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“You’re My Pretty Bird in a Cage”: Disability, Domestic Violence, and Survival

by Kimberly Black Wisseman

In 1990, I was in my senior year in college. My boyfriend and I had moved in together rather rapidly. I was okay with that because I require attendant care services – I’m a quadriplegic as a result of an automobile accident when I was 16 years old. The relationship was great for about six months. Then he started becoming very controlling and jealous. If I wasn’t back from class on time or if I was talking to someone he would get upset with me. He wanted to get married soon. After he proposed, I said that I would marry him if we had a long engagement. After we had become engaged, he started referring to me as “a pretty bird in a cage.” And, after that, the emotional and verbal abuse that I was experiencing rapidly escalated into physical violence. These are just some of the instances:

  • During an argument I was on the living room floor and he had taken off all of my clothes and was watching me as I cried and tried to scoot my body towards the telephone so I could call for help.
  • I had come home late from class. When I came inside he was sitting there with a butcher knife in his hand. He pulled me out of my wheelchair by my feet, laid on top of me – choking me and suffocating me – stabbing the knife around my head.
  • A third incident was an argument we were having while we were driving in the car. He pulled off to the side of the road, went around to my side of the car, pulled me out of the car to where I was laid on the side of the pavement. I asked if he would leave my wheelchair and he did not. He drove away, got about a half a block away, put the car in reverse, and sped up towards me – stopping only feet in front of me with gravel hitting me.

I knew at this point that my life was in danger and I wanted out of this relationship. At the same time, this was the man that I thought loved me and was helping me with some of my personal care services. I thought, “If I leave him and hire an attendant to come in, what would someone do to me who I didn’t know, if he was already doing these things to me.” A lot of my thought at that time was that I had learned how to de-escalate the arguments. He would say that if I would just do what he wanted and say what he wanted me to say, then he wouldn’t have to hurt me.

During the violent attacks, when I would say, “Yes, I’ll marry you”, “no, I won’t tell anyone”, “yes, it’s my fault”, he would stop, he would calm down and stop hurting me. So, my thought was, “I only have three months left until graduation, and graduating is so important to me.” I thought “I can manage this relationship for three more months and then when I graduate I’ll have avenues to get out of this relationship.” Well, three weeks later I was admitted into the hospital with a broken arm, a broken nose, broken ribs and my sternum was permanently damaged. At that point, the police were called and my batterer was arrested. He was charged with two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and serious bodily injury.

Approximately a year later, when the charges came to trial, there was a five-day jury trial. On the witness stand, my batterer’s attorney portrayed me as a woman with a severe disability that no man would ever want or ever love. Also, how wonderful his client was for giving up his life to love me and take care of me as he did. The broken bones that I had received were explained as having a disability for so many years – that I was frail and apparently I just fell out of my wheelchair. Well, in 17 years with a spinal cord injury, those were the only broken bones I have ever had. They also portrayed me as trying to seek revenge and to actually get him back, since no one else would ever want me.

My batterer was found not guilty and I felt completely revictimized. A few months later the second charge came to trial and at that point I was so emotionally victimized that I did not feel that I could go through what would feel to me like a third victimization. So the state proceeded without me. My batterer pleaded no contest and he was found guilty and sentenced to two years probation and psychiatric counseling, which, to me, was still not justice.

I went on with my life and moved to another state. I went to graduate school. Shortly after I had graduated in 1996, one Friday night I was at home in my apartment and I had my bedroom window open, not unlike all the other apartments in my complex. Four men broke into my apartment. They climbed in through my bedroom window. One had a gun and one had a knife. My attendant was pushed back into her bedroom and she was robbed and her bedroom door was locked. I was robbed and raped and repeatedly told throughout the attack that I was going to be killed. Towards the end of the assault, I was also told that I had been stalked and targeted. From what they said, I found that as a woman with a disability I am seen as being very vulnerable and an easy target. They have never been caught.

Looking back on my experiences of abuse, during the battering relationship in 1990 I did not perceive a shelter as an option because of my need for physical accessibility and attendant care. Back in 1990, basic community services, even restaurants, were generally not accessible to me because that was just after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. During the battering relationship, if I had had information on safety planning, education, and domestic violence, and had an accessible shelter available, I would have been better able to protect myself – to get out of the relationship before I was severely beaten and before the hospital and the police had to become involved to get me out.

After the sexual assault in 1996 I received services from a rape crisis center that was accessible to me, so I have a way to compare having services that were accessible and not having services that were available to me. The rape crisis services that I was able to receive were critical in my recovery process from that very devastating assault. I can look back on the intervention services that could have been available to me in 1990 and know how those services could have affected and changed my life.

I am hoping now that we can make sexual assault and domestic violence services available to all women with disabilities who are in need of such services. I am now a counselor for persons with disabilities who are affected by domestic violence or caregiver abuse. I also consider myself a survivor.


Kimberly Black Wisseman is a Domestic Violence Counselor with Disability Services ASAP, SafePlace, Austin, Texas. She may be reached at 512/356-1547 or by e-mail at kwisseman@austin-safeplace.org


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Resources: Resources Related to Violence Against Women with Developmental and Other Disabilities

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Citation: Abramson, W., Emanuel, E., Gaylord, V., & Hayden, M. (Eds.). (2000). Impact: Feature Issue on Violence Against Women with Developmental or Other Disabilities, 13(3) [online]. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Available at http://ici.umn.edu/products/impact/133/.

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