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Cripps, Kyllie; Miller, Leanne; Saxton-Barney, Jody --- "Too Hard to Handle': Indigenous victims of violence with disabilities" [2010] IndigLawB 39; (2010) 7(21) Indigenous Law Bulletin 4

‘TOO HARD TO HANDLE’: Indigenous victims of violence with disabilities

by Kyllie Cripps, Leanne Miller & Jody Saxton-Barney

Nationally and internationally there is a consensus among researchers that women identified as having a ‘disability’ experience violence and abuse at a much greater rate than the rest of the population. Compounding the problem, women with disabilities who are victims of violence have traditionally been disbelieved and/or disregarded by those in positions to assist them to escape and/or heal from the violence inflicted upon them. It is widely recognized that Indigenous women with disabilities face additional barriers to disclosure and to seeking help. But little is known about their experiences of violence and of their access to services. UN protocols for the Rights of Indigenous people, people with disabilities, women and children clearly support equitable access to safety and to services, but the reality often is that governments and service providers find Indigenous victims of violence with disabilities as a group ‘too hard to handle’.

Partnerships between the disability, family violence and Indigenous community sectors are obviously needed to better assist our most vulnerable victims. This paper explores these issues in the context of a research project funded by the Australian Research Council, ‘Building and supporting community led partnerships initiatives responding to family violence in Indigenous communities in Victoria’. Four communities in Victoria were chosen to be part of this study – in one of these ‘communities’ were Indigenous people living with disabilities and violence. This paper details the specific findings relating to this community, while analysing the practice and functionality of partnerships in responding to Indigenous family violence for people with disabilities. It will be particularly focused on Indigenous perspectives of the meanings associated with the term ‘partnership’, and the most appropriate processes needed to make ‘partnerships’ functional and sustainable for better service delivery for Indigenous people with disabilities who are also victims of violence.


Disability is recognised as a condition that affects most people in the population – to varying degrees and at different stages across their life courses. Like family violence, there is no one singular definition of disability used. However, it is often understood in the context of impairment, such as sight and hearing impairments, difficulties with mobility, or in the interaction between one’s health condition and their environment. The Australian Bureau of Statistics refers to disability as a limitation, restriction or impairment that has lasted, or is likely to last, for at least six months and restricts everyday activities.[1] In this context, the 2008 National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Social Survey estimates that 26,000 or 7.9 percent of the Indigenous population aged 15 years and over has a profound disability. Also, 137,000 or 41.9 percent of Indigenous people reported having limitations as a consequence of their impairments and/or ill health. The burden of disability is carried slightly higher by females (52.7 percent vs 47.3 percent for males).[2] However, little information is available to identify when and how the disabilities are acquired, e.g. are they as a consequence of exposure to violence?

The latter question is important in the context of mainstream literature that clearly identifies disability as a recognised risk factor for family violence; and women with physical and cognitive disabilities in particular, are reported to experience higher rates of family violence than those without disabilities.[3][4][5] The violence is often perpetrated by family members and carers.[6] And in some instances existing disabilities are exacerbated or new disabilities/limitations are acquired as a result of the violence.[7]

Detailed statistical information about the prevalence and incidence of such violence in mainstream communities and/or Indigenous communities is problematic as the collection of such information is very limited. Largely because women with disabilities are less likely than other women to report family violence, and less likely to receive services that meet their needs. The literature also tells us that police, courts and support services generally do not collect data on disability.

For Indigenous women recognising the increased burden of disability, there is little information available detailing their experiences of violence, and the success or otherwise of their engagement in the service sector. Our study sought to explore what family violence services existed in Victoria and how they engaged with the disability sector to best support the unique and varied circumstances experienced by this population group. We were particularly interested in how Aboriginal women and children with disabilities and experiencing violence got their ‘voices’ heard? How could they make services understand their experiences and their needs as being different in many instances to that of non-Indigenous women? And what happens when the services just don’t get it?

To answer the above questions our study, funded by the Australian Research Council, involved conducting 1:1 interviews and focus groups with Indigenous and mainstream service providers. The research was grounded in the lived experience of Indigenous people in Victoria: from the project idea, to the practice of doing the research and analysing its results, via an Indigenous research steering group. Together we were seeking to bring better service delivery to the area through partnerships, and the research process was designed to engage communities and service providers in developing new ways of seeing and doing practices and processes. The hope was that through this engagement we would leave working partnerships in its wake, or at the very least Indigenous community members with sufficient awareness and capacity about partnerships to negotiate better services in the spirit of partnerships on their terms. The research with ethical clearance, took place in four sites in Victoria determined by the steering group. Some 60 individuals across the sites participated. The sites included: the Hume; East Gippsland; Southern Metropolitan; and the Victorian Disability sector, the latter being the focus of this article.

Multiple Disadvantage and Choice

Experiences of Indigenous women and children with disabilities experiencing violence were described by research participants as complex situations. These are people who experience disadvantage on the basis of their disability, their gender and/or status within the community, and also as Indigenous community members. This multi-layered approach to disadvantage increases risk factors for exposure to violence and can make access to services difficult. Research participants described to us that often ‘people are just ignorant, and think that the disability [our] women have is being black and that their ...disability isn’t even seen.’ Few services are knowledgeable and/or experienced in meeting the needs of such women and children, particularly when it requires straddling multiple services and institutional sectors that have not traditionally worked together. In this quagmire, victims often get the bureaucratic-run-around, shuttled from Indigenous services, to family violence services and to disability services without any one service taking responsibility for coordinating the care and support the victim(s) may need. In this space and in sheer frustration, women typically return home to be taken care of by family and will continue to live with violence because ‘It’s just too hard ...’

Partnerships for Change

Research participants in this study identified that Indigenous women and children with disabilities experiencing violence were a hard to reach population who deserved increased support and attention. They recognised that partnerships were essential if the needs of this population group were to be met, but that partnerships to date were largely tokenistic. It was consistently reported ‘partnerships that work in family violence do not work with disabilities’, and that services typically ‘opt out’ of their duty of care to clients through referrals to other organisations and/or sectors. Follow up to ensure that a victim through this referral process has received some form of care/service is non-existent, and these women and children often fall between the cracks and continue to experience violence because there is no other alternative.

Research participants reported that they knew government policies attempting to integrate and improve family violence service delivery existed in Victoria. These are documents that clearly articulate the rights of victims to expect specific services to be available and for appropriate standards of care. In workers experiences however, they were just glossy pieces of paper that typically rested on the desks or bookshelves of managers. The translation of those documents into practice, that would change the circumstances of Indigenous women and children with disabilities experiencing violence, failed to filter down to grass roots interventions despite the best of intentions. Consequently, delivery of services is often ‘hit and miss’ and they fail to engage with the experiences and circumstances of women in difficult situations asking for help.

Workforce issues

Across both the family violence and disability sectors we heard many reports of workers feeling over worked, overwhelmed and under paid. Training for workers was hit and miss and often limited to training for family violence related issues that did not engage in complex situations, where disability and/or culture and/or sexism intersected with violence. Workers described feeling as if they had little information to guide their practice; they articulated that opportunities were needed to network in and between the sectors, to define roles and responsibilities in particular contexts, in order to provide more effective care and support to Indigenous women and children with disabilities experiencing violence. Workers felt that partnerships were important, however, partnerships don’t change the mindset of workers. One participant stated: ‘if a worker is racist, a piece of paper between managers is not going to change that’, reinforcing the importance of training, supports and monitoring of workers to work effectively in this space. It was also bought to our attention that in the day to day running of services formal partnerships had little effect on service delivery, rather, it was the networks and personal contacts of individual workers that made all the difference; many stated that it’s often ‘who you know, not what you know’.

Workers indicated that more effective approaches to working in this space would involve case conferencing or case management, with lines of responsibility being clearly itemised between organisations. There was also a consensus that the importance of providing adequate time for this work was essential. The availability and access to resources was a further issue raised, particularly in the context of providing supports outside of metropolitan areas. It was suggested that, for services to understand and to act appropriately and supportively to Indigenous women and children with disabilities experiencing violence ‘services [should] step into the world of these women and children, walk in their shoes, to learn how to do this [work] the right way’.


One of the principle frustrations that research participants commonly reported as undermining partnerships and good practice in the space of Indigenous violence and disability was the issue of funding. We were told that having a disability is expensive and ‘our budgets don’t cater for disabilities’. Participants reported that locating funds to cover the cost of an interpreter for an interview with a victim was prohibitive; for a refuge in these circumstances the costs of an interpreter could be put towards other costs. In these circumstances, they would attempt other forms of communication to facilitate access, for example, writing things down for someone who is hearing impaired assuming they have sufficient literacy, as opposed to spending the funds needed to secure an interpreter qualified in Auslan. We were also told of circumstances in which Indigenous women with hearing impairments were denied access to parenting programs because the service provider was unable and/or unwilling to provide an interpreter. The consequence for the mum was that she was not compliant with a child protection order, and was then denied the opportunity to get her child back – a circumstance that was wholly preventable.

Moving forward

Our study clearly found that help in Victoria is often unavailable or inappropriate in meeting the needs of Indigenous women and children with disabilities experiencing violence, as those providing the services understand little of the context and/or experiences of Indigenous peoples in these circumstances. The typical ‘one size fits all’ approach that is so often used in mainstream service delivery has proven to be ineffective in Indigenous contexts, but even more so when we add disability as a further layer of complexity in the Indigenous violence space. Many organisations and services we know continue to operate as silos to the detriment of clients, particularly those who are the most disadvantaged and indeed the most vulnerable. The system needs to change, all women and children under international human rights standards[8] are entitled to live free from violence. It is unfortunate, as we have found in this study, that Indigenous women and children with disabilities experiencing violence, getting help is “just too hard…”

Key priorities for future research and service planning needs to include: listening to the women and children in such situations – what do they need/want/when and where? We need to build knowledge and capacity in the community about these issues both in the Indigenous and non-Indigenous context; help needs to be available and we need to carefully consider how we reduce violence for this vulnerable group by being proactive in prevention; we also need data, how many of our mob are suffering in these circumstances? These are basic system requirements that need careful consideration if we are serious about up-holding human rights and delivering dignity to all women and children in these circumstances. Our study indicated that there is a willingness to improve access to services for Indigenous people with disabilities but it’s not automatic, it has to be raised and pressured by champions in the community and in the workforce. We encourage others to join us in this work.

Dr Kyllie Cripps is an Indigenous academic in the Indigenous Law Centre at the University of New South Wales.

Leanne Miller is the Executive Director of Koorie Women Mean Business.

Jody Saxton-Barney is the Director of Deaf Indigenous Community Consultancy.

[1] 4430.0 - Disability, Ageing and Carers, Australia: Summary of Findings, 2003, Australian Bureau of Statistics, <>

[2] 4714.0 - National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey Data Cubes, 2008, Australian Bureau of Statistics, <> .

[3] D A Brownridge, ‘Partner violence against women with disabilities: Prevalence, risk and explanations’ (2006) Violence Against Women, 12(9), 805-822.

[4] J Cockram, Silent voices: Women with disabilities and family and domestic violence. (People with Disabilities, 2003).

[5] MM Cohen, T Forte, J Du Mont, I Hyman & R Romans, ‘Intimate partner violence among Canadian women with activity limitations’ (2005) Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 59(10), 834–9.

[6] S Salthouse & C Frohmader, ‘Real trouble in the home: the domestic violence reality for women with disabilities’ (2005) Domestic Violence & Incest Resource Centre Newsletter, No 4, Summer, 11.

[7] Above note 4.

[8] United Nations General Assembly, Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989); United Nations Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979); United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007)

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