The way that people with disabilities are kept in poverty cause problems on many fronts, including reducing the access to healthcare and accessibility, and making just basic survival more difficult. In addition to those problems, however, the current set up of the disability system puts people with disabilities at higher risk for abuse with less possibility of getting out of abusive situations.
Financial abuse is a common tactic employed by abusers. It both keeps the victim isolated and makes it more difficult for them to leave and escape the abuse. When it comes to disabled people, the reliance on disability support payments makes it easier for abusers to maintain financial dominance.
Let’s ignore the obvious – which is the fact that the support payments are not enough to live on by yourself in regular situations, meaning that disabled people have to be able to count on living with another person in order to get housing – and focus not on the amount but the system itself.
Even assuming that they managed to increase the total amount paid out to disability recipients, the system itself still participates in enabling abuse in two main ways: household total calculations and the time it takes to process applications.
When you receive disability, you are expected to send a list of all bank deposits made into your account in the previous month. This means everything – that cash your grandmother sent you for your birthday, that little bit you got from selling some of your art, everything has to be reported to disability. Including the amounts made by your partner.
The amount of money that your household in total makes is in part what determines how much support you receive every month. The more other members of your household make, the less money you receive. On the surface this makes sense. Presumably, a household making above a certain amount is not reliant on the income provided by disability to survive because they have other sources for the income. If your spouse is making enough money to support you, why would you need any money yourself?
The answer is simple: because you should be able to have access to money that is yours.
The assumption is that in a marriage, the people involved in a couple are sharing their assets, so the disabled partner doesn’t have to worry about finding money to pay for groceries, a phone, a car, or any other expenses. However, this creates a circumstance where a person is completely dependent on their spouse to provide essentials and what if the spouse is unwilling?
While it is true that an abuser who wants to financially dominate a person can find a way to do so, by eliminating access disabled people have to money of their own, makes it a lot easier.
What if your spouse decides that you don’t need a mobility device because they don’t see a reason for you to ever have to leave the house? What if your spouse decides that you don’t need your own phone, because who else do you need to call other than them? If you need to call someone, you can do so in front of them using their phone where they can monitor you.
Not having access to your own money, means that you are always approaching the other person as a supplicant. You are kept permanently in a submissive position.
Moreover, once your household is above a certain financial amount, your overall disability file may be closed and you are no longer considered a recipient. This means that if your spouse’s money is no longer available to you – because you’ve left them – you have to reapply in order to get the support once again.
It takes a long time to get approved for disability. When you first submit an application, it usually takes months to hear back. For me it took 6 months to hear back. This means that you have to figure out how to survive for 6 months without any money. That’s assuming you get approved on the first round. The majority of disability applicants are required to use the appeals process to get their application approved. That means the time it takes to write the appeal and gather the necessary files, as well as the processing time. After that, you may have to apply to appear before a court or a tribunal and after that you still have to wait for the judge’s decision.
Altogether, unless you are very lucky, the process can take more than a year. My own application took a year and a half and that was without having to actually appear before a tribunal. Not everyone gets approved with their first application either. For some people the application process can take several years and failures.
In that time, if you stay with your spouse, your household income could get you denied, but if you don’t how will you survive? Where will you get the money to survive if you are unable to work?
People with disabilities are already statistically more likely to be victims of abuse. From the resentment and burden felt by some partners that ends up being the excuse for abuse, or just simply because they are a vulnerable population and so attract abusers looking to take advantage of that fact, or even just because of cultural ableism that sees disabled lives as being worth less and worthless. The rates of sexual assault, for example, are staggeringly high, with estimates of 80% occurrence being considered a modest estimation.
There are many factors that put us at danger of abuse, one of them should NOT be the very program designed to help us.
Does this mean the program should be eliminated?
Absolutely not. Instead society needs to change their priority. Right now, fear of fraud puts disabled people at risk. We need to change our focus from preventing fraud to preventing needless death, violence, and struggle. We need to create a shift in idea that decides that one person taking advantage of the system is better than possibly hundreds dying because the services were not accessible.
We need to stop seeing disabled people as a consolation prize or a societal burden but instead create a system that lets us thrive instead of just barely letting us survive.
We need to stop treating disabled people as though they lack independence, autonomy, and make independence AND autonomy more within the realm of possibility.