Marisa Douglas is sometimes the first person people see when they walk into the Artemis Center for Independent Living in Galloway Township.
Twice a week, Douglas, 22, takes one, if not two, buses to make the 90-minute trip from her home in Deptford, Gloucester County, to the center. As a peer specialist, the recent Stockton University graduate is expanding the center’s services with a new support group for women with disabilities.
“The whole idea of the group is about getting support from people with life experiences,” she said. “There are people who go from being completely able-bodied to using a cane or wheelchair, and this group is an opportunity for them to talk about that or any issue that’s disability-related.”
Douglas plans to hold weekly meetings at the center, open to women of all ages and abilities. She anticipates group members will be able to talk about the unique circumstances and issues women with disabilities may face in regard to relationships, employment, housing and other adult concerns.
About 6.7 percent of New Jersey residents live with an auditory, visual, cognitive or mobile disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
As someone who uses a wheelchair to get around, Douglas has her own share of personal experience. She was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that occurs in utero when the spine and spinal cord do not develop properly.
Douglas used forearm crutches often while growing up and decided to use a wheelchair full time in order to better navigate Stockton’s campus, which is spread out over several miles.
“Having a disability is not black and white. You have to take it day by day,” she said. “There’s still so much stigma, like my use of a wheelchair, and people think it’s because I’m lazy. I’m like, if you need a wheelchair to do better in your life, use a wheelchair.”
Donald Campbell, center director, said the new group broadens the type of services available to people who come to Artemis.
“When we deal with challenges, whatever they may be, we look at people who succeed and meet goals, and they have a supportive environment,” he said. “The group becomes that support system where people can go to express what they’re going through. Before applying to a job, you need to be in an emotionally good place.”
Another big part of the group that Douglas hopes to bring more awareness to is violence against women with disabilities. While there is a national spotlight on the topic, Douglas said she wants people to know that violence and harassment may present themselves differently among certain groups of people.
Nearly one in three women will be abused in her lifetime, according to the World Health Organization. And women with disabilities have a 40 percent greater chance of intimate partner violence than women without disabilities, according to the American Psychological Association.
“As a society, we’re getting better at talking about domestic violence and sexual assault, and research shows it occurs more in women with disabilities,” Douglas said. “We need to be talking about these issues and how someone winds up in these situations.”
Douglas said self-esteem is a component that plays into those situations, and people with disabilities are more likely to suffer from poor self-esteem and self-image.
“If you don’t feel good about yourself, you’re more likely to accept abuse,” she said. “People with disabilities are sometimes told that they’re broken and may not see themselves as worthy of a healthy romantic relationship. It makes it that much harder to get out of (the situation).”
Douglas focused on violence against women with disabilities as a psychology student at Stockton, and has used her research and personal experience as driving factors to pursue a career in social work. She is currently in a master’s program at Rutgers University.
“The center is different than others, because it really is a place for someone with a disability to come and be in charge of what they want to do and how they want to live independently,” she said. “I really like that aspect, because I think it’s more positive and empowering for people.”