Strategies for Staying Safe


Defend Yourself from Crime

Jonathan Hilton learned the hard way that not all personal attendants can be trusted.

The middle-aged Halifax resident with multiple sclerosis hired his female roommate as a live-in attendant. Hilton says his medicinal marijuana began to disappear, then food that he’d bought, but when he asked his attendant about it she would tell him he was absent-minded. Meanwhile, Hilton’s friends noticed he was getting thin from poor nutrition. Finally, when the money he’d hidden to buy Christmas presents disappeared, Hilton confronted his attendant and told her she couldn’t live there anymore. She told him her name was on the lease and that she was staying.

It turned out she was right. Hilton and the young woman met with his social worker and the manager of his apartment building to discuss the situation, but nothing was done. Hilton then had the locks to the apartment changed, but the police told him he had to change them back. The woman continued to live there until the lease finally expired.

One of the attendants Hilton hired to replace her ran up thousands of dollars on his phone bill for phone sex. He was finally arrested one morning by police for an unrelated matter. They would have taken him away immediately had Hilton not protested that the attendant had not yet dressed and fed him. Says Hilton of hiring attendants: “These are low-paying jobs, and low-paying jobs do not attract the best candidates.”

Financial abuse at the hands of caregivers and attendants is just one of the crimes to which people with disabilities are vulnerable. Others range from physical, sexual, verbal and emotional abuse and violence, to neglect or withholding support, manipulation of medications, or destroying or disabling equipment and technical aids. On average, studies show that people with disabilities are one-and-a-half times more likely than average to be victim of a single incident of abuse than people of similar age and gender. Furthermore, the greater the severity of disability, and the greater the number of helpers a person has for tasks of daily living, the greater the chance of crime or abuse.

People with disabilities are also vulnerable to abuse at the hands of family members, partners, service providers such as doctors, institutional staff, transit drivers and even strangers, all of whom may target individuals with disabilities because they see them as easy victims who can’t or won’t fight back, speak up or be believed.

The numbers speak volumes about the effects of isolation, lack of access to communication and services, discrimination and dependence that many people with disabilities face. Children with any kind of disability are twice as likely as non-disabled children to be physically or sexually abused, and both boys and girls who are deaf or have intellectual disabilities are at particular risk. People with disabilities are at a 50 per cent higher risk of domestic or family violence than the population at large, and people with major mental health disabilities are 2.5 times more likely to be the victims of violence than other members of society.

Kristine (last name withheld) is one of those mental health consumers. While in a delusional state, she was raped by a stranger who led her away from her mother down an alley in Toronto. Now on medication, she recalls: “I thought he was rescuing me from the blue meanie.” She explains that her mother had wanted her to go into hospital against her will. “I had no concept of danger,” she says, adding that she made the rape part of her delusion.

While some people with disabilities may not recognize abuse and violence, others will ignore their instincts and better judgement when they are at risk. It’s important for people with disabilities to be aware of their vulnerabilities and plan ahead to reduce risks to their safety and security. It’s also essential for them to trust their instincts, which can help them avoid dangerous situations.

People with disabilities are not helpless against abuse and crime. At home, on the street and in the workplace, there are practical strategies you can employ to keep yourself safe.

Safety in Attendant Services
When hiring attendants, criminal background checks can help weed out abusers. The Independent Resource Centre in Halifax has partnered with the local police department to make background-check forms available for people with disabilities when hiring attendants.

Holly Bartlett, former Self-Management Trainer with the centre, recommends that you also request a driver’s abstract if the attendant will be driving your vehicle or transporting you in your own vehicle. She advises people with disabilities to have access to back-up attendant services in case of emergencies. If you do not have access to the whole of your home, have someone you trust do a quick check of the apartment or house periodically to make sure everything is in order. Watch your bankbook, and keep track of the mileage on your vehicles.

Melanie Elliott, an entrepreneur and wheelchair user with multiple disabilities, suggests that résumés of potential attendants be dropped off at the front desk of your apartment building and that interviews with applicants take place off-site.

Protect Your Property
Keeping your home safe from intruders can involve something as simple as a peephole installed at the correct height in the door for a wheelchair user, or an electronic home security system. John Milsom of Nova Alarm says a keypad to control the system can be mounted lower for a wheelchair user to access, and a “fob” can be used to remotely arm and disarm the alarm. The siren signalling an intruder can be set to chirp loudly for those with hearing loss, and a strobe light can be used for homeowners who are deaf.

People who use wheelchairs should try not to face into a corner when riding an elevator. And never carry your purse or fanny pack strapped to the back of your wheelchair. Keep valuables tucked between you and the chair.

Protect Your Person
If threatened while on the street, an emergency alarm, whistle or “screamer” can alert others that you need help. Choose a model that can be activated without difficulty. Personal alarms can be mounted on a wheelchair for easy access. Non-verbal individuals can do something unexpected, like turning a wheelchair in circles, to confuse an assailant.

Some self-defence courses are particularly suited to people with disabilities. Mike Fournier of Self Defence Canada recommends Hapkido, a martial art that can be done from a sitting position. He feels that its fluid form would also be especially useful to someone with a vision disability. The form includes cane defence techniques, which can be done with a walking cane or short staff. The International Disabled Self Defence Association produces a home study course of Hapkido techniques in video format.

Nick Bear, a paraplegic man in Regina, has been practising the Wing Chun martial arts form, which involves hand movements to push away and block assailants, as well as “nerve punching” on pressure points. He’s learned that it’s important not to keep your hands in your lap where they can be pinned by an opponent. And as well as fighting off an attacker, he says, it’s essential to use a whistle or yell “fire” to attract attention (people are more likely to respond effectively than if you yell “help”). Bear says it’s also a must to learn to read an assailant’s body language – a tensing of the shoulders and fists can signal an attack. Never use a weapon, he cautions, because it can be used against you.

Travel Safely
Wendy Russell of Russell Security Consulting in Halifax offers safety tips for people with disabilities who travel. She suggests that you never put valuables in your check-in baggage. People with disabilities are often the last to disembark from an airplane, and your suitcase may be left unattended. It’s also important to know the hours of accessible transportation in a new place. If you’re using a wheelchair, you can sit your backpack on your feet and strap it to your legs.

Cross-Country Safety Support
There are a number of programs across the country to encourage safety and crime prevention for people with disabilities. Often they start with the basics, such as defining abuse and how to recognize it. People First of Yukon, for example, has offered its members a program called Keeping Safe: Relationship and Sexuality Education for Individuals Labelled with Intellectual Disabilities. Lisa Rawlings, who coordinates the program, says it teaches whom you can and can’t have relationships with, disease prevention, how to put on a condom, and very basic ways to be safe, such as avoiding walking down the street alone at night.

Aaron McGowan, Executive Director of People First Society of Yukon, says he has learned from Keeping Safe to walk away from people who harass or bully him and to walk the other way down the street when he feels unsafe. Rawlings agrees that the program has had some success, noting a young woman who took it was able to say no for the first time in a situation where she was being touched sexually.

Kelli Moorey, the Crime, Violence and Abuse Prevention Coordinator at the Independent Living Resource Centre (ILRC) of Calgary, has been working on a “train the trainer” program that teaches people with disabilities to identify crime and violence and how to prevent it, and allows them to pass their newfound knowledge on to other agencies and groups. According to Wendy Savoy, Executive Director of ILRC Thunder Bay, her centre is working on a manual called “Legal Literacy” – a plain-language guide for service providers and consumers – and developing an interactive website.

“What we’re seeing in every community is [people don’t know] where to access services that can help consumers end or prevent abuse and crime,” Savoy says. Disability organizations need to become aware of local resources like accessible women’s shelters, and national ones like Phonebusters, which combats telemarketing fraud, to better assist survivors of crime and abuse who also have disabilities.

Rhonda Fraser, who uses a walker, knew what to do when she was robbed by two young women who followed her home and entered her apartment on the pretext of using the phone and the washroom. She cancelled her bank card and called the police – and when the women came back with her empty purse to try to coerce her into something else, she called the superintendent to make sure they left. Although the situation shook her up, it taught her to listen to her instincts. “If a stranger is bothering you, go into a store until the stranger leaves,” she says. “And if that doesn’t work, call the police.”

She also cautions against letting strangers into your home. “I hope that everyone can learn from my mistakes.”

(Anna Quon is a freelance writer living in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.)


“Protecting Yourself: A Crime Prevention Guide for Persons with Disabilities”
Available from the Canadian Association of Independent Living Centres (CAILC)
Phone: (613) 563-2581

Self Defence Canada
Halifax, NS
Phone: (902) 444-3555

International Disabled Self Defence Association
Asheville, NC, U.S.A.
Phone: (828) 683-5528


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