Women with disability are experiencing three times the rate of family violence during COVID-19 as their able-bodied counterparts, the disability royal commission has heard.

The commission on Tuesday began hearings into the impact of the pandemic on the lives of people with disability.

Opening the hearing, Chair Ronald Sackville said people with disability have been disproportionately affected by isolation, interruption to services, lack of access to medication and food, lack of PPE, stress and financial hardship.

The commission later heard evidence that they are also at increased risk of family violence, and have less opportunity to reach out for help.

Nicole Lee gives evidence at the Disability Royal Commission on August 18

Nicole Lee, whose husband was previously jailed over violence perpetrated against her, is an advocate for women with disability who are experiencing family violence and a board member of the Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre in Victoria, which runs an emergency phone line.

 “Disabled women are experiencing violence at three times the rate of able bodied women, for extended periods of time and more severely than other women,” Ms Lee told the commission.

“Violent partners are more likely to be working at home and potentially increasing the frequency of violence perpetrated.

“The health and economic impacts of the pandemic are also likely to heighten stress levels within already violent households.”

She also said COVID meant the usual safeguards, including having a support worker to report family violence to and access to the outside world, are no longer operating.

“Those opportunities to have those conversations have been taken away from us,” she said

She also said it was more difficult for women with disability to report abuses with a violent partner around, and she said there had been a “drastic” drop in calls to Safe Steps coinciding with lockdowns in Victoria.

“The calls have dropped drastically and have never dropped like that before, is my understanding” she said.

Counsel assisting Kate Eastman said the commission would hear evidence about a national survey by the Australian Institute of Criminology that found a “frightening” increase in violence against women during COVID.

Compared to other women, women with disability were significantly more likely to experience to onset or escalation of domestic violence during the initial stages of the pandemic.

Kate Eastman

That survey found three in four women with disability who reported experiencing domestic violence during the lockdown said it was either the first time it had happened or that the violence had escalated over the six month pandemic period.

The survey also found that violence against women with disability had increased at three times the  rate of non-disabled women.

“The survey results reveal that compared to other women, women with disability were significantly more likely to experience to onset or escalation of domestic violence during the initial stages of the pandemic,” Ms Eastman said.

Need for emergency funds

Ms Lee said the NDIA was not adequately equipped for outreach to women who were experiencing violence and the NDIS did not operate as a crisis service.

She also called for more emergency funding dedicated to help people with disability to escape family violence, as well as more accessible support services and initiatives.

Ms Lee said Victoria’s Disability Family Violence Initiative fund provides immediate funds to disabled people who are fleeing violence.

“I accessed that fund twice and without that I would not be here,” she said.

“I would have asked (my husband) to come home, I would have lost my children and I don’t think I would have lived through all of those things.

“What that funding did was give me access to a support worker who came in that day.

“I hadn’t showered for eight weeks, that support worker was able to give me a shower. I was able to feed my dogs, I was able to get my children to school, I was able to live independently in my home without having to rely on the only person who was in my life, who was perpetrating violence against me.”

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