“I was raped when I was just coming up to my 18th birthday and he physically and mentally abused me ... it happened not just to me, it happened to three other people.”
Those are the disturbing words of a 48-year-old Leeds woman called Lucy, recounting her time at a college for people with learning difficulties in the 1980s.
Lucy’s is just one of several harrowing accounts given by disabled woman in the city for a research project that lays bare the difficulties many have in escaping sexual and physical abuse at the hands of partners and carers.
Dr Sarah Woodin, from the University of Leeds, carried out a series of interviews for a Europe-wide study looking at the problems facing disabled women in accessing services for abuse victims.
She said: “Some of the accounts were awful, distressing, but I think what struck us was not so much the personal accounts, but that all the problems getting access to help are so entrenched.”
The study found that disabled girls and women were particularly vulnerable to abuse by carers and partners because of their isolation and physical incapacity.
Roughly half of disabled women are thought to suffer abuse at some point in their lives, double the estimated average
In many cases, victims relied on their abusers to get around or depended on them to provide medication.
Leeds woman Adele, 34, told the researchers how she experienced abuse from her carer and partner over almost a decade: “He would purposefully give me the strongest painkillers when my friends were coming, and they couldn’t come then because I was asleep. He would cancel care shifts, he would then say that I’d cancelled them.”
Elma, 39, described how her disability made her an easy target for financial abuse.
“Men, they can see a disabled woman and think she’s an easy touch and I’ve had that a lot through the years” she said. “It’s like they see a vulnerability and they might as well see pound signs.”
Dr Woodin, who carried out the study in conjunction with Glasgow University, said: “We need to think about how we can address the barriers so that women can get help.”
The head of domestic violence services in Leeds says the number of disabled women who ever come forward to seek help is “the tip of the iceberg”.
Nik Peasgood, director of charity Halt, who runs the Leeds domestic violence project, said about 20 per cent of clients the service class themselves as having a disability.
But she said the true number was thought to be far higher.
“We work with a number of disabled women. They face significant additional barriers –the physical accessibility of services, simply being able to get out of the house; the massive reliance on partners as carers because they are very dominant in the world that the victims live in.
“Numbers are very difficult to quantify. As with other hard-to-reach groups, we think the women we see are just the tip of the iceberg.”
Ms Peasgood said there had been an increase in the number of women with mental health difficulties, some of whom have developed problems because of abuse they have suffered but others who have been victimised because of their existing difficulties.
She said more needed to be done to reach disabled women who were being abused, but that community services could play a part.
“I think community based services need to get out more,” she said. “A woman might have existing links with other services who could be better placed to put her in contact with specialist services.”