Deaf and hard-of-hearing survivors of domestic violence used to leave A New Leaf’s shelters after a day or two,frustrated by a lack of qualified interpreters and the ensuing communication problems.
“I didn’t like that we couldn’t serve that population,” said Dana Martinez, director of shelter services for the organization. “It was a lack of trained staff, but also a lack of how to access … resources. We didn’t know who to call. A lot of times, by the time we figured it out, the client had already left.”
A New Leaf has since secured state and federal funding to outfit its shelters with assistive-hearing and communication devices — including flashing doorbells, video-relay tablets, bed alarms and amplifiers — over the next five years. An online chat option already was added for intake screenings, and leaders have trained staff to handle interpreter requests.
But accessibility remains a work in progress at most domestic-violence facilities throughout the state and country.
Disability-rights advocates say organizations with good intentions but little funding often are unequipped to serve survivors who use wheelchairs, are blind or deaf, or have service animals. Those gaps compound the risks for a population already fearful of leaving abusers, they say, sometimes propelling survivors back into abusive relationships.
“Most shelter programs do a pretty good job around (Americans with Disabilities Act) accommodations, because they are required to by law,” said Barbara Paradiso, director of the Center on Domestic Violence at the University of Colorado-Denver.
“How well the staff of those programs understand the unique challenges of people with disabilities and (are) prepared to appropriately assist them can be another story, and, I am sure, differs from program to program.”
Accessibility problems at facilities that specifically help vulnerable populations, such as domestic-violence survivors or sexual-assault victims, can take longer to come to light.
“For understandable reasons, there has been very little enforcement,” said Marc Durbin, a former prosecutor who now works as a disability-law consultant. “No one wants to sue a domestic-violence shelter.”
Melissa Brockie, director of New Day Centers at UMOM in Phoenix, Ariz., details domestic violence or interpersonal violence. She explains its warning signs and resources available to victims. Nick Serpa/azcentral
‘Not being reached’
People with disabilities are more likely to experience physical and sexual violence than those without disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health. And it can be more difficult to leave a dangerous situation when an abuser also acts as a caregiver or interpreter.
“There can be a greater dependence on the violator,” said Carmen Green Smith, deputy director for the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. “In the case of a deaf victim, that person might be one of the very few people who signs with them or understands anything about them or their background.”
Communication barriers also can create delays when it comes to survivors learning how to escape an abusive situation, Smith said.
They often don’t have equal access to “incidental learning” opportunities, such as commercials or campaigns that address domestic violence and how to get help. Those campaigns are unlikely to feature survivors with disabilities, which can leave victims feeling unsure about whether they’re welcome.
“It makes me very, very concerned that so many people in our community are not being reached,” said April Reed, vice president of advocacy with disability-rights group Ability360. “They’re not having this conversation, and don’t know about being safe or the resources available to them.”
For those who do seek out shelter services, survivors can have “a very different experience depending on the nature of their specific disability” once they arrive, Reed said. Structural hurdles, a lack of assistive devices and misinformation about service animals are common.
“We’ve talked to service providers who said, ‘We are in an ancient building, and we are underfunded, and we would struggle to get somebody in the door with a manual wheelchair or with a power chair because of that,'” she said.
“It wasn’t about a lack of desire to serve. It was that structural and funding barrier.”
‘It should always be a priority’
Crisis-intervention professionals interviewed by The Republic said the accessibility-improvement process will never be complete.
“There are things we continue to identify as we learn more and work with other populations,” said Sarabeth Spencer, training and internship director at the Sojourner Center in Phoenix.
“We’re trying to make Sojourner Center more welcoming and safe for people of all backgrounds — including those that have physical disabilities, learning disabilities and mental-health issues — because we know that those are different disabilities that may have unique needs.”
Spencer said the center recently updated its laundry facilities to include front-load washers, for instance. It offers materials in large print and Braille, creates an individualized evacuation plan with each tenant and provides interpreters.
The organization also plans to install automatic doors, among other efforts, she said, but “funding is always a great need.”
So is consistent training, according to Durbin, the disability-law consultant.
He said “100 percent” of the domestic-violence and rape-treatment centers he has advised care about this issue and want to do it right, and “a lot of them violate the law inadvertently.”
“I don’t think the folks they hire have a consciousness, generally, of what is required or what the disability community needs,” Durbin said. “They usually learn about it when they get a complaint.”
Erin Bartholmey, director of residential services at domestic-violence-prevention organization Chrysalis, said it’s particularly challenging to keep employees up-to-date on disability accommodations when programs have frequent turnover.
The Phoenix-based non-profit, which operates a crisis center and transitional housing, has collaborated with disability-rights organizations to educate its staff in the past.
“It should always be a priority that if we’re saying one thing, we should be able to back it up, and training helps with that for sure,” Bartholmey said. “That is always something where we want to do more and more and more.”
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