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Research explores issue of violence against people with disability
Author: FMHS Marketing & Communications / FGGW Bemarking & Kommunikasie – Sue Segar
Published: 24/01/2023

Alarming statistics show that people with disability experience much higher rates of violence than the rest of the population, and that poverty, which often accompany disability, exacerbate the inequality they already face with regard to healthcare, education and housing. These are human rights issue that warrant widespread attention, Dr Xanthe Hunt, a Senior Researcher at Stellenbosch University's (SU) Institute for Life Course Health Research pleaded during a recent talk at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences' 66th Annual Academic Day.

In her state-of-the-art address entitled 'Violence against people with disabilities: What it looks like, where it happens, and how to prevent it', Hunt said that people with disabilities experience higher rates of poverty than those without disabilities. “There is a bidirectional relationship," she explained. “If you are poor, you are more likely to end up with an impairment because you are disproportionately exposed to things that might cause you harm and lead to disability. And if you have a disability, you're more likely to experience poverty because you face barriers to education, and may have difficulty obtaining and keeping a job.

“It means that people with disability face a type of clustering of vulnerabilities and circumstances that are all related to an increased risk for violence."

Hunt, whose research focuses on mental health, disability, and child development in low- and middle-income settings, leads a large-scale study on student mental health in South Africa, as well as a number of projects related to disability-inclusive development.

She said there are numerous ways in which a person can have an impairment, including physical-, intellectual- and psychosocial disabilities, like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

“There are groups of people with disability, particularly women and children, who are at an even higher risk for violence. Women with disabilities are twice as likely to be exposed to sexual violence than women without disabilities, and in some cases, children with disabilities are twice as likely to be exposed to child abuse or neglect than children without disabilities."

On the topic of child abuse, Hunt said it is necessary to look at the broader context in which it occurs. “Most people really want to be good parents and don't intend to harm their children. But parents who are battling to function in high levels of poverty sometimes become violent towards their children because they have been failed, to a large extent, by support structures at a community level, and by services at the individual and community level.

“Parenting stress is much higher amongst these parents, so if we start thinking about programming approaches, we need to consider how to support parents to optimally care for their children so they don't feel so overwhelmed."

Hunt also discussed disability hate crime, where people with disabilities are victimised “not because of something they did, but because of what they represent to other people. This is most common among people with albinism, epilepsy and is particularly common in contexts where the social representations of the disability are problematic."

She added that a further type of violence that can affect people with disabilities is structural violence, including poverty and violence, which create circumstances in which sexual violence, physical violence, community violence and hate crimes occur.

Turning to solutions, Hunt said that ways of dealing with violence against people with disabilities include violence prevention policies and working on public attitude change.

“Potentially the most important thing you can do to prevent violence against people with disabilities is to address the social determinants, and the biggest one is socioeconomic vulnerabilities," she said. Another way to prevent violence, which she believed is not the most effective measure, is to work with people who are victimised. Organisations of People with Disabilities (OPDs) are one avenue for this work. “Being part of an OPD can be empowering as you have communities and access to support, and pathways for referral when they are exposed to violence."

Finally, she recommended that people with disabilities become involved in drafting policies around the issues facing them.