• Adult Children Exposed to Domestic Violence
  • Runaway & Homeless Youth Toolkit
  • Prevent Intimate Partner Violence
  • Violence Against Women Resource Library
  • Domestic Violence and Housing Technical Assistance Consortium
  • Domestic Violence Awareness Project
  • National Resource Center on Domestic Violence

The NRCDV Access Initiative: Documenting our progress towards greater accessibility

Be the change we wish to see in the world. That is just what the staff of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence (NRCDV) had in mind when we launched the “Access Initiative” in 2006. The Initiative represented NRCDV’s organizational commitment –as an employer, service provider, and community member—to individuals with disabilities and accessibility in general.

“The Access Initiative not only made me a better TA Provider, but also a better person.”
NRCDV staff member, 2013

All Are Welcome Poster

The “ALL Are Welcome Here” poster was created by the Pennsylvania Cross-Systems Advocacy Coalition, supported by Grant No. 2007-FW-AX-K009, awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S Department of Justice. The NRCDV has reproduced this poster with permission, and free copies (in both English and Spanish) are available to the public free of charge upon request. To request copies of this poster, please contact the NRCDV at 1-800-537-2238 or Several NRCDV staff display this poster in their workspace as a symbol of their commitment to make our organization accessible to all.

Table of Contents:

I. Purpose of this resource

a. Why focus on disability?

II. The story of the Access Initiative

III. Definitions and implications

IV. Building accessibility responsiveness

a. Inclusive practices
b. Inclusive communication
c. Inclusive environment
d. Inclusive policies
e. Building capacity

V. Lessons learned and recommendations

VI. Materials and resources

a. Accessibility
b. Culture
c. History
d. Language
e. Trauma

VII. Relevant organizations

I. Purpose of this Resource

Of what use is knowledge if it is not shared? The primary purpose of our Access Initiative was to provide a thoughtful and structured process for NRCDV staff to examine ways in which our organizational and programmatic policies and practices reflected our stated commitment to be more responsive to the experiences, needs, and priorities of individuals with disabilities. We then realized that others might benefit from our process of organizational development towards greater accessibility, just as we learned from those who started this journey before us. We offer this resource in that spirit and with deep humility.

It is our hope that this resource can be used to help national, state, and local domestic violence programs in:Logo of people with disabilities including a person in a wheelchair and a person with a dog with a cogged wheel in the background

  • Beginning an assessment for your agency;
  • Orienting new staff and volunteers;
  • Offering continuing education materials;
  • Providing a basis for staff in-service trainings and discussions;
  • Exploring and enhancing existing policies and procedures; and
  • Building partnerships with disabilities rights organizations.

Making an investment in staff development around these issues not only allows for the advancement of the mission of the organization through capacity building, but also fosters the individual enrichment of staff by providing opportunity for personal growth and self-reflection.

This resource page describes the story of the NRCDV’s Access Initiative, offers definitions of key terms, and provide an overview of our key activities and accomplishments in several main areas: organizational policies and practices, communication processes, the physical environment, as well as capacity building. Also included is a discussion of our lessons learned and recommendations and a list of materials and resources to support continued learning in this area. Finally, we provide links to organizations that focus on promoting accessibility and civil rights for people with disabilities.

The NRCDV would like to thank Ana Hernandez, Heidi Notario-Smull, and Angela Sutton for their leadership in shaping the vision and work of the Access Initiative during their time on staff. We appreciate former and current staff involved in the Initiative for their dedication and commitment to carrying forward its goals.

Why focus on disability?

Staff at the NRCDV share a common understanding that cultural competency is a learning process in which we must all be continually engaged. We also share a commitment to understanding the ways in which privilege and its reflections in sexism, racism, classism, ableism, heterosexism and others work together to perpetuate oppression and the violence that it enables.

A first look in the mirror – at our staff makeup, our workspace, our areas of content focus, etc. – revealed much room for growth in understanding the experiences, amplifying the voices, and responding to the needs, concerns, and priorities of people with disabilities. We agreed that bringing ableism into full view and developing our accessibility was a priority, and set out to build a multi-year project to which all staff committed.

Disability is part of the human condition. Almost everyone will be temporarily or permanently impaired at some point in life, and those who survive to old age will experience increasing difficulties in functioning.
WHO’s World report on disability, 2011

    • More than one billion people in the world live with some form of disability, of whom nearly 200 million experience considerable difficulties in functioning (WHO, 2011).
    • Approximately 56.7 million people living in the United States had some kind of disability in 2010 (Brault, 2012).
    • Lack of attention to the needs of people with disabilities means that they are confronted with barriers at every turn. These include stigma and discrimination; lack of adequate health care and rehabilitation services; and inaccessible transport, buildings and information (WHO, 2011).

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II. The Story of the Access Initiative

Several realizations led NRCDV staff to focus our attention on accessibility related issues and how the organization may become more responsive to and inclusive of the experiences, needs, and priorities of individuals with disabilities. Such realizations included:TTY Machine

  • Before 2006, the NRCDV had expended relatively little effort or resources to educate staff or constituents on issues of disability;
  • Although there were assistive devices on hand in the office (for example, a TTY machine), they were underutilized and few staff were trained on how to use them;
  • There were no staff who had openly disclosed their disability although people knew anecdotally that some of their coworkers had disabilities and faced workplace barriers to full participation; and
  • The NRCDV had not documented requests for technical assistance to increase access to domestic violence services to people with disabilities, or requests from disability rights advocates to learn and support victims/survivors with disabilities.

Note: Since the Access Initiative has been in existence, we have noted significant changes in the culture and processes of the NRCDV. The sections that follow provide several examples of how the NRCDV has increased capacity to educate staff, provide accommodations, and become better equipped as a resource to the field on this issue.

Some of the preliminary questions that were identified by the NRCDV as it explored accessibility and disability included:

  • What is a disability?
  • What does it mean to have the label “disability?”
  • How can we be sure to not just understand, but practice awareness and responsiveness to disability and the fact that it also intersects with multiple oppressions?
  • How do we apply this information to ourselves and weave it into our work as change agents?
  • What does it mean to link domestic violence and disability? What are the implications of this?

Initially, the NRCDV Management Team was charged with incorporating the Access Initiative work into the agendas for monthly staff meetings. As a first step, the Management Team, based on feedback and recommendations from staff, reviewed the document “Increasing Accessibility for People with Disabilities: Domestic Violence Agency Self-Assessment Guide” by Cathy Hoog. Given that the NRCDV is not a direct service organization, the document was adapted to best reflect the nature of our work, as well as the needs and interests expressed by staff. Of note is the fact that we started at the very beginning by assuming that many, if not all of us, had little knowledge about disability issues. So, for example, we began by encouraging staff to think about why the questions listed in the assessment guide were important. Until then, many of us had never thought about why it might matter how high or low our office signs are posted!

Staff received the adapted assessment guide with instructions to review the tool and select the questions or sections in which they had an interest. The general approach was that, in this manner, staff would assign themselves to researching and learning about particular issues and expect to take a lead on facilitating all-staff discussions in order to share new knowledge and understandings, including factual information and personal experiences.

As months passed, the project hit some roadblocks. Access Initiative work began to fall off of staff meeting agendas. Also, staff responsible for developing a reading list and planning and facilitating an all staff discussion on disability and disability rights activism did not do so. Early in federal fiscal year 2008, the NRCDV Management Team recognized that they were not prioritizing the Access Initiative the way they had hoped and, because of this, the project lacked direction and structure. A recommendation was made to convene an Access Initiative Leadership Workgroup to move things forward. This recommendation was also based on the premise that personal and institutional change cannot – and should not – be legislated or a top-down process. That is, staff at all levels should be engaged and have the resources and mandate to do the work. (Learn more about this key point and other take-aways from the project in Lessons Learned and Recommendations.)

Staff accepted the recommendation and convened a workgroup consisting of at least one representative from each NRCDV team at the time (policy, technical assistance, administrative, managers, Women of Color Network, VAWnet, and library). The workgroup was assigned with the task of drafting a workplan for implementation of the Access Initiative, beginning in January 2008. Staff time was set aside on a regular basis for meetings, and some of the guiding principles and approaches of the workgroup included:Lightbulb tulips representing new ideas

  • Social change is, by definition, part personal ownership and engagement. Therefore, it is critical that the Access Initiative be staff owned and driven.
  • Leadership and decision-making is team-oriented and consensus-based.
  • The workgroup is responsible for planning and implementing all aspects of the Access Initiative.
  • Workgroup members are responsible for taking the lead within their teams and within ad hoc subgroups to keep the Initiative moving forward.
  • Each workgroup member understands that their membership means doing twice the work and be prepared to model the behavior and participation expected of all staff.
  • Workgroup members commit to working hard and have high expectations, but should also expect to make mistakes and utilize lessons learned as opportunities to reflect and improve.
  • The work is to be approached from a dual perspective: dismantling attitudinal barriers and crafting responsive practices.

In time, the Access Initiative Leadership Workgroup decided that we could be most effective in carrying out the work by dividing into three smaller task-specific workgroups: 1) Resources, 2) Communication, and 3) Policy. The tasks were identified as:

  • Enhance the NRCDV’s collection of resource materials on the topic of disability, especially as it intersects with violence against women;
  • Identify and respond to internal training needs and priorities;
  • Build external relationships with disability rights organizations;
  • Strengthen the accessibility and readability of our written materials and websites;
  • Conduct a building audit and implement changes to increase the physical accessibility of our workplace;
  • Revise job descriptions to specify physical job requirements;
  • Improve our meeting and event planning process to offer accommodations to participants with disabilities; and
  • Document the work of the Access Initiative.

As tasks were accomplished, the workgroups merged into two – the Resources and Communication Workgroup and the Policy Workgroup, and eventually we found ourselves in a place where we had achieved greater capacity to be ever mindful of the needs and experiences of people with disabilities. Creating accessible websites and resources has become commonplace. We have established strong relationships with partners in the disability rights community. We continue to build our library of materials related to ableism and audism. We routinely select meeting spaces and virtual learning tools based on their ability to accommodate a variety of needs. Although we are in no way “finished,” we have arrived at a place where the goals of the Access Initiative are woven throughout our daily work at the NRCDV – at varying degrees or levels of progress.

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III. Definitions and Implications

In this section, we define and discuss some key terms relevant to the NRCDV Access Initiative and to the understanding of this document.

Over the past several decades, the lens through which disability is viewed has been changing from a charity model to a civil rights model, but this attitudinal change is slow. Physical access was handled by the passage of several laws. Attitudinal access is not as easy to mandate – most people feel that barriers that keep the disabled out of society do not exist, rather, they think that people with disabilities shouldn’t get ‘special treatment.’ But attitudinal barriers do indeed exist and are as, if not more, difficult to address and dismantle than are physical barriers. 
Debora Beck-Massey, 2005

Ableism: Ableism is a form of discrimination or social prejudice against people with disabilities. The “ablesit” societal world-view is that the able-bodied are norm in society – ideas, practices, institutions, and social relations presume able-bodiedness and therefore marginalize people with disabilities as the “other.” Ableism views disability as something inherently “bad” that must be overcome rather than a simple part of human diversity. Learn more at Ableism and Ability Ethics and Governance, a project of the University of Calgary.

Audism: “The notion that one is superior based on one’s ability to hear or behave in the manner of one who hears” (Tom Humphries, The Making of a Word: Audism, 1975). Audism is an attitude based on pathological thinking that results in a negative stigma toward anyone who does not hear; like racism or sexism, audism judges, labels, and limits individuals on the basis of whether a person hears and speaks. Audism reflects the medical view of deafness as a disability that must be fixed. It is rooted in the historical belief that deaf people were savages without language, equating language to humanity. Because many Deaf people grew up in hearing families who did not learn to sign, audism may be ingrained. Audists can be either hearing or deaf. This attitude can also be present among Deaf individuals. Learn more in the Special Collection, Violence in the Lives of the Deaf or Hard of Hearing.

Accessibility: “By accessibility, we mean access in its broadest sense. It includes standards in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Amendments, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and state-level access requirements. Access also encompasses the development and use of policies and procedures that are trauma-informed. It is not just buildings and meeting spaces that need to be accessible. People have to remain accessible, too. A key aspect of access that will arise daily is the challenge as a provider of services to remain accessible—open and trauma-aware—during all interactions, especially ongoing relationships with organization participants” (Wisconsin’s Violence Against Women with Disabilities and Deaf Women Project, 2011).

A handicap refers to a functional limitation. A three-story building without an elevator would be a handicap to someone who ‘uses’ a wheelchair. However, if the building were to have an elevator, the individual with a disability would not be handicapped. 
Debora Beck-Massey, 2005

American With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA): The ADA is a landmark legislation advancing the civil rights of people with disabilities throughout the United States. The ADA prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, State and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation. It also mandates the establishment of TDD/telephone relay services. The current text of the ADA includes changes made by the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-325), which became effective on January 1, 2009. The ADA was originally enacted in public law format and later rearranged and published in the United States Code ( The ADA is only one of many laws ensuring equal access for everyone. Other examples include the Assistive Technology Act, Fair Housing Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Disability: “The World Health Organization (WHO) ‘mainstreamed’ the experience of disability as an ordinary part of experience for all people. Most importantly, the WHO defines disability as something that occurs outside of the person that is based on the interaction of the person, his or her functional abilities, and the environment. As such, one is more or less disabled based on whether the physical, information, communication, and social and policy environment are accommodating and welcoming of variation in ability. In other words, the experience of disability can be minimized by designing environments to accommodate varying functional abilities and providing individualized solutions when needed, opening the door to a new approach to creating welcoming and accessible services for survivors” (Accessing Safety Initiative, 2010).

Trauma-Informed: Trauma informed services or practices incorporate knowledge about the trauma (including preva­lence, impact, and recovery) in all aspects of service delivery. Trauma informed services or practices are hospitable and engaging for survivors, minimize re-victimization and facilitate recovery and empowerment (Safety First Initiative, 2006).

For instance, an increasing understanding of the concepts of “trauma” and “trauma-informed” services or practices has influenced the way in which advocates and social services providers think of our work with domestic violence survivors. Trauma-informed advocacy with survivors of domestic violence means attending to survivors’ emotional as well as physical safety and ensuring that all survivors have access to advocacy services in an environment that is inclusive, welcoming, destigmatizing, and non-retraumatizing (National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health, 2011).

See the related Special Collection Series: Trauma-Informed Domestic Violence Services

Universal Design: Universal Design (also called Inclusive Design, Design-for-All and Lifespan Design) is a “framework for the design of places, things, information, communication and policy to be usable by the widest range of people operating in the widest range of situations without special or separate design. Most simply, Universal Design is human-centered design of everything with everyone in mind. (…) It is not a design style but an orientation to any design process that starts with a responsibility to the experience of the user” (Institute for Human Centered Design).

Universal design should therefore be understood not as a “special design” for a particular group of people, but rather as an acknowledgment that designing for the broadest range of users will benefit all users in some way, and often in ways that may have been unexpected. For example, removing excess information and using plain language on an agency’s brochure may improve accessibility not only for a person with an intellectual disability but also to a survivor without a disability who just experienced trauma. Similarly, a lever door handle rather than a knob improves accessibility for a person with mobility disability as well as for someone without a disability whose arms are full when trying to open the door (Safety First Initiative, 2006).

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IV. Building Accessibility Responsiveness

Accessibility Responsiveness Tool CoverThe scope of the Access Initiative was broad, and efforts were made by NRCDV staff to address accessibility across several main areas, including organizational practices and policies, the physical environment, communication processes, as well as capacity building. This section highlights some of the key activities and accomplishments of the NRCDV Access Initiative in several domains as outlined by the “Accessibility Responsiveness Review Tool” developed by the Safety First Initiative in Kansas City, MO. This Tool provides a framework for domestic violence, sexual violence, and disability service organizations to think about the “who, what, where, when, why and how” of providing inclusive, accessible, and responsive services.

As the efforts undertaken by the NRCDV Access Initiative illustrate, accessibility means much more than meeting the legal requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It reflects and shapes an organization’s practices, policies and overall culture. Moreover, working towards accessibility is an ongoing process requiring continuous self-assessments and critical thinking, as well as individual and organizational commitment and willingness to change.

A. Inclusive practices

Agency services, supports, resources, and assistance should be provided in an accessible, inclusive, and responsive manner for all people (with and without disabilities) (Safety First Initiative, 2006).


    • The NRCDV provided staff with information about the ADA rights available to employees with disabilities. Staff became aware of their options related to disclosure and reasonable accommodation.
  • The NRCDV invited the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania (DRN) and two area Emergency Medical Services teams to conduct a physical assessment of our office space. As a result, new language pertaining to assisting people with disabilities in safely exiting the building in the case of an emergency was incorporated into the office-wide Emergency Evacuation Plan:

When possible, assistance should be given to persons with disabilities and/or impairments.  If an employee has not disclosed their disability and/or impairment, but requires assistance during an evacuation, they should immediately ask the nearest staff person for help.  For individuals with a disability and/or impairment, the requested “buddy system” is suggested as an advanced means of creating a plan to assist that person.

B. Inclusive communication

All forms of communications (web-based, print, face-to-face, and phone) used to market the availability of services, to provide services, and to link with community resources should be accessible and inclusive to all people (Safety First Initiative, 2006).

Accomplishments:plain language cartoon

    • As an effort to make our communication processes more inclusive and accessible to people with and without disabilities, a small workgroup of the Access Initiative developed the NRCDV Accessible Writing & Formatting Guidelines, which is an internal procedure for creating accessible, clear, reader-friendly documents that are consistent across the NRCDV. These rules are based on APA style guidelines and universal accessibility rules for clear language/plain English.
    • NRCDV staff received training on the use of assistive technology, provided by the local Assistive Technology Lending Library. This allowed staff to gain greater competence in responding to requests that come through the TTY machine, by way of video phone, or through the use of an interpreter service. Staff also gained awareness about the types of devices that are available and how to gain access to them – for their own use or for use by people accessing our services.
  • The NRCDV engaged in a complete redesign of the VAWnet website based on the principles of Universal Design. This involved the process of learning best practices for accessibility in programming and design, engaging in a testing and evaluation process that included people with disabilities and assistive technology, and addressing the functionality, language, and presentation of the site to be the most accessible to the greatest number of people. Since then, all NRCDV websites have been built or updated based on the principles of Universal Design.

C. Inclusive environment

An inclusive environment refers to the design of places, things, information, communications, services and policy that focuses on the user, on the widest range of people operating in widest range of situations without special or separate design (Safety First Initiative, 2006).


  • The NRCDV enlisted the guidance of the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania to conduct a full accessibility audit of our office space. The tool used by the NRCDV to conduct the audit was the Americans with Disabilities Act Checklist for Readily Achievable Barrier Removal.The goal of the audit process was to plan how to make the existing NRCDV’s office more accessible for people with disabilities. The Checklist helps in identifying accessibility problems and solutions in existing facilities towards meeting obligations under the ADA. The audit was completed with input from staff in January 2010. An ad hoc workgroup was created to address the recommendations outlined in the audit. Decision-makers were important to the work of this group as there were financial resources associated with modifications including signage, building renovation, cost of interpreters, and auditory signals for emergencies. In early 2011, the NRCDV moved to a new office building shared with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The learnings from this audit greatly informed the selection and design of our new space, including aspects such as the width of doorways and halls and the placement of kitchen and bathroom countertops, cabinets, and fixtures.
  • Tuesday TidbitThe organization made a commitment to conducting access-related trainings at all staff meetings to underscore and continue to build commitment to enhancing organizational access to people with disabilities. Internally-facilitated trainings entailed the discussion of articles, survivor stories, videos, campaigns, or other materials addressing key issues related to the experiences of people with disabilities. For example, one training was based on the Bring Change 2 Mind campaign, while another explored issues raised in the 2007 film, Music Within.
  • The NRCDV generated a weekly all-staff email highlighting news, initiatives, or items of interest related to disability rights and awareness called the Tuesday Tidbit. Often, the Tidbit consisted of cartoons, video clips, or other thought-provoking items found by staff. The following is an example of a Tidbit disseminated in November 2011.
  • NRCDV staff posted educational flyers highlighting disability etiquette and other helpful information in public spaces throughout the office, including by the copy machine and in bathroom stalls. As seen in the example below, pages extracted from the Disability Etiquette handbook from the United Spinal Association were used as informative posters.

A person’s environment has a huge impact on the experience and extent of disability. Inaccessible environments create disability by creating barriers to participation and inclusion. 
WHO’s World report on disability, 2011

D. Inclusive policies

Inclusive policies support a welcoming environment for the widest range of potential users and circumstances in mind. In serving survivors with disabilities, policies for assuring compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, providing individualized accommodations to survivors needing support, and assuring the safety of survivors is essential (Safety First Initiative, 2006).


  • The NRCDV worked to enhance organizational hiring practices to be more welcoming to people with disabilities. Revisions were made to the Job Questionnaire and Job Description templates, the list of job posting sites was expanded, and other workplace related issues were addressed.
  • NRCDV administrative staff adopted an Accessibility Considerations tool [insert Doc: Accessibility Considerations.doc] for use in planning accessible meetings. This practice was also put in place for webinars, trainings, and other events sponsored or hosted by the NRCDV. The meeting accessibility considerations adopted by the NRCDV were based on recommendations available from the Accessing Safety Initiative of the Vera Institute of Justice.

E. Building capacity

Capacity building can be defined as the ability of nonprofit organizations to fulfill their missions in an effective manner (The Urban Institute, 2001). It is believed that the capacity to compete in a changing world is a function of an organization’s commitment to develop competitive new skills and abilities, and engage in lifelong learning (Butterfoss, 2004). Through the Access Initiative, the NRCDV has committed to be a learning organization, which strives to adapt, change and learn new skills through training and technical assistance. In this sense, developing partnerships has been essential in our efforts to build organizational capacity in the area of accessibility. In fact, an agency’s culture of and commitment to community partnerships is a core component of capacity building (Safety First Initiative, 2006).


The NRCDV conducted a training needs inventory to identify those topics which were of interest to staff related to disability (see Training Needs Inventory below). As a result, several trainings were conducted, many of which involved inviting outside experts with key knowledge in the topic areas. For example, staff participated in a training in March 2010 on Disability Awareness provided by the Center for Independent Living of North Central Pennsylvania.

Training Needs Inventory

  • The NRCDV worked on the development of new resources related to disability. This process was a learning opportunity for staff who conducted research on key topics and worked with experts and partners in the disability rights field on the development and review process. New publications and related trainings included:

Applied Research Paper: Interpersonal Violence and Women with Disabilities: A Research Update (September 2009) provides an update on what researchers have learned during the past ten years about abuse and women with disabilities and offers some perspectives on the state of current research and its implications for future studies and advocacy efforts.Sign Language Hands

Special Collection: Violence in the Lives of the Deaf or Hard of Hearing (June 2009) offers information regarding the experiences and needs of individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing and victims/survivors of domestic and/or sexual violence. The purpose of this collection is to: 1) increase knowledge and understanding of Deaf culture, 2) provide resources to assist helping professionals in direct service work with Deaf individuals, and 3) highlight best practices.

Special Collection: Traumatic Brain Injury and Domestic Violence: Understanding the Intersections (March 2010) offers tools to screen for traumatic brain injury within the context of domestic violence as well as presentations, articles, and other relevant resources on this topic.

TA Question of the Month: How can I build my program’s capacity to provide trauma-informed services? (November 2012) provides guidance to the field related to adopting a trauma-informed approach to domestic violence advocacy.

Special Collection: Trauma-Informed Domestic Violence Services (April 2013) reflects an integrated perspective that incorporates an understanding of the pervasiveness and impact of trauma, supports healing and resiliency, and addresses the root causes of abuse and violence.

    • Part 1: Understanding the Framework and Approach provides an overview of the framework and research supporting trauma-informed approaches to working with survivors and their children.
    • Part 2: Building Program Capacity provides practical tools and resources on building capacity to implement trauma-informed programs.
    • Part 3: Developing Collaborations and Increasing Access provides resources for building collaboration to ensure that survivors and their children have access to culture-, domestic violence- and trauma-informed mental health and substance abuse services.
  • NRCDV Staff also developed unique trainings to the field to highlight information and best practices related trauma-informed care, serving Deaf survivors, and related topics. Trainings included:
    • Trauma-Informed Services and Strategies for Domestic Violence Service Providers (November 5, 2009)
    • Working with Latina Deaf Survivors (November 3, 2009)
  • The NRCDV convened a National Cross-Systems Advocacy Network (NCAN) from 2008-2010 to improve system-wide responses for victims/survivors with disabilities who experience domestic and/or sexual violence. The primary purpose of convening this national network was based on the premise that if we understand more about each others’ work and movements, we will be better able to respond to the needs of advocates who work with persons with disabilities and Deaf persons who have experienced domestic and/or sexual violence in their lives. This national network was inspired by, and modeled after, promising practices and collaborations on the state level.

Members of the NCAN committed to the following goals:

    • Establishing and cultivating a national partnership among advocates, persons with disabilities, and others from the anti-violence and disability movements;
    • Ongoing exchange of information and resources among partners;
    • Developing best practices that can be replicated in local communities;
    • Providing ongoing technical assistance when needed;
    • Providing cross-systems trainings at the national level;
    • Generating joint papers and creating a special collection on violence against persons with disabilities and Deaf persons;
    • Enhancing organizational websites and resources to be accessible, as well as include links to disability advocacy organizations across the nation to all individuals seeking information and resources related to domestic violence, sexual violence, and stalking;
    • Identifying funding sources that will foster the ongoing work of this collaboration.
National Cross-Systems Advocacy Network Member Organizations

The NCAN was able to promote cross-systems learning and collaboration between the fields of disability rights and sexual and domestic violence advocacy. Staff at the NRCDV also became known by statewide and national organizations as being particularly equipped to respond to technical assistance and training requests related to accessibility for survivors with disabilities. The group dissolved when it became clear that its efforts duplicative of those already being pursued by projects such as the Vera Institute Accessing Safety Initiative. While the NRCDV was unable to sustain the group over time, the relationships formed as a result of this effort continue to be valued by and valuable to the NRCDV.

  • The NRCDV focused efforts on increasing staff presence at state and national events related to disability rights. We maintained a list of opportunities for staff and implemented an internal process to ensure that NRCDV resources are shared at all conferences attended by staff.

The culture of an agency or organization can promote or detract from inclusiveness, accessibility, and responsiveness.
Safety First Initiative, 2006


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V. Lessons Learned and Recommendations

We decided to abandon the original idea to educate before acting, since we realized we could read forever and not do anything. 
NRCDV Staff Meeting Notes, December 17, 2007

In this section, we share some of the lessons that NRCDV staff has learned over the course of the Access Initiative. We recognize that there is much more to learn and do on the path toward shared understanding and individual and organizational growth.

Accessibility is a complex process, achieved over time. First – as this may seem obvious now – we learned that accessibility reaches far beyond the accommodations of the Americans with Disabilities Act or any other legal requirements. Accessibility impacts an organization’s day-to-day practices, as well as its culture and mindset as a whole. Working towards accessibility is a lifelong process that requires continuous self-assessments and critical thinking rather than a “status” achieved after a set number of staff trainings or readings. Fortunately, this realization came to us early in the process, as the notes from a staff member following a meeting in December 17, 2007 indicate: “The workgroup decided to address issues of self-education and self-change at the same time. In other words, we decided to abandon the original idea to educate before acting, since we realized we could read forever and not do anything.

Working towards accessibility requires individual and organizational commitment and willingness to change. The involvement of individual staff members, leadership, and the organization as a whole has proven critical to the success of the NRCDV Access Initiative. Originally, the NRCDV Management Team was charged with incorporating the Access Initiative work into the agendas for monthly staff meetings. At one point, however, it became clear to management that they were not prioritizing the Access Initiative and, because of this, the project lacked direction and structure. A recommendation was made to convene an Access Initiative Workgroup, consisting of at least one representative from each NRCDV team to move things forward. This recommendation was also based on the premise that personal and institutional change cannot – and should not – be legislated or a top-down process. That is, staff at all levels should be engaged and have the resources and mandate to do the work.

Several changes to the structure and functioning of the Access Initiative were made over time to accommodate the natural shifts in the workload and priorities of the NRCDV. At one point, the key workgroup – the Access Initiative Leadership Workgroup – was split into smaller workgroups within the NRCDV to divide the major tasks into key areas of focus (resources, communication, and policy), and to promote leadership among staff who were not in management positions. After a couple of years of operating in this way, we slowly began to see a decline in the activity levels of the workgroups – the meetings became less frequent as tasks were accomplished and new goals were not set. While the workgroups may have fizzled out, the spirit of the project has surfaced in the work of the newly formed Office Culture Workgroup and other internal initiatives that continue to promote accessibility and inclusiveness. The decision to create this document arose from the identified need to re-energize our commitment to the original goals of the Access Initiative and to explore how to re-incorporate this into our current work.

The importance of building partnerships cannot be overstated. An excellent guide out of Wisconsin states, “An exciting and transformative component of 21st century work among disability, domestic violence and sexual assault services organizations is the recognition that together we have the capacity to positively impact the intervention with and recovery and healing of so many individuals with disabilities who have experienced or currently are experiencing violence in their lives.” We could not agree more!

Reaching out to, and building partnerships, especially with disability rights organizations, has been critical to our work of building organizational capacity and of creating a more inclusive environment within the NRCDV, as well as more accessible communication processes, practices, and policies. Designing welcoming and accessible services and environments requires knowledge about available supports for people with disabilities. Therefore, organizations striving towards becoming more accessible are strongly encouraged to connect with disability organizations that can provide support and assistance during this process. Several key national organizations are highlighted under Relevant Organizations. In addition to national organizations, there are key local and state organizations that domestic and sexual violence advocates can connect with in their respective communities. Brain of gears

Adult learning plays a critical role in capacity development. Because building capacity is a key component in the process of creating and enhancing accessibility, understanding the principles of adult learning and creating a comfortable space where staff members feel safe to learn, grow and contribute is vital. Adult learning is most effective when it fills a professional or personal goal. That is, since adults are practical and relevance-oriented, they normally want to learn something for a reason, which will usually apply to their work or other responsibilities. In this sense, adults learn well when they are able to connect their experiences and knowledge to a specific goal or objective, and when the learning process is guided but not forced, as well as active and participatory.

With those principles in mind, the general approach of the Access Initiative was to encourage staff to identify the issues and questions they wanted to address through trainings and other staff development opportunities. The Training Needs Inventory shown below is an example of a short survey offered to all staff in 2010 by one of the Access Initiative’s workgroups. As a general approach, NRCDV staff members were also encouraged to take turns in facilitating all-staff discussions in order to share new knowledge and understandings, including factual information and personal experiences. Staff discussions and trainings were designed to include many points of view and to be responsive to the needs and multiple priorities of staff members.

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VI. Materials and Resources

In this section, we offer several of the readings and tools that NRCDV staff delved into in our efforts to learn about disability and accessibility. Additional resources and materials were also included to provide a more current and comprehensive listing. This section is not meant to be exhaustive but rather an invitation to engagement in self-reflection, critical-thinking and ongoing learning.

A. Accessibilty

Accessibility and Responsiveness for Survivors with Disabilities Review Tool by Safety First Initiative (2006)
The Accessibility and Responsiveness Tool provides a framework for domestic violence, sexual violence, and disability service organizations to think about the when, where, what, and how of providing inclusive, accessible, and responsive services.

ADA Standards for Accessible Design by U.S. Department of Justice (1994)
This document sets guidelines for accessibility to places of public accommodation and commercial facilities by individuals with disabilities. These guidelines are to be applied during the design, construction, and alteration of such buildings and facilities to the extent required by regulations issued by Federal agencies, including the Department of Justice, under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

The Americans with Disabilities Act Checklist for Readily Achievable Barrier Removal by Adaptive Environments Center, Inc., Barrier Free Environments, Inc. (1995)
This checklist will help you identify accessibility problems and solutions in existing facilities in order to meet your obligations under the ADA. The goal of the survey process is to plan how to make an existing facility more usable for people with disabilities.

Creating Accessible, Culturally Relevant, Domestic Violence and Trauma­Informed Agencies: A Self­Reflection Tool by the Accessing Safety and Recovery Initiative of the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health (2012)
This tool uses questions and discussion prompts to guide agencies through a self-reflective process, beginning with imagining how accessible, culturally relevant, and trauma-informed (ACDVTI) work might be carried out in their organization, and then thinking through the first steps and additional resources that will be needed for creating change.

Designing Accessible Events for People with Disabilities: Registration Tip Sheet by the Center on Victimization and Safety at the Vera Institute of Justice (2013)
The registration tip sheet covers what questions you should ask about lodging, meals, interpreting, personal care attendants, and other accommodation needs. The tip sheet includes sample questions, and additional resources to ensure your registration process assists you in maximizing access for people with disabilities attending your event.

Increasing Agency Accessibility for People with Disabilities: Domestic Violence Agency Self-Assessment Guide by Cathy Hoog, Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services, for the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (Revised 2004)
Intended for use in domestic violence victim services, this guide was produced to provide domestic violence programs and agencies with a practical tool to review the accessibility of the agency and services offered for victims with disabilities.

PISSAR Checklist by PISSAR (People In Search of Safe and Accessible Restrooms) (n.d.)
This checklist is a helpful tool for accessing for gender safety and accessibility for individuals with disabilities.

Safe and Accessible Meeting and Event Planning by Sandra Harrell, Accessing Safety Initiative of the Vera Institute of Justice (December 2012)
This slide show provides information on the elements of an accessible meeting and offers practical guidance for advocates and others planning accessible meetings and events.

B. Culture

Culture and Disability (pages 17-29 of Domestic Violence Awareness: Action for Social Change) by Debora Beck-Massey (2005)
This article analyzes societal attitudes towards people with disabilities and discusses how stereotypes about disability can reinforce stereotypes about women and promote gender-based oppression.

Disability Etiquette: Tips on Interacting with People with Disabilities by United Spinal Association and Judith Cohen (2003)
This booklet is for anyone—with or without a disability—who wants to interact more effectively with people with disabilities.

On the Question of Allies by Aprille Annette (2000)
This short paper describes three kinds of pseudo-allies to people with disabilities, providing insights into what true alliance looks like.

So How Do We Feel? by How Does MS Feel? (n.d.)
This page describes several symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS) to help those without the disease gain a better understanding of how it feels to have MS. The page uses sarcasm and humor to convey its message.

The 10 Cs: A Model of Diversity Awareness and Social Change by Patti DeRosa and Ulric Johnson for ChangeWorks Consulting (2002)
This document is a self-inventory describing the “10 Cs” model. The “10 Cs” is a two-part model that includes the 5 Cs of Awareness (Color, Culture, Class, Character, and Context) and the 5 Cs of Change (Confidence, Courage, Commitment, Conflict, and Community) in an attempt to bring together as many parts of the whole as possible. Based on the premise that we must start with an inventory of ourselves and examine our own experiences to more effectively confront issues of personal and societal oppression, this self-inventory is an essential first step in the longer journey toward social change.

Understanding the Differences and Similarities Between Having Visible and Invisible Disabilities by The Invisible Disabilities Advocate (2004)
This brief article describes what the term invisible disabilities means and why it is important to understand invisible disabilities.

C. History

Disability History Timeline by the Rehabilitation Research & Training Center on Independent Living Management (Revised 2002)
This page provides a list of national and international milestones highlighting people, events, and legislation affecting the disability rights movement.

Disability Rights Movement Virtual Exhibition by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (2000)
This website represents what a visitor to the National Museum of American History would encounter when using one of the kiosks in the physical exhibition.

The Politics of the Disability Rights Movements by Ravi Malhotra (2001)
This article discusses the need for a counter-hegemonic politics of disability liberation.

D. Language

The Case Against “Special Needs” by Kathie Snow (2002)
In this article, the author rejects the descriptor “Special Needs,” discussing how it can promote negative attitudes and segregation.

People First Language by Kathie Snow (2012)
This article discusses the importance of using language that puts the person before his or her disability and that describes what the person has, not who the person is.

The Politics of Naming by Sarah Triano (n.d.)
This paper discusses how commonly used definitions of disability can be antithetical to the philosophy and goals of the disability civil rights movement.

Attitudes towards people with disabilities crystallize in our language. We are often seen and spoken of in terms of symptoms or diagnoses. Assigning labels to individuals with disabilities such as ‘invalid,’ ‘crippled,’ ‘bedridden’ or ‘confined to’ objectifies people and focuses not on the individual, but on the disability. (…) Labeling individuals with disabilities not only does a disservice to us, but also to the one who uses the label because that person is unable to see the unique contributions that we make to society. Debora Beck-Massey, 2005

E. Trauma

Access To Advocacy: Serving Women With Psychiatric Disabilities In Domestic Violence Settings by the Domestic Violence & Mental Health Policy Initiative (2007)
This curriculum was designed to build the capacity of domestic violence agencies, as well as disability rights and mental health providers, to serve survivors of domestic violence and other lifetime trauma who are living with psychiatric disabilities.

A Practical Guide for Creating Trauma-Informed Disability, Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Organizations by Disability Rights Wisconsin, Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault (2011)
This document engages readers in critical-thinking and exploration of strategies for implementing effective trauma-informed conditions or core values.

Real Tools: Responding To Multi-Abuse Trauma – A Tool Kit to Help Advocates and Community Partners Better Serve People with Multiple Issues by Debi S. Edmund and Patricia J. Bland for the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (2011)
This manual offers practical tools for advocates and community partners, such as health and mental heath care providers, to address the complex needs of survivors of multi-abuse trauma, no matter where survivors enter the social service system.

Trauma-Informed Domestic Violence Services by the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma, and Mental Health in partnership with the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence (2013)
This 3-part Special Collection series reflects an integrated perspective that: 1) incorporates an understanding of the pervasiveness and impact of trauma; 2) supports healing and resiliency; and 3) addresses the root causes of abuse and violence.

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VII. Relevant Organizations

The following organizations can be accessed for additional information and resources related to accessibility, disability and trauma. This alphabetized list is provided as a starting point and is not comprehensive or exhaustive.

Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services (ADWAS)
“Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services empowers Deaf and Deaf Blind survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and harassment to transform their lives, while striving to change the beliefs and behaviors that foster and perpetuate violence. We provide comprehensive services to individuals and families, community education, and advocacy services at both the personal and political levels.”

Accessing Safety Initiative
The Accessing Safety Initiative was established in 2005 by the Vera Institute of Justice and the U.S. Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) to provide technical assistance and training to help organizations and communities meet the needs of women with disabilities and Deaf women who have experienced domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking.

Building Dignity
Building Dignity is a website from the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which explores design strategies for domestic violence shelters, based on the premise that thoughtful design dignifies survivors by meeting their needs for self-determination, security and connection. The site offers a variety of strategies, from easy and affordable redecorating tips to major renovation strategies requiring longer term planning and investment. Quotes from survivors, case studies describing how domestic violence programs have employed a particular strategy, and links to additional information are also available on the website, which was created in partnership with an architecture firm.

Center for Research on Women with Disabilities (CROWD)
“Our mission is to promote, develop, and disseminate information to improve the health and expand the life choices of women with disabilities. (…) CROWD is also dedicated to helping women with disabilities organize into local support and advocacy groups (face-to-face and online) and to solidify our national presence as a force to be reckoned with.”

Center on Victimization and Safety
The Center on Victimization and Safety at the Vera Institute of Justice works to ensure that underserved victims of crime have equal access to victim services and criminal justice interventions by fostering collaboration and building organizational capacity among victim service organizations, culturally specific service providers, and the criminal justice system. “A cornerstone of our work is a portfolio of projects designed to end violence against people with disabilities. This portfolio includes research studies, training initiatives, technical assistance to foster community-based collaborations to improve responses to violence against people with disabilities, and evaluation efforts to identify what works when serving these survivors.” is a web portal for comprehensive information on disability programs and services in communities nationwide. The site links to more than 14,000 resources from federal, state and local government agencies; academic institutions; and nonprofit organizations. The site covers topics such as protecting your civil rights, applying for benefits, getting health care, finding a job, and paying for housing.

Disability is Natural
“The mission of Disability is Natural is to encourage new ways of thinking about developmental disabilities, in the belief that our attitudes drive our actions, and changes in our attitudes and actions can help create a society where all children and adults with developmental disabilities have opportunities to live the lives of their dreams, included in all areas of life.”

DisabilityNation is an audio magazine produced by and for people with disabilities with the goal of providing listeners with an alternative view of disability issues. “Often, mainstream media tends to glorify disability or frames us as being heroic because we live our lives and participate in everyday activities. (…) [W]e know that living with a disability isn’t heroic, it isn’t inspirational and it isn’t unusual. Its just part of life.”

Institute for Human Centered Design (IHCD)
“The Institute for Human Centered Design (IHCD), founded in Boston in 1978 as Adaptive Environments, is an international non-governmental educational organization (NGO) committed to advancing the role of design in expanding opportunity and enhancing experience for people of all ages and abilities through excellence in design. IHCD’s work balances expertise in legally required accessibility with promotion of best practices in human-centered or universal design.”

National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health
“The National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health provides training, support, and consultation to advocates, mental health and substance abuse providers, legal professionals, and policymakers as they work to improve agency and systems-level responses to survivors and their children. Our work is survivor defined and rooted in principles of social justice.”

National Disability Rights Network (NDRN)
NDRN is the nonprofit membership organization for the federally mandated Protection and Advocacy (P&A) Systems and Client Assistance Programs (CAP). Collectively, the P&A/CAP network is the largest provider of legally based advocacy services to people with disabilities in the United States. NDRN’s mission is to promote the integrity and capacity of the P&A/CAP national network and to advocate for the enactment and vigorous enforcement of laws protecting civil and human rights of people with disabilities.

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The NRCDV welcomes your input. If you have any comments or additional information to provide, please contact our Capacity Building and Education Team at