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Violence Against New Zealand’s Disabled People

A major new study highlights the abuse of disabled people in New Zealand, showing rates of violence much higher than those experienced by the rest of the population.

It also shows how home can be a place of abuse for disabled people.

Forty percent of disabled women experience physical violence from an intimate partner over their lifetimes, compared with twenty-five percent of non-disabled women, says Associate Professor Janet Fanslow, of the University of Auckland’s School of Population Health.

Intimate partner violence includes physical violence, sexual violence, psychological abuse, controlling behaviours and economic abuse.

“Information about the prevalence of violence has been sought by the disabled community for many years,” says Dr Fanslow. “This study highlights the need to develop and support violence prevention and response programmes that are accessible and appropriate for everyone.

“Prevention and response services also need to be equipped with the knowledge and resources to respond to multiple circumstances that can increase the risk of violence occurring, particularly gender and disability,” she says.

The new research was presented in two papers, one on intimate partner violence, the other on non-partner violence, just published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The data came from the 2019 New Zealand Family Violence Study, which interviewed almost 3,000 people. About one-in-five women and about one-in-seven men reported a disability.

Key results included:

  • Women with any disability reported significantly higher rates of sexual intimate partner violence (17%) compared with disabled men (5%).
  • Having one disability increased the risk of experiencing violence; multiple disabilities didn’t increase this risk further.
  • Disabled men were more likely to experience physical violence by non-partners (56%), compared with 38% of non-disabled men. 
  • 34% of men with disabilities experienced five or more episodes of non-partner physical violence compared with 14% of non-disabled.
  • Men were the main perpetrators of non-partner violence against both men and women.
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For women with disabilities, the main perpetrators of non-partner physical violence were family members, including parents and relatives. For men with disabilities, strangers were the main perpetrators.

Disability Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero, of the Human Rights Commission, says: “This data reinforces international statistics and what experienced practitioners in Aotearoa already know.While I am saddened by this confirmation, it provides vital evidence that we can’t ignore of the magnitude of harm towards disabled people."

She adds: “This study demonstrates the critical need for prevention and appropriate support, and the importance of the mahi of the Joint Venture for Family Violence and Sexual Violence. I, and the Human Rights Commission, will continue to work alongside the joint venture to help build systems that safeguard against violence towards disabled people.”

The results of the research were broadly in line with estimates from the Ministry of Justice’s crime and victims survey, released in June.

“These results highlight the need to widen our prevention and response systems for family violence. For those who are reliant on family members for care and support, we should be considering the dynamics of violence in the whole family, not just looking at people’s intimate partners,” says Dr Fanslow.

In response to advocacy by disabled people, the Family Violence Act 2018 includes caregivers as potential abusers and lists some forms of violence specific to disabled people.

“The Crimes Act highlights that the neglect or ill treatment of a child or vulnerable adult (a person who is unable to remove themselves from harm) can result in a prison term of up to 10 years,” says Dr Debbie Hager, of the School of Population Health. “Despite this, it is apparent from this work that many disabled adults live in situations where they are subject to violence and abuse.”

The research results were drawn from people living in their own homes. As no people living in residential services, retirement homes or who required support to communicate were interviewed, the findings are likely to underestimate violence experienced by disabled people.

Links to research (these go live after journal articles published):

Lifetime Prevalence of Intimate Partner Violence and Disability: Results From a Population-Based Study in New Zealand: https://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(21)00191-4/fulltext
Prevalence of Non-partner Physical and Sexual Violence Against People With Disabilities: https://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(21)00230-0/fulltext

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