Mercedes Thompson and Lucinda Weller have a long history of working with domestic violence survivors. Thompson, a domestic violence advocate and paralegal with Legal Aid of Western Ohio (LAWO), and Weller, the managing attorney of LAWO’s Stability and Independence for Survivors Practice Group, have dedicated their careers to helping survivors achieve safety and stability through civil legal services. Project SAFE — Safety and Accessibility for Everyone — is their latest effort to help survivors with disabilities, a group with unique needs that advocates may inadvertently overlook.

“We know that survivors with disabilities experience domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence at rates that are significantly higher than folks without disabilities, and yet they can have trouble accessing services,” Thompson said.

Funded through a grant from the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW), Project SAFE is a collaboration between LAWO, Advocates for Basic Legal Equality (ABLE), and Bethany House, the only long-term residential domestic violence shelter in Toledo. With Thompson assuming the role of Project Coordinator, the group set out to talk to community members and survivors with disabilities about how to create more accessible organizations. One of Project SAFE’s first tasks was a comprehensive needs assessment.

“We looked internally at our procedures, our policies, really everything to see where we need to create change,” Weller said.

The needs assessment uncovered many barriers, some expected and some unexpected. Accessibility to a physical space, like a wheelchair ramp, is a more obvious barrier. Still, Thompson and Weller were surprised to hear during focus groups that something seemingly innocuous like the intake line can be problematic.

“If a survivor with a disability is seeking our services, sometimes just having to go through a legal aid intake line can be really traumatic, and it may cause them not to seek our services because of that,” Weller said. “It could be that they need some additional accommodations to participate, especially if they have a traumatic brain injury.”

The needs assessment also revealed how crucial it is to offer a choice of virtual and in-person options for survivors to meet with their attorneys. Survivors with disabilities may have different preferences to accommodate their disability. Similarly, improving cultural competencies is imperative for advocates who work with survivors of color. Thompson points out that communities of color may have different relationships with law enforcement, so understanding the historical context is critical when safety planning for those groups.

Project SAFE is also considering how to expand legal services that may fall outside of the traditional legal services for domestic violence survivors. Legal aid may better serve a survivor with a disability by helping with an eviction or a consumer matter rather than a civil protection order.

“Not every person needs a CPO or a divorce to be safe and stable,” Weller said. “It could be that there’s some huge consumer debt that’s keeping a survivor from getting a job because their wages are going to be garnished, and because they can’t get a job, they can’t take care of the kids properly. All of those things can cause instability.”

Ultimately, the Project SAFE team learned to be more client-centered and ask clients what they need to achieve safety and stability on their own terms. With this principle as a guiding tenet, the Project SAFE team has started incorporating what they’ve learned. The group is also serving as mentors to courts, nonprofits, and advocates who are anxious to apply what Project SAFE has learned at their organizations.

Project SAFE is just the beginning of what Thompson and Weller hope will be lasting change.

“There can be no survivor justice without disability justice and racial justice,” Thompson said. “We want to provide more services to persons who fall in or around those intersections. There’s a lot of opportunity for improving the lives of all survivors.”

The Ohio Access to Justice Foundation is the largest funder of civil legal aid in Ohio. Funding from the Foundation helped Ohio’s legal aids serve 8,624 domestic violence survivors in 2021. A gift to the Foundation supports this work.