The last day of October means the end of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I see domestic violence as an issue that requires a community response accessible by all survivors; this includes people of all ages and people with disabilities. However, it is often difficult for survivors with disabilities and older adults to access the support services they need to escape abuse. Although we have made progress, the work to expand access to services for these survivors and bring visibility to their experiences is only just beginning.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline’s commitment to providing comprehensive support for people who are deaf or hard of hearing is an example of what is needed to address violence in the lives of all people. For more than 22,000 survivors each month, the National Domestic Violence Hotline provides that first link to help. According to the Hotline, in 2013, 24% of callers identified themselves as over the age of 46—and almost 10% were over the age of 55. Nearly 2,000 callers accessed help through the TTY (Deaf Hotline) service.
Regardless of age or ability, all survivors of domestic violence deserve pathways to safety. Every day, advocates at the Hotline provide callers with safety planning and crisis intervention. But what happens after a survivor hangs up the phone is just as critical. For the Hotline to have its full impact, its advocates must be able to connect survivors with direct service providers in their communities that can accommodate their needs. For older adults and people with disabilities, this is not always the case.
Last year, the Hotline reported that more than 1,600 callers had difficulty accessing local services because programs could not accommodate their disabilities. That these survivors were turned away after making the effort to find assistance is particularly troubling, given that people with disabilities can have increased barriers to seeking help, such as reliance on a caregiver (who may be the abuser), social isolation, and communication obstacles. Similarly, older adults in violent relationships can find it challenging to leave an abuser or access shelter. Some older people may have medical conditions and disabilities that make living on their own (or in a shelter) difficult; and others may be the caregiver to an abusive partner, making the thought of leaving seem impossible.
To improve access to services for older survivors and people with disabilities, there are some basic things domestic violence agencies can do. For example, the very act of getting to a shelter cannot be taken for granted. Transportation is doubly challenging for older people and people with disabilities who rely on a caregiver and are reluctant to disclose their need to go to a domestic violence shelter. Survivors should not be expected to find safety without help if they need it. With additional training, domestic violence providers can consider some of these barriers and encourage advocates to reach survivors where they are.
I began my career as a domestic violence and sexual assault advocate in Kansas in the late 1980s. Since then, our country’s response to violence against women has tremendously improved, and the National Domestic Violence Hotline is a model for accommodating survivors with diverse needs—from language access to the Deaf Hotline. Domestic Violence Awareness Month is over, but I will continue to raise awareness and build support for a network of victim services that reaches all people, regardless of age or disability. I hope you will join me.
- National Resource Center on Domestic Violence Access Initiative
- Preventing and Responding to Domestic & Sexual Violence in Later Life
Kathy Greenlee is the Assistant Secretary for Aging and Administrator of the Administration for Community Living (ACL) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). ACL brings together into a single entity the Administration on Aging, the Office on Disability, and the Administration on Developmental Disabilities. Ms. Greenlee was appointed by President Obama as Assistant Secretary for Aging and confirmed by the Senate in June 2009. Prior to her service at HHS, she served as Secretary of Aging in Kansas, and before that as the Kansas State Long Term Care Ombudsman. A champion for the wellbeing, dignity, and independence of all persons, regardless of age and disability, Assistant Secretary Greenlee began her career as a domestic violence and sexual assault advocate in Kansas. Concurrently serving as a member of the state attorney general’s Victims’ Rights Task Force, she served as the Executive Director of the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. Ms. Greenlee is a graduate of the University of Kansas with degrees in business administration and law.