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Parade marshal: disabilities add new dimension to DV

Wed, Jul 25, 2012

Disability Pride Parade

Disabilities add a whole new dimension to abuse, says Linda E. Miller, domestic violence coordinator at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and the parade marshal for this year’s July 21 Disability Pride Parade.

Domestic violence within the disability community means not just physical abuse, Miller says, but aggravating someone’s situation. An abuser could deny someone the use of their wheelchair, their crutches, their service animal; or prevent them from leaving their home. “Even something as mundane as being quadriplegic and someone feeding you too quickly, making you eat what they want you to eat instead of what you want to eat, or putting you to bed too quickly,” she said.

The vulnerability of a person with disabilities also leaves them open to emotional abuse: someone denying that they have a limitation or taking advantage of their situation, Miller added. A disabled individual might be forced to have sex or might be urged to give up a paycheck to the person with whom they stay.

Miller’s program provides services to individuals with disabilities who are survivors of domestic violence throughout Chicagoland in a program funded dually by the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Illinois Attorney General’s Office. Still, she says the extent of domestic violence against people with disabilities is hard to define “because there are so many barriers in place to keep us from coming forward.” The need for not only affordable housing but often a caregiver means that many people with disabilities live in doubled-up homeless situations.

“If I can’t get accessible housing and the only place I can stay is with someone who is abusing me, the chances are I will stay there because maybe that abuse will only happen so often,” Miller said. “But if I come forward, the only alternative might be a nursing home.”

Meanwhile, only one domestic violence agency within Chicagoland can accommodate a woman in a wheelchair. Even if the woman were to get a bed within that shelter, she would have to be able to care for herself because the facility is a shelter, not a nursing home, Miller said. It cannot provide caregiver services or administer medication.

Miller also provides services to men with disabilities, for whom there are no domestic violence shelters at all. Some of these men could be veterans but others could have spinal cord injuries, gunshot wounds or multiple sclerosis, she said.

Together with these men and women, Miller facilitates and brainstorms ways to keep them safe. “It’s not my duty or responsibility to make changes in their lives. They have had people telling them day after day how to run their lives. I can tell them about resources, finding different ways to stay safe, coming up with a safety plan; tell them about laws, getting an order of protection or staying with another family member, even moving to another state.”

Linda E. Miller

Miller can also work with law enforcement to get the abuser out of the household. She has a support group that meets every Thursday to help individuals know what is normal in a household and what is not, so that they can make plans before a dangerous situation escalates.

Miller has been disabled for 56 years due to polio at age 3. She also survived domestic violence in her first marriage, which ended because of it. She married again and will celebrate 25 years with her second husband this September.

“My first husband was physically and emotionally abusive. He would do things such as place pillows over my face until I would just about pass out,” she said. “Sometimes he would take me out of my wheelchair, place me on the floor for hours on end until I would beg to get up. He would take money from me. He would cause me to lose a job because he would make sure I was always late for work because I would depend on him to take me – this was the days before paratransit. He definitely played mind games.

“One time he hit me so hard I saw stars,” Miller said. “I was afraid I would not make it next time we had this confrontation so I grabbed my son. He was 2 years old. I went back home. At that time I could do stairs. Now I could not. My whole game plan for getting out of that situation would be all different now.”

Miller spends 95 percent of her time in a wheelchair now, whereas before she spent just 50 percent in the wheelchair and the remainder using crutches and braces. Born and raised on the South Side, she went to grade school and high school at Spaulding School in Chicago, which was the main school for people with disabilities in the days before mainstreaming them with other students. She received her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Southern Illinois University/Carbondale and continuing education to become certified as an Illinois domestic violence professional.

Domestic violence among people with disabilities is “snowballing, as more individuals are unemployed or underemployed,” Miller said.

“Women are suffering abuse more at the hands of their loved ones. For example, your loved one loses their job and arguments evolve because they are at home all day and they lash out.” One of her clients with a disability was pushed down the stairs so that she is now quadriplegic. She can no longer do her job, which requires physical activity. She is now in a nursing home and separated from her children. Her needs are for retraining, for different ways of caring for her children, for accessible housing, for peer mentoring or psychological assistance to deal with her new life and to get through the court hearing: some general hand holding.

What is needed for people with disabilities to become domestic violence survivors? Miller called for better access to housing and more coordinated efforts not only with the police department but with social service agencies and courts to bring people with disabilities to the table. “Let individuals know we are out there and we need services and equal rights. We are always the first things to be cut.”

Suzanne Hanney, StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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