Supporting survivors with Disability

background information

Good Practice Guidelines for ‘Mainstream’ Sexual Violence Crisis Services - Everything with us: Report on working with people with disability (Robson, 2016) 


Essential Learning - What we need to know

People with disabilities who experience sexual violence have the same needs as other survivors.  In addition they may have specific needs that are related to their disabilities.   

  • Of critical importance is… 

    • knowing that they can contact crisis support services and get help.   

    • knowing that policies and practices of those organisations won’t impede gaining access to support.   

    • having access in appropriate ways to all necessary information while using services, and to help them make informed decisions on appropriate referral options.   

    • having safe, accessible routes into and within service facilities.   

    • having appropriately trained staff who understand and can meet their needs.   

  • Services should understand the strategic, philosophical, legal contexts of providing accessible support for disabled people 

    • Services need to be familiar with the UNCRPD, the dynamics of social model, medical model, and rights-based approaches to disability.  Services must recognise the links between government actions in health and disability services, sexual violence services, and meeting the needs of disabled victims/survivors on an equal basis with others.  Services should be orientated to implement actions around concepts of universal design, reasonable accommodation and supported decision-making.   

Essential Practice - What we need to do

On the frontline  

  • Communication with disabled people should meet their different access needs 
    • Effective communication can be a significant barrier to disabled people accessing services.  Successful communication can only be achieved when adaptations are readily available and easily achieved.  If disabled people are unable to tell their story, ask questions, and learn about services, they will not be able to benefit from valuable and needed support available. 
    • Services need to be flexible and knowledgeable about ways to meet the different needs of disabled people.  Services must become familiar with and practiced in how to share all necessary information in ways which are appropriate to their needs, and accessible to them.  A particular focus is needed on access for Deaf people, and availability of crisis support service staff with at least basic understanding of NZ Sign Language.   
    • Staff should provide supports grounded in the will and preferences of the disabled person and not organised solely based on the ‘specialist’ views and experiences of the non-disabled professionals.   
    • For example 
      • Working with NZ Sign Language Interpreters, the NZ Relay Service, client interaction primarily by email, SMS or telephone typewriter (TTY) 
      • Opportunities for staff to receive training on using communication boards and other assistive devices  
  • Service staff should have adequate awareness and skills  
    • Services need to address the general lack of disability awareness and/or attitudinal barriers or misunderstandings staff have about disability, and ensure staff have skills to adapt their support to the needs of people with disabilities.   
    • Job descriptions and recruitment processes should include seeking disability awareness, knowledge and skills, or willingness to acquire it.   
    • Staff training should address the specific situations of disabled people, the different manifestations of violence perpetrated against them, and social model and human rights understandings of disability.  
    • For example 
      • Services must not re-enforce myths/beliefs of dependence, helplessness, disabled people as perpetual passive recipients of care, and avoid negative frames of ‘vulnerability’, instead recognising the complex interactions between protective factors and risk factors, in context for that particular disabled person.    

Crisis Support Services 

  • Services need to be prepared and willing to support disabled people in practice 
    • Services need to define people with disabilities as a target group and organise their services in order to reflect that.  Services should assess their operations to identify any barriers for disabled people and find ways to promote accessible and effective support.  Services must be willing to undertake any necessary changes to provide accessible and effective support to disabled people.  Services should be designed and operated in ways that ensure they are accessible for people with disabilities.  Services need to approach accessibility enhancement as a process, not a one-time task.   
  • Service information should be accessible to disabled people 
    • Services need to make information about their services readily available in appropriate formats and promote themselves directly to people with disabilities.  Services must ensure disabled people can obtain information about services’ accessibility features and know if facilities are appropriate to their needs.   
    • Services should distribute information to areas where it is likely to reach people with disabilities (such as appropriate disability services and other locations) to support informed choice.  Telephone contacts or referral pathway information is especially important for services which maintain a confidential address for security reasons.   
    • For example  
      • Provision of information in plain language, Braille, large print and accessible electronic formats, captioned/audio-described video clips, information in NZ Sign Language.   
      • Provision of information on accessible websites or via social media platforms (and at the next time of upgrading a website, ensuring that the new design conforms to international web content accessibility guidelines). 
      • Use of international symbols for wheelchair access etc. to indicate the accessibility of facilities.   
  • The physical environments where crisis support is offered should be appropriate and accessible for people with disabilities  
    • There can be an assumption that ‘physical access’ relates only to people using wheelchairs, whereas services should provide access for all disabilities – physical, mobility, visual, hearing, or cognitive.  Travel routes to services and building entrances should be safe and accessible.   
    • Services should be laid out to allow people with disabilities to be as independent as possible in all common areas.  Accommodation services must also ensure accessibility modifications extend to bathrooms, kitchens and laundries, outdoor areas, and any other standard components of the service used by all clients.   
    • Services must ensure equal access to emergency equipment and notifications of emergencies, and that evacuation plans are inclusive of people with disabilities.   
    • For example  
      • Mobility Parking spaces, proximity to public transport routes, good clear signage, Braille markings on doors, audio announcements in lifts 
      • Ramps and step-free entry/exit and within internal spaces, high contrast markings on edges of steps, adequate lighting, grassed areas to toilet guide dogs 
      • Bathrooms with non-slip surfaces, equipped with hand rails, easy to reach and turn/control taps 
      • Doors easy to push open, wide doorways, door handles, telephones and light switches in easy reach 
      • Hearing loops, visual fire alarms, telephones with adjustable volume and large keypads   
  • Service policies and procedures should be inclusive of and appropriate for disabled people 
    • Services need to recognise that disabled people are experts in their own lives and experiences and promote support service options that are valued by them.  Simple screening and assessment procedures to enable early identification of a self disclosed disability are the beginning of provision of tailored support.   
    • Services must ensure policies and practices do not unfairly exclude or create delays in service provision, or make that service more difficult to obtain for disabled people.  Services should adapt more flexible policies where required, or create new policies to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities.   
    • While staff may well adapt their approach as they work with a client, without inclusion of relevant instructions in formal procedures there is a risk that new or inexperienced staff may not be aware of what approaches have been agreed upon by the organisation.  These policies should be integrated within existing documents so that they are not overlooked or allowed to become out of date.   
    • To access a safe environment, people with disabilities who have experienced violence may lose access to personal support (either funded services, or practical support in real terms), so policies and procedures need to recognise that access often depends on availability of personal assistance if required.   
    • For example 
      • Service planning takes an individualised approach to assimilate with people’s use of mobility aids or service animals, use of medication or portable medical equipment, need for information in alternate formats, or support of a professional carer. 
      • Providing reader/writer assistance to complete forms, providing services in more accessible locations, allowing for longer times in interviews.   
      • Discretion for people with cognitive or psychiatric disabilities who might not be able to understand or consistently conform to following service rules.    
  • Partnerships should be developed with the disability sector 
    • Services need to build trust with disabled people by networking through relevant organisations such as Disabled People’s Organisations, and improving their service responses through collaboration with disability support service agencies.   
    • Services must invest in creating links between agencies for development and better co-ordination and referrals between supportive environments which meet the needs of people with disabilities.   
    • Services should establish good networks to draw on the expertise and resources of disabled people, and to increase disabled people’s awareness of violence and crisis services available.   
    • These partnerships need to extend to all crisis services supporting all people who experience violence, e.g. sexual assault services, police, judicial systems, and health services. 
    • Services (and particularly women’s organisations) should acknowledge oppressive processes of social structures that work against disabled people, and participate in projects that increase awareness among the general public and specific professional groups.  
    • Services should aim for all cross-sector training and integrated service models to be co-designed and co-delivered with disabled people.    
  • Disability data should be collected, and used to improve services 
    • Services should keep statistics on the number of people with disabilities accessing their services, gain an understanding of how many disabled people live in the community the service covers, and collect feedback from disabled people about their experience of accessing services, and ideas for improvement.   
    • Services should document any limitations and challenges faced by their service in their attempts to assist people with disabilities, and the strategies they have successfully utilised to overcome any challenges faced in providing a service to people with disabilities.  All of this information should be used for service planning.   
    • Services need to adopt performance indicators to track progress in serving people with disabilities, in terms of both commitment and capacity.   
  • Leadership and management practices should show a commitment to accessibility, and planning that meets the needs of disabled people 
    • Services need to emphasise the participation of people with disabilities in the management of services to ensure that they are involved in decision-making regarding policies and practices.  Services should have a strategy to employ disabled people in a variety of roles (not necessarily specific to directly serving disabled clients).  This helps to ensure that support provided to disabled people, especially women, is grounded in their experiences. 
    • People with disabilities should be represented in service consultations, and disability accessibility issues included in any submissions on government policy/legislation being prepared.   
    • Service budgets and funding proposals need to be prepared so that appropriate plans and allocations can be made to incorporate disability accessibility issues, including costs for translation and updating of materials, providing interpreters, and/or provision of training and support for staff.   
    • For example 
      • Strategic and operational documents incorporating formal disability action plans 
      • Disabled people with expertise as Board members, and/or as an external disability advisory group providing input into design, delivery, evaluation and improvement of services 
      • Using networks within disability organisations to disseminate job advertisements and providing job advertisements, job descriptions, and contracts in accessible formats  

Sector Development 

Actively raise awareness of violence against disabled people  

  • acknowledge oppressive processes of social structures that work against disabled people. 
  • publicly take a stance alongside disabled women and take part in awareness-raising about violence against them.  
  • participate in awareness raising and projects that increase awareness among general public and specific professional groups and that address violence and stereotypes.  

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MMcEachern, Adriana G. (2012) Sexual abuse of individuals with disabilities: Prevention strategies for clinical practice, Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 21:4, 386-398 

Ministry of Women’s Affairs (2007) Strong and safe communities – effective interventions for adult victims of sexual violence: report on workshop for stakeholders with disabilities.  Wellington: Ministry of Women’s Affairs 

Murray, S., & Powell, A. (2008) Sexual assault and adults with a disability: Enabling recognition, disclosure and a just response. Issues, 9. Australia: Australian Institute of Family Studies 

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Plummer, Sara-Beth and Findley, Patricia A. (2012) Women with disabilities' experience with physical and sexual abuse: Review of the literature and implications for the field.  Trauma Violence Abuse 2012 13: 15 

Probst, Danielle R., Turchik, Jessica A., Zimak, Eric H. & Huckins, Jamie L. (2011) Assessment of sexual assault in clinical practice: Available screening tools for use with different adult populations. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 20:2. 199-226 

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Roguski, M. (2013) The hidden abuse of disabled people residing in the community: An exploratory study 

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Sobsey, D & Doe, T. (1991) Patterns of sexual abuse and assault. Sexuality and Disability, 9(3), 243-259 

Swango-Wilson, Amy. (2009) Perception of Sex Education for Individuals with Developmental and Cognitive Disability: A Four Cohort Study.  Sexuality and Disability, Volume 27, Number 4, Page 223 

UK Government Department of Health Social Care Group, (2010) Guidance on developing and implementing multi-agency policies and procedures to protect vulnerable adults from abuse 

Vera Institute of Justice, (2015) Measuring Capacity to Serve Survivors with Disabilities: Performance Indicators 

Wilson, C & Brewer, N. (1992) The incidence of criminal victimization of individuals with an intellectual disability. Australian Psychologist, 27(2), 114-117

Relevant References - other related research