FROM THE TECH SAFETY TEAM
How tech abuse affects women with disabilities
Technology plays an important part in a person’s life, and today’s reliance on connected devices and the Internet of Things (IoT) is increasing as more new technologies keep emerging.
Although technology can save us time and effort by providing digital services at our fingertips, keeping us connected to others, and educating and entertaining us, there are now more opportunities for these same technologies to be misused as tools for abuse. Technology-Facilitated Abuse (or tech abuse) can have far-reaching devastating effects, often amplified in women with disabilities whose reliance on their tech and other people is greater than most.
We know people with disabilities are already greatly overlooked, but those who are also victims of abuse are also often silenced. According to data sourced from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) 2016 Personal Safety Survey (PSS), it is estimated that more than one-third (37%) of the people surveyed who had experienced at least one incidence of violence after the age of 15, had a disability. And close to half (46%) who had experienced abuse before age 15 had a disability.
Women with disability reported higher rates of past sexual and intimate partner violence (25%) than their male counterparts (15%).
In addition to this, women with disability reported higher rates of past sexual and intimate partner violence (25%) than their male counterparts (15%), reporting that the sexual harassment included tech abuse such as receiving indecent messages, misuse of their online accounts and tech devices, monitoring and tracking, and image-based abuse – where images of a sexual nature of women with disabilities were taken and/or shared without consent, or women with disability were exposed to images or videos of a sexual nature that they did not wish to view. The PSS also identified that the most commonly reported perpetrator was someone known to the victim-survivor, such as her intimate partner (reported in 2 out of 5 cases), acquaintance, neighbour, housemate, friend, or even parent.
To understand and act on the specific issues affecting women with disabilities and tech abuse, we must first acknowledge that tech abuse is becoming increasingly common in abusive relationships. However, the negative impacts can be so much more severe for women with disabilities who rely on technology accessibility to stay connected with family and friends, access support services and participate actively in modern-day life.
As with other victim-survivors of tech abuse, women with disability held a fear that no one would believe them if they reported the abuse. And thus, some might put themselves at greater risk by continuing to use their accounts and devices so as to remain connected to others without reporting the abuse. Queensland University of Technology’s recent report on tech abuse of women with intellectual and cognitive disabilities showed that more often than not, victim-survivors didn’t know who to turn to for help and, instead of contacting a support agency, turned to those around them. This is complicated as, for most of the victim-survivors, the perpetrator may be their intimate partner and carer, the person they spent the most time with and whom they relied upon most to assist with their daily activities. There is also a concern that victim-survivors with disabilities may suffer greater isolation if their technology is taken away from them – which includes not only smartphones but also other technological assistive devices.
The most commonly reported perpetrator was someone known to the victim-survivor, such as her intimate partner (reported in 2 out of 5 cases).
There is room for improvement in how we can engage better with women with disability affected by tech abuse, how we respond to complaints of tech abuse, and how we can better publicise those resources designed to educate and assist victim-survivors of tech abuse. Additionally, there is clearly a need for devices, apps and accounts to better cater to women with disabilities – and this can only be done by engaging people with disability at the design phase to improve the very same accessibility features created to assist them. This, in turn, would enable those with a disability to have greater autonomy and control over their tech.
Knowing how tech works and being able to engage with it fully are important factors if victim-survivors are to be successful in navigating the complexities of tech abuse. Ultimately, however, this remains an issue of power and control – we feel the problem is the abusive behaviours and not the tech itself that is the main issue. If we’re looking to protect women with disabilities and ensure they can continue to use their tech safely and privately – as they should be able to and deserve to – then addressing the power imbalances that they face in their interactions with others is a good place to start.
For resources on women’s technology safety and privacy, check our Tech Safety Toolkit.
- ABS. (2016). Personal Safety Survey, Australia (PSS). ABS. https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/crime-and-justice/personal-safety-australia/latest-release
- AIHW. (05 July 2022). People with disability Australia. AIHW. Retrieved from https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/disability/people-with-disability-in-australia/contents/justice-and-safety/violence-against-people-with-disability
- Harris, Dr B., and Woodlock, D. (2021). For my safety: experiences of technology-facilitated abuse among women with intellectual disability to cognitive disability. Place of publication: eSafety. Queensland University of Technology Commissioned.