Bridging the gaps: Survey examines accessibility at women’s shelters

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By Jewelles Smith

From the DisAbled Women’s Network Canada

In 2008, the DisAbled Women’s Network (DAWN-RAFH) Canada conducted the first phase of the National Accessibility and Accommodation Survey (NAAS) focused on shelter accessibility for women with disabilities. Slightly more than 10% of Canada’s women’s shelters and transition houses had participated by the end of August 2008.

DAWN Canada conducted a previous survey of shelters in 1990 and found that many were lacking in terms of physical access and that acceptance of women with mental disabilities was even worse. Many shelter workers did not want to accept these women in their facility because they were perceived as making "too much trouble" for them. The NAAS was designed to re-address the issues and to discover if gains have been made in accommodating women with disabilities—to test how accessible shelters are; how programs and services (including outreach) were accommodating women with disabilities; and how shelters were addressing the needs of mothers with disabilities who were seeking safety from violence. There have been definite gains since the original survey in 1990. However, there is much more needed to make shelters fully accessible for women with disabilities.

Survey results

Many shelters are partially accessible for women with mobility challenges, meaning they have an accessible bathroom and one bedroom, and perhaps a ramp. However, other rooms in these facilities are often not accessible and women may not be able to use the kitchen, laundry room, or common rooms. Just over one-third of shelters have TTY phones (telephone typewriter) on their crisis lines. Although much work is being done nationally to address the needs of individuals with mental health issues, more than 10% of shelters have to turn away women with mental health disorders as they are unable to accommodate these women’s needs. Women who require personal support workers must bring their own workers. If this is not possible, most shelters are unable to assist these women and therefore must turn them away. Many shelters continue to turn women away because either the shelter is full or the adapted rooms are already in use.

Women with mobility challenges

Although 97% of shelters reported having accommodated women with disabilities at some time, 45% of shelters had turned these women away. In many cases, the reasons for not being able to accommodate these women were related to inaccessible spaces (such as entranceways, hallways, stairs, and bathrooms). However, a number of shelters felt they could not accommodate these women as they maintained an “independent” model and could not offer supports for women with disabilities.

Women with mental illnesses

Shelters are unable to accommodate women with mental health disabilities more than any other group—more than 10% of the shelters had turned these women away. The reasons that shelters gave included: the complexity of the women’s needs; the difficulty that some women have living in communal spaces; or the inability to accommodate women who are not stable, who are on medication and who are not willing to enter treatment programs.

Women who are deaf or hard of hearing

There are still many shelters that deaf and hard of hearing women are not able to access because the shelters and transition houses do not have TTY phones. Without these phones, women who are deaf or hard of hearing cannot contact a shelter independently. As well, most shelters do not have door alarms, alarm clocks, or monitors that light up so that a woman who is deaf or hard of hearing will know that someone is at the door, that her alarm is on, or that her child is crying.

Looking for solutions

The majority of survey respondents are interested in finding ways to accommodate women with disabilities in their shelters. Many shelters commented that they were willing to accommodate disabled women and their children but were restricted by finances. When asked if shelters had done renovations recently to accommodate women with disabilities, 12 out of 22 shelters that had completed major renovations stated it was to accommodate disabled women. In their comments, six shelters acknowledged that funding was a huge barrier to making their spaces more accessible. Further, several survey respondents stated that a portion of their shelter and/or a portion of the rest of the space was wheelchair accessible. One shelter stated that there is no need for accessible space as they have no requests. Several shelters are in older buildings that cannot be renovated and one stated that their lease did not allow them to do renovations. One shelter wrote what sums up many experiences we have heard: “We are accessible in a limited way and take whatever opportunities given to improve our accessibility. However, we haven't had the resources to do as much as we would like.”

Accommodating mothers with disabilities

There is clear evidence emerging from the survey and from phone calls made to DAWN-RAFH Canada that women with disabilities who are also parents (sometimes of children with disabilities) are the least served by the present model of emergency shelter. Shelters have told us that government workers have recommended returning custody of children to the able-bodied parent, who is often the abuser, rather than provide funding to accommodate mothers with disabilities in shelters. Although shelters were not able to access outside services and funding to support the mother, they found ways to manage the situation and ensure that the mother and child were both safe and cared for.

Very few shelters have adaptive equipment for parents (such as cribs, secondary rooms that are accessible for parents with their children, and bathing supportive devices). Moreover, structures with multiple floors often have only one floor that is adapted. Some shelters do not allow children to stay at the facility and this puts further strain on all mothers who are seeking safety from violence and poverty. This is an area DAWN-RAFH Canada would like to pursue further to discover how mothers with disabilities are coping when facing violence, loss of home, and homelessness.


The creative and collaborative way that shelter staff have worked with women to accommodate the particular needs of women with disabilities is commendable. The majority of shelters have stated that when a woman with particular needs approaches them, they attempt to accommodate her. Many survey respondents have used the information in the survey to examine how they can make their shelters safer for women with disabilities and have requested more information on accessibility. Small but specific changes make it possible for women with disabilities to be independent during their stay.

Lack of funds seems to be a major hurdle for shelters to adapt their spaces. Services and behaviour are the first step to making a space accessible. Although having ramps improves accessibility, open spaces, adaptive equipment and TTY phones will also greatly improve the accessibility of a shelter, as well as education on what accessible means and how to implement effective changes.

Shelters that are accessible or that have modifications in place as well as programs have to be able to reach the population that can use these resources. This would involve educating community outreach organizations, police and social workers, as well as the women themselves. If women felt that they could go to a shelter and find a welcoming and safe space, they would be more likely to reach out and leave abusive situations. As it stands right now, most large surveys on domestic violence and other forms of violence and on shelters do not include information about disability and violence or on the resources that women can turn to.

The NAAS is part of a larger project, “Bridging the Gaps,” funded by Status of Women Canada, which will continue to explore violence against women with disabilities and issues around shelter access, outreach programs, housing, poverty, and transportation.

Adapted from the full report Disabled Women and Shelter Access: Early Findings of the National Accessibility and Accommodation Survey. More information is available at the DAWN Canada website:

Jewelles Smith has an MA in Women’s Studies and a BA in Women’s Studies and English, and she currently works as a gender & disability consultant for DAWN-RAFH Canada.