The ‘double whammy’ of being a disabled woman in the UK

by Caroline Waters

Published: 03 Dec 2018

Caroline Waters is Deputy Chair of our Board of Commissioners and represents the Board on our Disability Advisory Committee.

We recently published our biggest ever review into women’s rights, looking across all areas of life including health, work, education, living standards and access to justice. This will feed into a major United Nations assessment of sex equality in the UK, helping to inform recommendations for action.

The report shows, unsurprisingly, that there is still a long way to go before all women can live free from discrimination. And – more fundamentally – to ensure they are safe from violence, harassment and abuse in their own homes and communities.

This is amplified when applied to disabled women, for whom the imbalance of power and level of discrimination is even more acute. They are hit with a ‘double whammy’ as a result of their gender and impairment – something that could be addressed more effectively if the Government implemented section 14 of the Equality Act on ‘combined discrimination’.

Just under half of disabled women are neither employed nor actively seeking work, meaning that many may not be able to support themselves financially. For those who do have a job, there is a disability pay gap – for women with certain impairments, this is as large as 18.9%.

To make matters worse, we found that disabled people are among those hit hardest by recent tax and welfare reforms, and cuts to public spending. Our report on this found that lone parents (most of whom are women) and households with the most disabilities face especially heavy losses.

All of this makes it incredibly difficult for disabled women to live independently and avoid becoming segregated or isolated in their communities. It also increases the risk of abuse at the hands of those close to them or in positions of influence at home, in the workplace or when socialising.

'Disabled women are disproportionately at risk from all forms of violence and abuse from carers, partners and people in the community.'

Healthcare is another key concern.

We found that there are serious barriers for people with learning disabilities in accessing information about sex and making choices about contraception. In addition, disabled pregnant women in general are not receiving the appropriate support.

Whatever their impairment, disabled women have the same sexual and reproductive rights and right to healthcare as anyone else.

Shockingly, we found that disabled women are disproportionately at risk from all forms of violence and abuse from carers, partners and people in the community. Women with learning disabilities and mental health conditions are also more likely to experience sexual violence.

This situation is made even worse by how difficult it can be for disabled women to get the support they need – for example, according to one survey, less than 2% of women’s refuge spaces in England are accessible to wheelchair users.

There is clearly an urgent need to ensure all women’s support services receive adequate long-term funding, and are available to a wide a range of women – including those with complex needs.

Forced marriage has recently been in the spotlight after Sajid Javid admitted the Home Office had much more to do to combat this crime and support victims.

This is extremely welcome given that the government’s Forced Marriage Unit gave advice on a possible 1,196 cases in the UK last year. Around 78% of the victims were women and 12% had a learning disability. Many instances of forced marriage involve physical and sexual violence, so it is crucial that all referrals are thoroughly investigated. 

If #MeToo, the movement that gave voices to thousands of abused women worldwide, has taught us something, it is that inequality in society between men and women is one of the core drivers of sexual abuse. This presents a vicious cycle. How can disabled women achieve better outcomes in education and at work if they are subjected to abuse and violence from others?

We should all have an equal chance to thrive, but this is impossible unless we tackle the major challenges disabled women face in employment, standards of living and healthcare and – above all – stem the rising tide of violence against women and girls, which comes at far too great a cost to individuals and society.

This International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we stand ready to work with civil society, disabled people and women’s organisations to empower disabled women and ensure inclusiveness and equality, encouraging governments to improve the lives of all women in Britain.

We know millions of others support our vision for all women in society; if this support is only passive, progress will remain slow and many more women will experience debilitating abuse and violence.

What are you prepared to do today to make dignity and equality a reality tomorrow?