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By Nick McAllister Posted Sun 22 Aug 2021 at 11:03pm Sunday 22 Aug 2021 at 11:03pm, updated Thu 2 Sep 2021 at 8:35am

Nicole Lee was 24 when she met her now ex-husband, an amputee, through disability sports. 

[Content warning: This story deals with sexual abuse and domestic violence.]

A couple of months after he had moved in with her, she became pregnant. 

Six weeks after Ms Lee had given birth, her husband began to sexually, verbally and financially abuse her — and continued to do so for the 10 years they were married.

Ms Lee, a wheelchair user, said the situation was made worse by the fact her husband was her full-time carer.

A woman wearing a floral top takes a selfie shot lying down.
Ms Lee’s husband would try to blame her and her disability for his acts of sexual abuse.(Supplied: Nicole Lee)

“I was completely physically reliant on him for support,” she said.

“It also meant that he was listened to over me.

“So when I’d disclose [abuse] they would look to him, or he was always there so I couldn’t disclose.”

Family and domestic violence support:

He also used her disability against her.

He told her “if she wasn’t so hard to live with [their relationship would be better]”, which compounded her mental health difficulties.

Ms Lee said the turning point for her was in 2014, when she attempted suicide.

“My husband left me on the floor and told me that he wasn’t going to call anyone whilst I still had a heartbeat,” she said.

“At the time, it was my sixteen-year-old son who found me and called the ambulance.”

Child protection services and police then became involved.

People with a disability face far higher risk of assault

Ms Lee is one of many people living with a disability who are disproportionately more at risk of assault in Australia.

Data collected by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) shows people with a disability were 1.8 times as likely to have experienced physical and sexual violence from a partner compared to a non-disabled person.

Ms Lee said accessing support as a domestic violence victim with a disability added another hurdle.

A woman in a wheelchair with a small dog on a leash.
Ms Lee was reliant on her husband as her carer.(Supplied: Nicole Lee)

“I feel unless the disability sector and the NDIS start to recognise their part in breaking down the systemic barriers for disabled women and people then we are going to struggle,” she said.

“All domestic violence services must be accessible, but we need support from the disability sector to be able to fully engage with domestic and family violence services.

“They always talk about making refuges accessible, but it’s more than that.

“We need access to supports to be able to get to, and stay there safely.

“No woman should face having to wait eight weeks like I did to do something as simple as a shower, begging for help to be able to live independently and look after my children.

“The family violence sector can only do so much, we need the disability sector to lift their game.”

Survivors carry huge burden when telling their story

The first time Ms Lee spoke about what had happened to her was in 2015 at Victoria’s royal commission into family violence. 

A close-up selfie shot of a woman outdoors with a dog.
Ms Lee says speaking out about her journey to safety had helped her understand broader issues women with disability faced.(Instagram: Nicole Lee)

“That was a pivotal moment for me,” she said.

“Because what I had to say at that time was unfiltered and raw.”

Ms Lee said speaking out had been a journey for her, that had helped with recovery.

She took part in the campaign to change Victoria’s laws that restricted what sexual assault victims could say publicly.

But she said now that story has been told, she had to be careful to set boundaries.

“How I position my experience has shifted,” Ms Lee said.

“It’s helped me with recovery, it’s helped me understand the broader issue that disabled women face and the intersecting factors that are built up over a lifetime.

“It’s helped me unpack and make sense of my experience, having in-depth conversations with researchers and experts.

“I’ve gained a lot from speaking out, but I have to be mindful of being able to say no and setting personal boundaries.

“I find now that I ruminate over conversations or interactions I’ve had after speaking out. I guess this is grief, trauma and the next stage of recovery. Sitting with it all.”

Control, isolation used to overwhelm victims

Head of support group 1800Respect Fiona Mort said the central characteristic of domestic violence was control.

“People choosing to use violence will stalk through digital devices, bank statements, or tracking devices,” she said.

“They may also isolate a person from their family and friends and other support networks.”

Ms Mort said coercive control and emotional abuse was prevalent in almost every abusive relationship. 

“An example of this might be in the early stages of a relationship, they will be loving and idolising and then gradually over time, the way they speak, treat and respond to you will change and deteriorate,” she said.

“The victim can feel broken down, disempowered and unworthy, or overwhelmed, as though they’re going crazy.”

Look out for red flags, advocate warns

1800RESPECT’s national partner Hannah Taylor said what Ms Lee experienced was not an uncommon predicament for domestic abuse survivors.

“If this behaviour occurs at home and then in front of people, this can be a red flag,” she said.

“It shows the perpetrator is becoming more confident in their abuse.”

“It can also include financial abuse where they make you feel incompetent when it comes to money.

“Perpetrators may make large purchases with your combined money without consulting you, sell your property or possessions, force you to get loans in your name or refuse to pay for things to support you and your children.” 

Ms Taylor said the victim was often shamed and blamed by the perpetrator for triggering their behaviour. 

“It’s important to know, you are not responsible for someone else’s choice to be abusive,” she said.

“When people say they feel they provoked it, it’s because they have been manipulated by the person using violence to think that way.”

Ms Lee said people who find themselves in a similar situation should reach out. 

“Even if ten people have ignored you, the eleventh might be the one to listen,” she said.

“It was the last time that I reached out after being ignored by so many … it was that eleventh person who listened and took some action, and it saved my life.”