Lifting the Voices and Meeting the Needs of Survivors with Disabilities

“As a disabled person, I often I find that I am the only one in the room who draws attention to the needs of folks with disabilities. I would like to see allies take a stand and acknowledge the ways that the sexuality of disabled folks is ignored or feared and that we face significant barriers to having healthy and happy sex lives. Part of that is also ensuring that when a disabled person faces abuse or violence that the programs created to support survivors take us into account and we have the same access to services promoting care and healing.“

Amber Melvin, Monument Quilt team leader


This July marks twenty-five years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This legislation greatly improved disabled* people’s’ access to public spaces and services. The ADA also created more public awareness of the sometimes unique needs of people with disabilities. One area that is still not often addressed is disabled people’s increased exposure to violence and sexual abuse.

Research on the experiences of people in the disability community is very limited, but here is what we do know:

  •  Women with disabilities are raped and abused at a rate at least twice that of the general population of women.
  • Among developmentally disabled adults, as many as 83% of females and 32% of males are the victims of sexual assault.
  • Women with disabilities are nearly twice as likely to experience intimate partner violence than non-disabled women.
  • One organization that serves deaf survivors of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and abuse found that 40% of their clients were people of color, with Black and Latino folks represented in higher numbers than in the local population.
  • Only 3% of sexual assaults against disabled people are reported, likely because their abusers are often people who help with their care taking.

People with disabilities, whether physical or developmental, often utilize assistance from family members, acquaintances, or personal care attendants to help with daily needs like getting dressed, eating, bathing, or transportation. The sad fact is that many people experience abuse at the hands of the very people they look to for help.

In addition to unwanted touching and physical violence; some caretakers may withhold assistive devices like a wheelchair or deny communication assistance, such as refusing to translate sign language as a form of violence and abuse. Disabled folks may fear that reporting abusive providers and companions will result in the loss of essential care. This puts people in an extremely difficult position.

If people with disabilities do choose to report or leave abusive environments, they may find difficulty in getting the support or services that the need. These issues are further compounded by the way that our race, class, gender, sexuality, or age may get in the way with our access to healthcare or to seeking and receiving services. Reporting also means interacting with law enforcement, which can be tricky depending on a person’s relationship or trust of the police. While the ADA has made tremendous changes in the way that people with disabilities access the world, there are still many ways that people remain isolated and silenced. For programs and services to begin to provide support to survivors and ensure that they are adequately and appropriately addressing disabled people’s needs, there are a few simple steps that can be taken.

Some of these considerations speak to people who are managing programs that provide care or support to survivors, but they are also important for people to think about as they interact with friends or family members from the disability community.

1) When speaking with a disabled person about their experience, speak to and look directly at them, not to a caregiver or the person accompanying them. This is true if you are interacting with folks in the community, too – not just in a service program.

2) Recognize that disabled people experience sexual attraction and participate in all kinds of sexual activities and partnerships, just as non-disabled folks do. You should not assume that a disabled person is unable to give consent. Read “Let’s Talk About Sex and Disability”. It is important to respect the agency of disabled people while also looking for patterns of coercion or abuse as to support and ensure healthy relationships and treatment of both disabled and non-disabled people in your life.

3) Train staff and volunteers about the specific needs that disabled folks may have when seeking services. If you do not have adequate information to provide that training, the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) has a checklist for facilities. It is primarily focused on the physical requirements for accessibility, but is a good start. The California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CCASV) also has a resource on supporting survivors with disabilities.

4) Build partnerships with organizations and people in the disability community and allow their leadership and expertise to make your work stronger and more inclusive. Here is a guide on programs and services that may help you to connect to a program or organization in your area. Not a service provider? How about finding the groups in your community to get on their lists and learn more?

5) Research and keep a list of resources that you can refer to as needed, such as ASL interpreting or language translation, accessible housing, experienced counselors, and accessible healthcare providers.

6) Make sure that all of your events and facilities are accessible for wheelchairs, provide ASL interpretation, and opportunities for folks to report other accommodations they may need. You can include space for requests on any registration forms. Promote these accommodations so that people know that they are available to them. If you are not someone who runs a program or provides services, think about any events that you are involved in. Are they accessible?

7) But the biggest thing anyone can do is to be open and aware and inclusive not just of the needs, but also the voices of disabled people. If you are providing services to the community, do you have anyone on your staff, board or planning committees from the disability community? And if you don’t (yet), make sure that you are working to build genuine partnerships with local disability organizations and that if a new program is being created or an event is being planned, the needs of people with disabilities are considered.

At FORCE, we are working hard to create strong partnerships with organizations and advocates in the disability community to ensure that the Monument Quilt provides an accessible, healing space.  We are committed to creating a movement where the voices and stories of all survivors are honored.

*We have chosen to use both person-first language as well as the term “disabled person,” which acknowledges how disabilities are not a result of one’s body, but that disabilities are created by structural barriers that make it more difficult for folks with different bodies to navigate the world.


Seeking Justice for Domestic Violence Victims/Survivors through Public Healing Space

In Jacksonville, Florida, in 2012, Marissa Alexander was sentenced to twenty years in prison for firing a single warning shot in the air to protect herself and her nine-day old infant from her abusive husband. Florida’s infamous “Stand Your Ground” law which allowed George Zimmerman, a neighborhood vigilante, to murder Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager, with impunity, did not protect Marissa. In 2014, Marissa accepted a plea deal and has been serving a two-year probation sentence within her home.

Marissa’s case is far from unique. Tondalo Hall, a 30-year old mother from Oklahoma, is serving a 30-year sentence for “failing to protect” her children from the man abusing her and her children. Her sentence is 15 times that of her abuser. Failure to protect implies Tondalo, a survivor of domestic violence, is somehow responsible for her abuser’s actions. The criminalization of victims, especially of women of color, is a key tenant of the U.S. prison industrial complex. There are more women in prison in the United States than any other nation, and nearly 90% of incarcerated women are victims of domestic and sexual violence and child abuse.

Victims of sexual and domestic violence are shamed for not fighting back and criminalized for self-defense. This is rape culture. Rape culture refers to the intersecting forms of oppression which sustain the inevitability of sexual and domestic violence by blaming victims.

In such a culture, it can be nearly impossible to create spaces to process and heal. The Monument Quilt is a public healing space by and for survivors of rape abuse. The bright red, hand-sewn quilt series holds space for more than 500 narratives and messages.

Teonia Burton, an activist and healer, facilitated a healing space at a display of the Monument Quilt in Jacksonville, Florida, on the court steps outside Marissa Alexander’s hearing in January of this year. Teonia described the importance of Free Marissa Now campaign. “It’s an important campaign because those types of incidents happen more often in the United States than people are aware of. I think people are unaware of how common it is for a survivor of domestic violence to be placed in prison when they were simply trying to defend themselves. In Marissa’s case, no one was even hurt. Her crime was defending herself and her baby, and she was being sentenced while her abuser went free.”

Teonia identifies herself as a healer and advocate. Teonia explains, “I use that title for myself because I believe we all have an ability to facilitate healing in ourselves and each other.” Teonia’s background as a doula and midwife gave her insight into supporting people in moments of immense vulnerability. “My healing work is involved in supporting families during the prenatal period, labor, birth and postpartum. Most of that involves supporting people during the emotional aspects of pregnancy and being responsible for caring for a pregnant person who may not know much about nutrition. That’s where the healing aspect of my work comes from. I’m open to listening, and quite often people open up to me and share deeply personal stories that I am able to listen to without judgment, keep sacred, and hold space for.”

Participating in the Monument Quilt display in Jacksonville had a major impact on Teonia. “To be able to lay out the quilt and meet the coordinators was very inspiring because I have never been involved in a public healing space for survivors of domestic violence and abuse. Just this past year, I started seeing myself as a survivor, understanding that I have a story. In order to go through a healing process, I must share the story and live through it. So actually seeing the quilt, displaying it, and being involved in holding space for those impacted by violence during the workshops and the display, it was just a sacred moment and a sacred space for me.

“It was a privilege to be there to listen to everybody’s story. Each story is intensely personal and takes a lot of courage for people to share. I was so used to just listening to others, but watching others have the courage to share their stories gave me the encouragement to start sharing my story and to start working through my own healing process. I was just really grateful to be personally involved with this quilt because it inspired me to find another way to participate in social justice and to participate in healing in a different way. I never imagined a healing space displayed as a quilt and displayed in a public way.”

Teonia recently joined the Monument Quilt team as the National Outreach Consultant. “Creating and maintaining public healing spaces for survivors of sexual abuse and domestic violence is one of the strongest and courageous acts of healing justice for our communities. Representing FORCE as their National Outreach Consultant gives me the privilege to participate in social justice in a way that complements my purpose as a healer and work as a midwife.”

Teonia explained that a public healing space serves many purposes: to create space for survivors to process, to educate and raise the consciousness of communities, and, potentially, to provide an opportunity for restorative justice.

Restorative justice prioritizes reparations for harm, centers victims, and involves perpetrators, victims, and community members in creating sustainable, transformative alternatives to the prison industrial-complex.

“Using public healing space for survivors of sexual abuse and domestic violence is a process I think could be used for what we refer to as restorative justice, especially in small communities. I grew up in a rural community, and if a person is assaulted or abused, most of the time, that person is related to their abuser or they know that person. That makes it especially hard for people to share what the incident was or seek support. Public healing spaces will bring to light in those small towns ways to make this issue public. Not only the survivor but also the perpetrator has the opportunity to possibly seek healing as well. I haven’t really sat down and thought about how that process could work, but I think healing spaces give all of us an opportunity for conversations, awareness, and restoring social order in communities. I know that public displays of healing can also work in larger communities, but I really think about where I grew up and where I’m living – it could be another resource to use.”

Many falsely assume that restorative justice means a lack of accountability for perpetrators. Without incarceration, how do we hold abusers accountable for their violence? While this is a complex question, it is important to consider the ways in which restorative justice actually expands rather than limits accountability for violence within our society and communities. By centering the victim’s need for healing and support, restorative justice actively engages entire communities. Restorative justice requires communities be critically aware of the ways in which they perpetuate rape culture and challenges all members to hold themselves accountable to fostering a culture of consent, in which sexual violence is never condoned and survivors are unconditionally supported.

To learn more about how you can support Tonaldo Hall and fight the criminalization of self-defense, read about our call to action. To create your own quilt square for the Monument Quilt or to bring the Monument Quilt to your community, visit