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DAWN-RAFH Canada - Working for Women with Disabilities

  • Synopsis: Published: 2014-03-09 - Information regarding founding and mission of DAWN-RAFH to end isolation, poverty, violence and discrimination experienced by women with disabilities. For further information pertaining to this article contact: Disabled World at Disabled World.

Main Document

Quote: "Women with disabilities face prejudices and obstacles in a number of aspect of daily life such as employment, education and housing."

DAWN-RAFH Canada was founded in the year 1985 after a meeting between 17 women from across Canada who came together to discuss issues of mutual concern. In a society that devalues and many times punishes differences of any kind, women with disabilities face a number of barriers. Aboriginal women, older women, lesbians, and women of color deal with discrimination and more barriers.

DAWN-RAFH Canada's mission is to end the isolation, poverty, violence and discrimination experienced by women with disabilities and deaf women. The organization works towards the inclusion and advancement of women and girls with disabilities and deaf women in Canada. Their strategic theme is one of leadership, networking and partnership to engage all levels of government and the wider disability and women's sectors and additional stakeholders in dealing with their main issues.

DAWN-RAFH Canada's Goals Include:
Providing a role model for girls with disabilities
Being the voice of women with disabilities in Canada
Working in coalition with those who share their concerns for social justice
To be a resource for and about women with disabilities and their concerns
Being a bridge between women with disabilities and the women's movement
Outreach with all women with disabilities, including women of color, lesbians, older women, women in institutions and single mothers
Working with the women's movement on issues that affect all women and helping the movement become more accessible to women with disabilities
Addressing issues such as employment equity, poverty, mothering, violence, health, sexuality, isolation, health, access to services and New Reproductive Technologies (NRT's)

Poverty and Women with Disabilities

In Canada, 1 out of 5 women live with a form of disability. Women with disabilities face prejudices and obstacles in a number of aspect of daily life such as employment, education and housing. Discrimination experienced by women with disabilities is complex because it is the result of the intersection of multiple oppressions related to gender, disability, level of urbanization, sexual orientation, age, ethnicity, culture, employment status and economic circumstances.

Women with disabilities are poorer than their male counterparts. Major cuts in Canadian social programs have forced women with disabilities into precarious situations. The Caledon Institute for Social Policy noted that one are in which there has been virtually no progress in the past 30 years has been the area of income security. Additional statistics include:

  • 1 in 10 women living in shelters lived with a form of disability as well
  • More than half a billion women and girls on Earth have a form of disability
  • 42% of homeless women living in Toronto have a history of traumatic brain injury (TBI)
  • Women with disabilities are more likely to be victims of the most severe forms of spousal violence
  • Over 75% of incidents of sexual assault of women with mental disabilities involve recurring assaults

Housing and Women with Disabilities

Due to several factors, women with disabilities face significant obstacles to accessing affordable, safe and adequate housing. The result is women with disabilities who find themselves homeless or vulnerably housed with a lack of options for the amelioration of their housing situations.

Women with disabilities face high levels of unemployment and poverty, placing them at a disadvantage when it comes to the ability to meet their financial and housing needs. Along with financial barriers, women with disabilities face access issues, to include buildings that are inaccessible, as well as being subjected to housing practices that are discriminatory. Women with disabilities might lack information in regards to their rights as tenants, as well as information in regards to support services that are available such as subsidies and housing programs they may be eligible for. All of these factors and more ensure that finding affordable, safe and accessible housing remains a significant issue and challenge for women with disabilities in Canada.

Violence and Women with Disabilities

Violence against women who experience forms of disabilities shares common characteristics with violence against women in general. Women with disabilities also experience forms of abuse that women without forms of disabilities do not. Violence against women and girls with disabilities is not simply a subset of gender-based violence, it is an inter-sectional category dealing with disability-based and gender-based violence. The confluence of the two factors results in an extremely high-risk of violence against women with disabilities.

Women with disabilities experience a wider range of physical, emotional and sexual abuse by health care providers and personal attendants as well as higher rates of emotional abuse by not only strangers, but family members. They also may be prevented from using a cane, respirator, wheelchair, or other types of assistive devices.

Chart presenting information concerning women with disabilities in Canada
About This Image: Chart presenting information concerning women with disabilities in Canada
Almost no literature exists regarding the risk of abuse, women's experiences of abuse, and the barriers to pursuing help among women with disabilities. The absence of attention to the issue from both disability and violence researchers has contributed to the invisibility of the victimization of women who experience forms of disabilities. In Canada:

  • At least 53% of all people with disabilities are women
  • 23% of women with disabilities live on less than $5,000 per year
  • 58% of women with disabilities live on less than $10,000 per year
  • Women and children with disabilities experience even greater rates of violence
  • Few rape crisis centers and transition houses are accessible to women with forms of disabilities
  • Women and children with disabilities are twice as likely to be victims of violence than non-disabled women
  • A drunk and/or abusive father is often times considered to be a better parent than a mother with disabilities
  • Accessible cribs, accessible and affordable childcare and other services for mothers with disabilities are almost non-existent

DAWN-RAFH Canada History

DAWN-RAFH Canada has an exceptional history of actions taken during its existence. Unfortunately, one article is incapable of presenting the entire history of this incredible organization. In five years, DAWN-RAFH Canada has pursued some highly worthwhile activities in support of women and girls with disabilities.


  • DAWN-RAFH Canada conceived and organized an international panel of women with disabilities at the First World Conference of Women's Shelters.
  • Founding member of the first International Disabled Women's Network, which was launched at the Global Summit on the Rights of Women with Disabilities.
  • Dissonant Disabilities: Women with Chronic Illnesses Explore Their Lives, edited by DAWN Manitoba members Dr. Diane Driedger, and Dr. Michelle Owen was published.


  • Hosted a delegation of representatives from Thai disability organizations.
  • We were asked to serve as disability consultants for Women's Worlds 2011, an international feminist conference. We were also members of the pan-Canadian advisory steering committee.
  • The Centennial Flame Research Award was awarded to DAWN Manitoba member Dr. Diane Driedger for research on the history women with disabilities in Canada, which is intimately tied to the history of DAWN-RAFH Canada.


  • The 25th Anniversary of DAWN-RAFH Canada.
  • Canada ratified the Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilities (CPRD).
  • Living the Edges: A disabled women's reader, edited by Dr. Diane Driedger was published. It included a chapter on DAWN-RAFH Canada.
  • We hosted a Provincial Round Table on Violence Against Women with disabilities, a first in Quebec, which brought together the leadership of twenty-five organizations from the disability and women's sector.


  • We were contracted by the Canadian Women's Foundation (CWF) to conduct a series of pan-Canadian focus groups as part of their Violence Prevention Review. We also served as key informants in this process.
  • Granted intervener status with LEAF on L.S. in which spousal support paid to a woman with a permanent disability was rescinded based on the husband's testimony that she was capable of working outside the home; and R v. DAI (2011), in which the testimony of a woman with an intellectual disability who claimed to have been sexually assaulted was excluded because her competence to testify was successfully challenged.
  • Women's Worlds 2011 was a resounding success for Canadian women with disabilities, as it included 29 presenters with disabilities, including two high-profile international speakers (Judith Heumann, US State Department and Sebenzile Matsebula, founding member of the South African Office on the Status of Disabled People) and hundreds more as volunteers. The model of inclusion which DAWN-RAFH Canada helped develop and implement set a new standard for the inclusion of women with disabilities.


  • Hosted representatives from the Guyana Officer for Disability Issues
  • Presented at the Canadian Federation of Nurses Union (CNFU) National Discussion on Continuing Care.
  • Presented at the NPD Women's Summit - a discussion on the future of the Canadian women's movement.
  • Led an international panel at the 2nd World Conference of Women's Shelters with our partner Women with Disabilities Australia.
  • Developed and launched an inclusion tool which can be used to assess how accessible and inclusive an event or project is, not only to women with disabilities but to all participants.
  • R v. DAI is won - the Supreme Court of Canada released its decision in R. v. D.A.I. confirming the importance of access to justice for sexual assault complainants with intellectual and other disabilities.
  • We developed and began implementation of a cross-ministerial/cross-sectoral approach to support the implementation of our pan-Canadian strategy on violence prevention for people with disabilities.
  • Re-engaged with the health sector through the launch of our project on Elder Abuse in partnership with CACL, and through our participation in a working group on continuing care led by the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions.
  • We developed a Business Plan in partnership with Kuy Chheng Treng, a participant on the Global Change Leadership Program for Women at the COADY Institute, to develop a social enterprise for women with disabilities that would create employment opportunities for women with disabilities in the Caribbean and in Canada (in partnership with ERDCO and DPI Caribbean Region)
  • We were project partners in the preparation of a report entitled Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Canada's Treatment of Federally-Sentenced Women with Mental Health Issues, authored by Elizabeth Bingham and Rebecca Sutton of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, International Human Rights Program. This report examined the circumstances surrounding the death of Ashley Smith.
  • Attended 5th Conference of State Parties (CoSP5) on the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) at the United Nations in New York at which we were instrumental in developing a statement calling for the issues of women with disabilities to become a permanent focus at future CoSP meetings. The statement was read into the official record by the UN Special Rapporteur on Disabilities, Mr. Shuaib Chalklen.

Related Information:

  1. Allsup (May 05, 2009). More Women Turning to Social Security Disability Benefits
  2. Women's College Hospital (Jan 30, 2014). Women with Mental Health Disability and Abusive Relationships
  3. Human Right Watch (HRW) (Aug 30, 2010). Barriers and Abuse for Women with Disabilities in Uganda

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