This piece is the third in the Neighborhood Writing Alliance’s multi-part series focusing on issues affecting individuals and communities with disabilities living on the West and South Sides of Chicago. These stories are part of the Local Reporting Initiative, supported in part by The Chicago Community Trust.
By Pennie Brinson, NWA writer
I am a Neighborhood Writing Alliance writer living on the West Side of Chicago. As a person with a disability, I wanted to bring attention to people with disabilities who experience domestic violence, neglect, and abuse from people who are supposed to be caring for them.
Domestic Violence Program Coordinator, Linda Miller, of Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital (1401 S. California Blvd.) was once one of those people. Miller is a person with a disability, living with polio for over 55 years.
Miller suffered domestic violence from her first husband, who not only inflicted emotional abuse, but also physical abuse when, she said, he would place pillows over her face until she passed out, and would take her out of her wheelchair and place her on the floor in the bathroom for hours.
I interviewed Miller, certified by Illinois as a Certified Domestic Violence Professional, on the issue of violence toward people with disabilities, in order to bring awareness to the mainstream community.
NWA: Why should the general public be aware of the issue of abuse among people with disabilities?
Miller: Because we are such an invisible group in terms of domestic violence. People don’t think of [people with disabilities as people] who might possibly be abused by a loved one, a family member, or caregivers.
NWA: What makes people with disabilities seem unlikely to be victims of abuse?
Miller: When I’ve gone out and talked to different groups, the main question that comes to me after I’ve spoken is, “How could someone do that? I just can’t believe that someone would actually hit or strike or do something mean to someone in a wheelchair or someone that has some kind of mental or physical disability.”
Also, we’re less likely to be screened for domestic violence by professionals such as physicians. When you go to a doctor’s office, they may ask you if you smoke, if you drink, or is there any violence going on in your life? But these are questions that…in terms of domestic violence, aren’t asked by professionals to people with disabilities.
NWA: Why are people with disabilities reluctant to expose that they are being abused?
Miller: There are so many barriers that keep us from coming forth, such as, if we report it then that loved one might decide then that they’re not going to stay. And if they’re not there to help you, then your only alternative might be to go to a nursing home. You might lose custody of your children because you’re not able to care for the child without that abuser being there as well. You might depend on that abuser for transportation. You might depend on that abuser to help with daily needs such as getting out of bed, taking showers, getting dressed; things of that nature.
If those things aren’t done for us, what alternative do we have?
NWA: Are people with disabilities living in low-income communities more affected than those in other communities?
Miller: [Domestic violence against people with disabilities] affects all communities. It’s not just low-income communities. It has nothing to do with money. But as statistics will show, we have a higher unemployment rate than able-bodied people. So if you’re unemployed, you’re low-income. If you have a disability, you’re less likely to be employed.
NWA: What are some examples of abuse people with disabilities experience?
Miller: There’s what is typically thought of as physical abuse, like hitting, but it can also be seen in terms of physical restraint or confinement. Withholding orthotic devices such as wheelchairs, crutches, TTY machines; things like that. Medication: either giving too much medication or not enough. Sexual abuse, which includes demanding or expecting sexual activity in return for helping. Or taking advantage of a physical weakness.
NWA: How many people does this issue affect?
Miller: There are studies that say women with disabilities are abused by more perpetrators such as health care and service providers than non-disabled women. The numbers aren’t true numbers, though, because there are a lot of people who aren’t coming forth.
NWA: How many people on average does your program serve in a year?
Miller: In terms of actual clients, from 70 to 100 a year. In terms of hotline calls, maybe 300 to 400 questions and answers or information and referrals.
NWA: What percentage of men versus women do you serve?
Miller: Almost half and half. Numbers are pretty high. The males with the more severe disabilities who are depending on people for their care are just as likely to be abused as a women with a disability.
NWA: What would you like to add?
Miller: Our program is the only one of its type in the Chicagoland area that specifically services only people with disabilities. There’s no other domestic violence agency in the Chicagoland area that works with this population.
We’re a 24 hour hotline (773-522-6405) that is run by and for people with disabilities. We also provide one-on-one peer counseling. We provide safety plans which are specially geared for that individual, taking into account their disability. We also offer a support group for women with disabilities every Thursday from 1:00–2:30 p.m.
From 2004–2009, Miller was the Coordinator for the Domestic Violence Program at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. In 2009, the program transitioned to Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital, and Miller has been administrating the domestic violence program there for almost two years.
Clemolyn (Pennie) Brinson is a writer and visual artist. She was born in Chicago in 1958 and attended grade school and high school on Chicago’s West Side. She facilitates a weekly writing group at Access Living where she was the organization’s first artist-in-residence (2008–2009). She is the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award, freelances as a journalist for Residents’ Journal and North Lawndale Community News, and is working on her first novel. Her work is also published in Garland Court Review, Journal of Ordinary Thought, Messages from the Odyssey, Crossing Cultures, and several chapbooks. Pennie grew up with the crippling effects of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which left her hands severely misshapen by the time she was 18. Despite the condition, of her hands she has always been able to write, type, draw, and paint.