Disabled women are at higher risk of domestic violence than others, so why are there so few accessible refuges? As Sarah’s story shows, they are faced with an impossible system
Thu 19 Sep 2019 10.00 BST
To survive in the refuge, Sarah (not her real name) stores fruit and cereal bars to eat in her room. When we first talk in March, she has been there for a month after leaving her abusive husband. She had been sofa surfing with friends and family for a week while waiting for a place.
This is standard nowadays – research by Women’s Aid in 2017 found that 60% of referrals to refuges were declined, meaning that women escape abusive homes only to be turned away due to lack of space. But because Sarah is a disabled abuse victim, with several physical illnesses that leave her struggling to walk, as well as mental health problems, she at least got high priority.
Her husband, she explains, often used this against her. “He’d say that I ruined his life with my disability, that I couldn’t cope on my own.” Throughout their marriage, she was reliant on him to be her carer; a setup that became part of the abuse. He typically withdrew “care” – even food or water – if she broke one of his many rules, and threatened to call mental health services to get her sectioned if she didn’t do as he said. He was regularly violent, forcing her to stop taking antidepressants and other medication, while getting “angry with me for getting sick so much”. It was easy to isolate her: he would take away her Motability car, keeping her housebound for days or even weeks on end.
The refuge has enabled Sarah to escape the abuse, but she is now in danger in different ways– all because the refuge isn’t accessible. Her nearest bathroom is classed as “disabled friendly”, but it’s a shower over a bath, which is difficult for Sarah to get into without falling.
Sarah sleeps upstairs (better than the ground-floor rooms, which had bunk beds she couldn’t climb into). But there’s no lift, meaning that it is an enormous effort for her to leave her room. Getting to the kitchen is a struggle, she is eating very little and has lost a lot of weight. She has already fallen down the stairs twice since being here.
Sarah stresses how kind staff at the refuge have been to her, but it is clear the lack of access, on top of everything else, is brutal. “I am at the end of my tether,” she says. “I’m just so tired and desperate.”
The scourge of domestic abuse in Britain has received fresh attention in the past few weeks, with outrage over the postponement of a domestic violence bill because of the suspension of Parliament, followed by the news that domestic killings of adults (the overwhelming majority of whom were women) reached a five-year high last year.
Disabled victims such as Sarah are at the sharpest edge of this crisis. Almost one in two disabled women will be a victim of abuse in their lifetime, according to research by Women’s Aid, making them twice as likely as women without disabilities to experience abuse. The charity Refuge, which runs 42 refuges across 23 local authorities nationwide, tells me that one-third of the women it assisted long-term in 2017–18 had one or more disability.
Despite disabled women being significantly more at risk than others, there is a notorious lack of provision to help them. Only one in 10 refuge spaces in the UK are accessible to people with physical disabilities, according to a BBC investigation in 2018.
“There’s a dearth of services for disabled survivors,” says Ruth Bashall, the director of Stay Safe East, one of just three specialist services for disabled abuse victims in England and Wales. “It means disabled survivors either turn to mainstream services – which try their best, but often don’t have the skills or facilities to deal with them – or they just don’t access services at all.”
Austerity measures in recent years have only exacerbated this. Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Guardian in 2018 found that refuges for women and children in England, Wales and Scotland had seen funding cut by £6.8m since 2010, amounting to an average cut for each refuge of £38,000. Specialist services are often the first to go. In 2017, Women’s Aid reported that almost 20% of specialist refuges had closed since the coalition gained power in 2010. As Sarah says: “The refuge said it themselves, the cuts to services mean they’re unable to meet my needs.”
I have been speaking to Sarah on and off for the past six months as she tries to rebuild her life: navigating her way to secure a regular income, coping with her health and finding a safe and accessible place to call home. For disabled women fleeing abuse, cuts to refuges have combined with budget-slashing across vital services in recent years, from mental health care to changes in disability benefits. In an era where there is less and less help to go around, constantly battling to get the support Sarah is entitled to from the state is deeply stressful.
Take the benefit system. Because she is too unwell to earn a wage, Sarah relies on the out-of-work sickness benefit, Employment and Support Allowance, but is frantic about being transferred to the scandal-plagued Universal Credit system. Domestic violence charities and MPs had warned that the design of Universal Credit, in which benefits are paid to the main breadwinner, was enabling male abusers to withhold money from their victims. (The government announced a U-turn on the rules this year.) Sarah’s husband financially abused her throughout their relationship, forcing her to “lend” him £25,000 over the years – all of which came from her benefits. “He said I owed him because he looked after me,” she explains. He was already falsely receiving carer’s allowance – a benefit paid to people who provide substantial care for a loved one – and, before she escaped, she says he was about to get control of her benefits through her upcoming transfer to Universal Credit.
Sarah may now be eligible for more support as she is no longer in a couple – but in an era of pernicious benefit decisions, where people clearly not well enough to work are being told to do so, she is too afraid to contact the Department for Work and Pensions in case it risks her other benefits.
At the same time, Sarah has to find money for private therapy to help her deal with the trauma she has been through. Last year, she was treated on the NHS after she became suicidal as a result of her abuse, but she was only given a dozen sessions. She is now on an 18-month waiting list for further NHS counselling.
She has been seeing a private therapist twice a month to help her keep afloat. “But I just can’t afford it,” she says.
Without an accessible refuge, meanwhile, Sarah’s living arrangements have become increasingly desperate. She has tried sneaking into her old university library to sleep a couple of times. On other days, she spends a lot of time in her car. “It’s comfier, it’s warm and it’s safe,” she says.
Her cash-strapped local council could only offer her a hostel with men as an alternative. When I speak to Sarah again in late spring, she has been hospitalised with an infection – and her mood is even lower. What she really needs is someone to advocate on her behalf to help her get the housing, healthcare and benefits to which she is entitled, but such services are like gold dust now. “Budget cuts are leaving people like me … trying to navigate everything,” she says.
She has applied to the council for a permanent flat, but social housing lists are huge. In the meantime, she is trying to rent privately. It’s a risky solution; research by Shelter in 2018 found leading letting agents were discriminating against women and disabled people by not accepting housing benefit claimants, regardless of whether they could afford the rent. “I may have found one,” Sarah tells me in May about a flat listing. “They don’t take benefits, but I’m not required to tell them so I’m hoping it will be OK.”
A few weeks later, in June, I get an email from Sarah: the flat has fallen through. As she feared, the landlord said he couldn’t verify her income. The domestic violence charity that is helping her has offered a room in another refuge but it’s up a steep staircase. Unable to accept it, she has been discharged from their books.
Bashall tells me that awareness of the needs of disabled survivors in some circles is increasing – for example, her organisation currently has Home Office funding – but the climate of wider austerity is creating an ever-more dangerous environment. “The cuts in social care and mental health are pushing more disabled people to depend on their families or partners, and increase the risk of abuse,” she says.
This month, Sarah finally has some good news: she has found a home. The private rental isn’t perfect – the bathroom is down a set of steps – but it’s the beginning of a fresh start. The move has given Sarah the confidence to report her husband to the police, she says. “I’m hoping the end of the nightmare is in sight.”