiver was completely oblivious to the situation because she sat a few rows ahead listening to her iPod.
Victoria Shachtay was a paralysed mother of a six-year-old girl. She lived in Innisfail, Alberta, and was killed by a postal bomb sent from her financial adviser when the family discovered that her money was used up and started to make inquiries. The use of a community mailbox could have proved deadly to several people in the neighbourhood. There is great concern that the elimination of home mail delivery in favour of community mailboxes will become an extra target point for perpetrators of violence against women with disabilities.
Betty Anne Gagnon was a woman with intellectual disability who went to live with her sister. Her sister and brother-in-law fell into addiction and violence. In response to their inability to meet Betty Anne’s needs, she was subjected to a range of beatings, having her mouth forcibly washed out with household cleaners, and made to live in inhuman conditions: a cold school bus, and a cage in the garage with nails sticking out of it. When she died, she weighed 69 pounds. The charges against her family were pled down to failing to provide the necessities of life.
Misty Joy Franklin was living in Prince George when she was stabbed in the neck by her boyfriend Trevor Fontaine, who had a history of violence and was later declared a dangerous offender. Misty became a quadriplegic in 2003. She was 24 years old at the time of the attack and had two daughters. Paralysed and on a ventilator, Misty was living in long-term care, and she elected to stop the ventilator. She died January 28, 2014.
On the first day Bonnie and I began our work together, we had a wide-ranging discussion about many topics relevant to violence against women with disabilities. Of particular concern was the issue of sexualization of young women, cyberbullying, and Internet pornography.
Rehtaeh Parsons died on April 7, 2013, as a result of a suicide following vicious cyberbullying that followed the circulation of a video of her being allegedly raped by multiple perpetrators. Amanda Todd died by suicide on October 10, 2012, when she was lured into exposing her breasts on a video chat that was later circulated on the Internet.
Yesterday on Facebook there was outrage in the women's community about Grand Theft Auto, which depicts women as sexual objects, which players can have virtual sex with and ultimately murder sex trade workers.
Honour-based violence and the missing and murdered aboriginal women are yet another intersection of violence, poverty, and women with disabilities.
Abuse is both a cause as well as a risk factor of disability. Brain injury is also being identified as an emerging issue associated with trauma and abuse, both due to head injury from direct blows to the head and, as flagged by the executive director of the Alberta Council of Women's Shelters, the sexual practice of strangulation. At DAWN-RAFH Canada we have received reports from women's experiences about detached retinas and hearing damage in association with brain injury and blows to the head.
Some disabilities are actually causes to exclude people from mental health treatment and other rehabilitation programs. For example, you cannot have brain injury rehabilitation if you have a major mental illness. I stand before you as one of those people.
People in mental health saying that one cannot catch mental illness once countered a discussion that mental health is becoming endemic. In reflection, I still hold the belief that you can indeed catch mental illness through violence and abuse. That is the vector of transmission.
The effects of trauma and mental health needs, its relationship to addiction, and interventions needed to assist women with disabilities in these clinical areas, this is only in its beginning stages. In a recent presentation by the provincial chief mental health officer, Dr. Michael Trew, he indicated that trauma-informed mental health care begins by asking “What happened to you?” rather than “What's wrong with you?”
People with disabilities need safety, encouragement, accommodation, and kindness in order to tell their stories. Dr. Trew also talked about a need for patients to teach their doctors about the situation. Sadly, the time it takes to do this is often more than the patient has before they're in crisis or they die. Often, busy doctors do not have time to listen. At best, the disconnect between the mental health needs of people with disabilities and health care providers creates new barriers to forming trusting relationships essential to transforming trauma into empowerment. At worst, the disconnect creates new trauma, new rejection, and new shame when someone has summoned the courage to tell their story one more time, only to be turned away again.
People who return from military service experience operational stress injury and, a term I only heard yesterday, military sexual trauma. Yet women who were abused are diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder, and very occasionally are given the respect of a PTSD diagnosis. Women's experiences of violence and abuse that did not occur within military operations are viewed obviously in a very blaming and discriminating way, both from a feminist and ableist perspective. Women who were sexually harassed in their workplace are seldom assisted with appropriate response and after care.
We need to learn from the experience of the military to view the injuries suffered by women with disabilities, and indeed all women, in an equal light. There's a paper entitled "Torturing by Non-State Actors Invisibilized, A Patriarchal Divide and Spillover Violence from the Military Sphere into the Domestic Sphere" by Jeanne Sarson and Linda MacDonald that explores this very topic. DAWN-RAFH Canada has endorsed this paper and encourages adoption of its recommendations.
One important stride that was made towards the equality of women with disabilities was the R. v. D.A.I. decision, in which DAWN-RAFH Canada was an intervener, which placed people with mental disabilities on an equal playing field with all other witnesses.
Health equity has to be achieved for people with disabilities. One common area of mental health need that is overlooked is sexuality. Indeed, even its obliteration from women's medical care deepens the level of distress and increases the mental health need. Ableist attitudes surrounding sexuality perpetuate sexual abuse and a lack of proper treatment follow-up amongst women with disabilities.
People with developmental disabilities and mental illness are often forced to choose what services they will have at age 18. If a person with a developmental disability has a mental health need, they may often be excluded from PDD services. Exclusion of women with disabilities from mental health resources actively prevents them from recovering from their injuries.
Society's ableist views on people with disabilities and their portrayal in the media have tremendous impact on the mental health needs of people with disabilities.
It's hard to maintain the struggle to survive, when people constantly view a person with a disability in a negative or shaming light. Unmet needs create sadness and depression whether they're related to the provision of disability supports, such as incontinence supplies or wheelchairs, or the crushing poverty that the majority of our people face.
Ableism, as a form of violence, is seen in decision-making surrounding do not resuscitate orders, euthanasia, and assisted suicide. The current debate on assisted suicide and euthanasia, whether you're for or against, has had a significant and harsh impact on both the individuals with disabilities and our community as a whole.
Alberta Network for Mental Health has been receiving a significant trend of increased calls related to this issue especially in the wake of Robin Williams' suicide.
Ableism, as a form of violence, occurs when someone living with a disability comes to the decision, as Ms. Franklin did, to end one's life and that decision is not considered a suicide that we would otherwise work hard to prevent. Every mental health resource should be aimed at recovery and suicide prevention.