The preliminary findings from an ongoing Montreal-based participatory action research project shed light on how to address intimate partner violence (IPV) facing women with disabilities. Complex structural barriers (e.g., lack of targeted policy or adapted environments) must be addressed to help women with disabilities escape abuse, neglect, and other forms of IPV. Many of the issues identified within the Québec context apply to other countries, states, or provinces.
In fall 2020, a Québec-wide grassroots disability rights organization, the Regroupement des activistes pour l’inclusion au Québec (RAPLIQ), sought to tackle shelter inaccessibility for women with disabilities seeking to break cycles of intimate partner violence (IPV). RAPLIQ’s efforts echo worldwide concerns with a disproportionate number of women and children with disabilities experiencing IPV despite Article 16 (Freedom from exploitation, violence, and abuse) of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. With Canada being a party to the Convention, Québec has an obligation to adopt inclusive policies related to IPV. Policies should increase the funding of existing shelters and provide safe support systems for women with disabilities facing IPV, among other objectives. Seeking support for this vast agenda, RAPLIQ approached Université de Montréal, Université du Québec en Outaouais, and McGill University researchers.
Under the guidance of the Université de Montréal, we conducted a study with the help of Montreal regional health and social services, the IPV Division of the Montreal Police Department, the Maison des femmes sourdes de Montréal (Montreal ‘house’ for deaf women), other independent shelters, and the Quebec shelter network dispatcher (SOS Violence Conjugale). Our workgroup aimed to gather testimonies and contribute to the elimination of barriers facing women with disabilities experiencing intimate partner violence. We conducted interviews among both shelter workers and eleven women with disabilities to learn about the latter’s help-seeking experiences. Testimonies revealed that shelter inaccessibility was only the “tip of the iceberg.” A complex web of social (e.g., systemic discrimination), cultural (e.g., ableist popular media), political (e.g., lack of political will), and economic (e.g., low employment) barriers have prevented women with disabilities from combatting cycles of violence.
During our team meetings, most of the above-mentioned group members wanted to support women with disabilities but often did not know how to approach this rarely discussed topic. Thus, raising awareness about the need for inclusive policies and programs remains critical. Though the provincial policy on IPV prevention mentions persons with disabilities, the six million dollars currently in the 2022-2023 provincial budget are insufficient due to the substantial cost of retrofitting shelters. Meanwhile, at the federal level, the pan-Canadian organization DisAbled Women Network of Canada, has urged the federal government to expand existing policies and programs to better address the needs of people with disabilities.
Recognizing Ableism in Québec
Though rarely recognized as such, the lack of resources and knowledge about IPV and disability is a manifestation of ableism. In non-English speaking communities, scholars have struggled to translate the word “ableism.” This poses a significant obstacle for disability rights movements in provinces such as Québec, where English is not the main language. The term “ableism” was coined in the 1980s in the United States to describe “ideas, practices, institutions, and social relations that presume able‐bodiedness, and by so doing, construct persons with disabilities as largely invisible ‘others.’” In Québec, the term “capacitisme” is slowly being recognized as a translation for “ableism.” Nevertheless, many non-disabled people remain unaware of the systemic exclusion facing those unable to move, perceive, and share information in ways perceived as “normal.” The result is a lack of funding to adapt shelters or political will to rework policies to better assist those with disabilities.
People with disabilities in Montréal encounter many structural challenges that may facilitate psychological violence and isolation. One of the women we interviewed shared that:
“Sometimes it’s shocking, and it’s unbelievable how it happens, but it’s there: psychological violence, manipulation, and isolation.” (Anita, translated from French)
Isolation may, at times, be closely related to transportation issues. In Montreal, only twenty-five of sixty-eight subway stations are accessible or partially accessible for disabled people. The Montréal paratransit system also remains unreliable and underfunded. One of our study participants shared that “it was the paratransit system that led me to quit my job. I loved my job and what I did.” (Lynn, translated from French). Additionally, snowstorms during the long winter months may prevent many individuals with disabilities, the temporarily wounded, and pregnant women from leaving home on their own.
Transportation issues may impede a woman’s ability to escape a violent situation or relationship. As Lynn further explained, “If an [able-bodied] woman is a victim of violence, she can call the police and they will remove [transport] her from the situation. If we call, they cannot take us [in the police car] with our wheelchair, and the paratransit system doesn’t accept same-day reservations […] for wheelchair users who cannot transfer [to the police car]” (Translated from French).
As discussed by three of our survey participants, isolation due to inadequate transportation also prevents women with disabilities from participating in disability rights organizations and seeking out peer support to identify patterns of emotional, financial, and other forms of abuse. Many organizations run by women with disabilities also remain isolated from mainstream feminist initiatives. They struggle to build strategic partnerships with other human rights organizations, which are often comprised of people who do not face mobility or sensory barriers. As a result, discussions about racism, sexism, ageism, xenophobia, and homophobia fail to include the perspectives of those with disabilities. Adopting an intersectional approach is critical to understanding and dismantling the power relations that cause IPV.
Poverty and Housing Insecurity
Women with disabilities are also at an economic disadvantage. Recent studies suggest that Canadian men and women are employed at equal rates. However, compared to men, women tend to rely more on part-time jobs or lack a stable source of income According to Canada’s Disability Inclusion Plan, “Working-age persons with disabilities are almost twice as likely as their peers without disabilities to live in poverty.”
Inaccessible housing remains one of the key obstacles to breaking cycles of violence. Most women with disabilities are not homeowners, and options for accessible rental housing remain limited in Canada. Barriers to accessing affordable housing also include ableist stereotyping. One participant explained:
He had told me I had to be the one to leave; so, I started to look. There were no shelters available to me, so I went to visit apartments. Every time I got the same reaction: as soon as they saw me coming with my white cane, they would look down on me: “Are you sure you’ll be able to pay the rent? Why are you moving? You have two kids; how will you care for them?” They said such idiocies (Imane, translated from French).
One policy gap concerns the provision of personal assistant care within shelters. According to our study participants, women have difficulty accessing shelters or housing when they rely on service dogs despite laws that prohibit such discrimination. Shelter workers interviewed in our study also admitted that they hesitated to allow homecare workers into the shelter to assist a woman with a disability .
Access to Justice
Compounding these barriers is a lack of legal pathways to justice. Some of the women interviewed explained how the police failed to intervene or, in some instances, provided non-adapted and demeaning care after the women had suffered physical violence from an intimate partner. In one case, the police reproached a woman with low vision for not having noted the address of her aggressor’s apartment.
The Québec Charter of Rights and Freedoms remains Québec’s only law protecting persons with disabilities from discrimination. Under this law, the only recourse for women who are refused access to shelters based on their disability is to file a complaint to the Quebec Human Rights Commission. However, the Commission procedures require approximately fifteen months to determine whether a person’s rights have been violated, thus rendering the process long and potentially dangerous in the context of IPV.
One participant was denied access to a shelter due to the presence of her service dog. She invested much time and energy into her defense, considering the shelter’s actions jeopardized her life and integrity:
“I was afraid for my life. He had sent me photos of his guns. I left the shelter feeling as though my life did not matter.” (Anna, translated from French).
This participant deplored having to engage in such a lengthy legal process amidst this emotional trauma.
A preliminary review of our interviewees’ testimonies highlights which strategies would best address the barriers women with disabilities face when looking to break cycles of IPV. These barriers begin with intimate partner behavior and extend to a system that isolates and devalues women with disabilities. Challenging ableism requires crafting systemic solutions instead of reacting to individual incidents.
First, municipal governments must improve the accessibility of public transportation systems. Other municipalities should adopt approaches similar to those of the city of Laval, whose paratransit system recently established free emergency services for women using wheelchairs and seeking shelter. Initiatives involving first responders highlight the importance of collective action to respond to structural barriers facing women with disabilities.
Second, the Canadian government must better equip law enforcement to support women with disabilities facing IPV. As a result of our group’s intersectoral work, the Montréal and Québec police forces have taken training sessions with RAPLIQ centered on how to promptly assist women with disabilities. The sessions taught officers how to interact with women with mobility, speech, or hearing impairments. Our partners have also committed to knowledge translation efforts, producing a short video urging the police to seek out trained sign language professional translators when providing services to deaf women experiencing IPV. Our intersectoral work has also resulted in the implementation of a pilot project[ii] focusing on delivering to women with disabilities residing within the newly adapted shelter.
Finally, to fully resolve ableist issues, Québec must improve education on ableism and disability rights across all levels of the education system. Unawareness about how to support persons with disabilities remains widespread.
In its 2017 review, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recommended that Canada address gender-based violence and equality for women with disabilities, especially in the First Nations and Inuit People. The Committee also urged the Canadian federal government to provide medical, legal, and social interventions to address violence against women with disabilities.
Unfortunately, these same critiques remain relevant today. In 2019, the Canadian federal government established the Accessible Canada Act (ACA). However, the ACA struggles to encompass and address obligations under Article 16 of the CRPD due to the shared legal responsibilities between the Canadian federal government and the thirteen provinces and territories. IPV prevention remains predominantly under provincial jurisdiction, and currently, no plans exist to adopt a comprehensive act to protect those with disabilities in Québec. Despite its law prohibiting discrimination towards people with disabilities, Québec has yet to adequately invest in ending intimate partner violence against women with disabilities and therefore to comply with the CRPD.
For these reasons, further testimony-based research to urge the Québec government to enforce concrete measures and allocate financial resources in support of an inclusive IPV policy is critical. Only then can Canada and Québec eliminate the systemic ableist exclusion of women with disabilities.
 Labrecque-Lebeau L, Lévesque MC, Abouseffien M, Munoz Y, Gauthier L, Bergeron L. “The social production of autonomy: building a trajectory towards the security and well-being of women with disabilities and domestic violence” Proceedings from the 2022 Alter Conference (July 7-8, 2022 Brussels): Rethinking the institution and deinstitutionalization based on disability; Lévesque, M., Gauthier, L., Labrecque-Lebeau, L. Richmond, S., Dufour, M-H. “Trajectory towards the safety and well-being of women with disabilities. Research: Victims of violence: participatory and intersectoral action in the Montreal region.” Presentation as part of the “Colloquium on domestic violence against people with a physical or intellectual disability or an autism spectrum disorder” (March 29, 2023). Event Overview. Presentation.
Yolanda Muñoz is an academic and advocate with a physical disability. She holds a PhD in Japanese Studies with specialty in indigenous peoples, gender, and cultural studies. She is a course lecturer of “Gender and Disability” at the McGill University Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies since 2006. Since 2020, she has collaborated with the Université de Montréal in the research on intimate partner violence towards women with disabilities. ORCID: 0000-0002-8820-9428.
Martine Lévesque is an occupational therapist and assistant professor at the Université de Montréal School of Rehabilitation. Her research, grounded in occupational science, focuses on community participation within the context of Indigenous community wellness planning and development. She is also overseeing a community-based participatory action research program focused on disabled women and domestic violence. Her methodological expertise includes intersectoral participatory action research and qualitative analysis amongst marginalized populations.
Laurence Roy is an occupational therapist and associate professor at McGill University’s School of Physical and Occupational Therapist. Her research focuses on how communities shape, and are shaped by, the engagement, inclusion, and occupations of persons with psychological or physical disabilities who also experience social exclusion. She is involved in several community-based participatory action research projects at the intersection of health, housing, disability, and justice.
Linda Gauthier is co-founder and outgoing president of the Regroupement des activistes pour l’inclusion au Québec (RAPLIQ); she is also a community partner and initiator of the project “Trajectory towards the safety and well-being of women with disabilities who are victims of violence: participatory and intersectoral action research in the Montreal region.” She sits on the consultation table of the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (CDPDJ) and on that of the Program d’accès pour l’égale en emploi (PAÉE), of the CDPDJ as well.
Line Bergeron is the Director of the Maison des femmes sourdes de Montréal (Home of D/deaf Women of Montréal). She is an outstanding leader with several years of experience. She contributes to defining and achieving the organization’s mission through her commitment, her interpersonal skills, and her ability to develop strategic collaborations. Line has significantly contributed to widening the scope and reach of the participatory action research presented in this paper.
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