Women with a disability: How do we protect those to whom we never listen?
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Women with a disability: How do we protect those to whom we never listen?

Anne Kavanagh says she isn't disabled right now.

She cycles, she's a professor in the school of population and global health at the University of Melbourne, and she and her partner have two boys.

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But in 2011, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

I always respond with tears when anyone tells me they have MS. Regular readers may remember that when my sister died in 2007, it was a stroke which finally killed her, but MS had chipped away at her ability to walk, to talk, to see.

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But for Kavanagh it was also a catalyst. She has done a lot of work to stop the disease – diet, exercise, meditation – but the onset of MS had one huge positive. It focused her academic research on disability and the effect that having a disability has on women. Her family's experience with the school system, when her son Declan was diagnosed with autism at the age of four, had already set the scene for her research interests.

Now she is revealing extraordinary data, reported at the Population Health Congress in September and soon to be published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, on the lives of girls and women with disability over the age of 15, based on the 2012 Australian Bureau of Statistics Survey on Personal Safety.

Women's lives are different to men's lives. Less money. More family violence. More likely to be living as a single parent. Less likely to have a senior role in the workplace.

But Kavanagh's figures reveal an even worse situation for women with disability. Nearly one-third reported sexual violence, compared with 15 per cent of other women. Exactly one-quarter reported partner violence, compared to 13 per cent of other women. And 35 per cent reported emotional abuse, compared to 19 per cent of other women.

Those figures are high but they are also seriously under-reported, Kavanagh says.

Why? Because those figures only count the women with disabilities who can speak for themselves, not those who have trouble communicating, not those who need Auslan interpreters, not those who may not even understand what is happening to them.

We know it's hard for able-bodied women to communicate about sexual violence and family abuse. But it's even harder when women with disability must rely on the perceptions of others.

"You've got be sensitive to changes in behaviour," she says.

Last week, the report of the Senate inquiry into violence, abuse and neglect against people with disability in institutional and residential settings was tabled. Among its recommendations, only a handful were specific to women. The committee recommended further investigation of the access to justice needs of specific groups such as women; that the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children must be updated to include institutional and disability accommodation settings; and that there must be increased funding to support women with disability escaping domestic violence.

Only one woman could share with the Senate inquiry the story of a taxi driver who raped her. Once the CCTV footage was checked, it showed four more women – that is, five women who were sexually assaulted 33 times in 34 days in 2014. According to evidence before the senate inquiry, the taxi driver had been driving for disability services for more than four years.

The evidence from Bolshy Divas said: "Support workers for the women who could not speak said that their behaviour had changed dramatically."

Kavanagh says there must be a concerted effort to improve the status of women with disability.

"Women with a disability are often in an even less powerful position than their able-bodied sisters, they may be reliant on others for their support or care and sometimes that carer is their intimate partner ... they have lower incomes and are less likely to be in the workforce."

And all those factors keep women in relationships because it is even more difficult for women to leave financially.

There is, she says, evidence of important differences between women with and without disabilities in terms of all forms of violence, partner emotional abuse, and stalking and harassment. Her data estimates that in each of these categories the problems are about 50 per cent worse.

"They experience discrimination as women and discrimination related to disability," she said.

They are treated as if they are partial women, but bear the brunt of discrimination twice. What will the government do to protect those to whom we never listen?

Twitter @jennaprice or email jennapricejournalist@gmail.com

Jenna Price is a Fairfax columnist, and an academic at the University of Technology, Sydney.

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