Disabled Women Take Action supports its members to campaign for a more accessible Bristol. For International Women’s Day, Shruthi Venkatachalam talks about how project members have improved counselling services for disabled women who have experienced violence.
I came to Bristol from India to start a PhD in 2018. Although there were different support groups and people to talk to, I didn't find any space where I could go to share my experience as a disabled women coming from a completely different background. When I heard about Disabled Women Take Action I was very excited, because it does make such a difference to talk about your problems in a space where others share your concerns. This was the first time in Bristol that I’d seen a group engaged on the issues of gender and disability and their intersection.
I have a visual impairment and I’m a survivor of violence. My experience of accessing counselling to help deal with the trauma caused from past experiences had been disappointing. I’d tried around three or four counsellors, but either they’d focus too much on my disability, or they would completely negate my disability needs. I felt like there was no one to hear me with sensitivity.
My PhD is on gender-based violence and a lot of the research is triggering, so I approached University counselling. Over the course of six sessions, I realised I was just explaining my past and my situation without actually touching on how my disability is making my experience complex. The counsellor was paternalistic, almost condescending, telling me that I’d managed to cope so well and come all this way considering I am disabled, which wasn’t an effective approach. My reason for seeking therapy in the first place was not especially to discuss my experience in relation to my disability, but because there’s a lack of provision or understanding for counselling on sexual harassment and violence for disabled women, it ended up being a central focus, and I felt I hadn’t received the treatment I required.
Members of Disabled Women Take Action had similar experiences of counselling on sexual harassment and violence that failed to meet their disability needs and it was useful to hear how people thought these services could be improved.
We talk about how much planning is involved when a disabled women wants to step out of the house. There’s so much to plan and think about, and I feel that I struggle to get involved in public life as a result.
We decided we needed to influence the counselling process at an early stage. We started approaching universities to go and talk to students who are being trained in psychology and counselling about the social model of disability, to create awareness about disabilities. We built a programme and delivered it to students.
The students said it was helpful and informative. We heard that in practice they were worried to touch on the subject of disability with people they counselled in case they caused offence or made people feel uncomfortable, which reflects wider societal attitudes towards disabilities. We don’t talk about it enough and when we do, disabled people are framed as victims and seldom seen in conjunction with other issues, which is unhelpful when trying to support disabled women who have experience of sexual harassment and violence.
As a disabled woman and also being a woman of colour, my experience is complex and unique, as everyone’s is. Within counselling sessions it’s difficult to unpick issues I have and whether they’re influenced by any or all of the lenses of race, gender and disability. In our group we don’t want to leave anyone behind. But in wider society, what concerns me is that identities are siloed and there is little congruence. I have seen the stories of disability being ignored or sidelined when we talk about gender or race, which feels isolating.
Most of the women in our group come from very different backgrounds. Even women who have been living here in Bristol for many years talk about social isolation. We talk about inaccessibility and cost when it comes to having a disability. We also talk about how much planning is involved when a disabled woman wants to step out of the house. On top of the danger of being a woman in a public space, we have to consider our specific needs. How would I get somewhere? Is it accessible? Is there public transport nearby? Would there be anyone to assist me? There’s so much to plan and think about, and I feel that I struggle a lot to get involved in social life as a result. So yes, social isolation is a big, big issue that disabled woman encounter.
Being a member of the group has been really positive though. There are days since moving to the UK where I’ve felt lonely or struggled with my mental health. Now I have a space to go and share my experience. And, as importantly, it’s a space to work towards change. It’s great that we feel comfortable in our group; now we need to make sure everyone feels comfortable in the wider community.
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