As hard as it is to believe, given everything going on around us, it remains Women’s History Month. A month in which we celebrate everything women have achieved. No really.
Beyond Instagram’s barrage of empowering quotes and girlboss gifs, it’s never been clearer that women are not yet afforded equal footing in this world. What has been discussed less, however, amid the noise and anger, is that even in our standing against inequality, our society is ableist.
Because disabled women, in particular, are still not afforded many of the rights that you’d expect in 2021. We can’t even take for granted those the suffragettes fought for – and I’m referring, specifically, to financial freedom.
In Britain today, an out of date benefits system ensures that many disabled women are still forced to be reliant their partners and family for money.
Employment Support Allowance (ESA), the benefit which most disabled people who can’t work will apply for, is not only means-tested, but the income of every adult in your household is taken into account. This means that if they earn over the threshold, you don’t qualify. As an adult, you’ll still have to rely on your partner or parents for money.
Clearly, this is incredibly infantilising for disabled people, suggesting that we can’t have our own money. But the wider implications go much further than mere pride. This situation means many disabled people are unable to live with or marry their partners without losing their only income source, meaning we also don’t have marriage equality.
Hannah* was on ESA when she met her partner, but as they didn’t live together before they got married, she wasn’t aware she’d lose her benefits when they did. She reported a change in circumstances and was told to take her marriage certificate to her local jobcentre, but a bout of illness and several admin mix ups delayed her visit. Just one month on, she received a letter from the DWP.
“They were asking for about £350, while at the same time telling me I had no claim to ESA because my husband worked,” she explains. “When I tried to speak to an advisor, I was told ‘your husband can keep you’ and ‘you’re disabled, why would you need money?’” Such ableist attitudes from those who are supposed to help us can leave disabled people in dire situations, as Hannah suggests. “I didn’t know how I was going to feed my family for the week. I felt suicidal.”
The support trap
At the more sinister end of the scale, this situation often traps disabled people in abusive situations, because they can’t afford to leave.
While I am in a loving relationship now, were it not for my parents allowing me to return home in the past, I would’ve been trapped with an emotionally abusive partner. Why? Thanks to him earning just over the threshold I didn’t qualify for ESA. Having naively agreed that our £450 rent would come out of my account on the promise that he would put it back in – spoiler, this lapsed pretty quickly – I would often be left with just £100 of my Personal Independence Payment to last the month. From that, I was also expected to do the shopping whilst he spent his wages on weed, booze and things we didn’t need.
It’s a relationship that I still struggle to speak about, but it’s far from an uncommon one. I know that the financial manipulation that was a big part of the abuse was made possible by how vulnerable I was due to a lack of funding. But my income is not the same as my partner’s, so why should his job affect the support I am entitled to?
The 2015 Crime Survey for England and Wales found that disabled and chronically ill women were almost three times as likely to experience some form of domestic abuse than non-disabled or chronically ill women.
SafeLives data, meanwhile, reveals that disabled people typically experience domestic abuse for an average of 3.3 years before accessing support, compared to 2.3 years for non-disabled people. What’s more, even after receiving support, disabled victims are eight per cent more likely than non-disabled victims to continue to experience abuse.
A big reason for this is that partners or family members often act as carers, so where they also have full financial control, abused partners often have no way of escaping. It’s a picture that’s familiar to Katie, gave up her ESA benefits when she moved in with her now ex-partner, only for the relationship to soon turn abusive.
“When I lost my income, although small, I lost my independence,” she explains. “I had to record all spending on a spreadsheet and if he did not deem it essential or authorised, I had to pay it on my own.” Katie says not only did her partner control her spending, he would have outbursts if she bought something he didn’t like, which eventually became violent. “After 18 months, it was full blown domestic abuse,” she sighs. “I was trapped.”
Thankfully, when Katie raised the alarm, a relative helped her escape and she now has her own house. Four years on though, she says she still has trouble trusting people. “As a result of this, I won’t live with anyone else again,” she says sadly.
“Disabled people often experience marginalisation in society through misplaced views of their lives and experiences,” a spokesperson from SafeLives explains. “This can make it more challenging for victims to recognise abusive behaviours, understand their rights and have the right routes to seek support.
“That is why there needs to be dedicated funding for disabled and deaf people ‘by and for’ specialist domestic abuse organisations across the country.”
In the meantime, for as long as we’re basing a disabled person’s right to money on how much a partner or parent earns, we’re taking away both their financial freedom and their agency – something we need to bear in mind over the coming weeks and months as the fight for women’s safety continues to accelerate. Because it’s not just our income that’s on the line. It’s our lives.