One in four adults in the United States has some type of disability (CDC). Three out of four people with disabilities experience some form of abuse (NCADV). People with disabilities are four to ten times more likely to be victimized than people without disabilities (CDC), and children with disabilities are four times more likely to experience abuse than children without disabilities (BBC). Disabilities can affect mobility, hearing, vision, cognition, communication, and mental health. These challenges provide distinct opportunities for abusers to take advantage of, manipulate, or harm a victim with a disability. They may also prevent or hinder some victims from seeking support, taking steps to improve their safety, or perhaps even fully recognizing or remembering the abuse they experience. Furthermore, domestic violence may cause disabilities, through physical injury or mental health issues. March is National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, making it an opportune time to explore the unique issues arising from the intersection of disabilities and domestic violence.
Talking About Disabilities
Disabilities are so prevalent and varied that they are quite a normal part of life. Having a disability does not necessarily mean that someone is unhealthy or cannot become healthy. While some disabilities stem from diseases, not all do. While some people with disabilities suffer as a result, not all do. While some people feel restricted by their disability, not all do. People with the same disability may be affected differently. And, of course, not all disabilities are continuous or visible.
It is important to recognize how vastly diverse people’s experiences may be and to not perpetuate stereotypes and negativity when discussing them. Using people-first language that emphasizes accessibility and normalcy makes a big difference. For example, use “person with a disability” instead of “disabled/handicapped person”, “person who uses a wheelchair” rather than “wheelchair bound” or “confined/restricted to a wheelchair”, “person with multiple sclerosis” instead of “multiple sclerosis victim” or “afflicted by multiple sclerosis”, and “accessible bathroom” rather than “handicapped/disabled bathroom”.
Impacts of Disabilities
According to the CDC, disability has three dimensions: (1) an impairment in a person’s body structure or function or mental function may result in (2) activity limitation, the execution of a task or action, or (3) participation restrictions, a person’s involvement in a life situation. Disabilities may be present at birth, develop or become apparent later, or be the result of an injury or longstanding condition. They may be progressive, static, or intermittent. People with disabilities often face additional challenges in everyday life compared to people without disabilities. Among other things, they may have difficulty walking or climbing stairs, hearing or seeing the world around them, concentrating, remembering, or making decisions. This can cause them to need assistance or not be able to do tasks such as run errands, hold a job, bathe and dress themselves, engage in social and recreational activities, or obtain health care. Many disabilities, however, are not visible and/or do not manifest themselves continuously. These people may appear not to have a disability and may face scorn or disbelief from others when they do come across a challenge related to their disability.
Disability-Specific Abuse Tactics
Domestic violence is about power and control. For victims with disabilities, abusers can harness the particulars of that disability to exert power and control. In 97-99% of cases, victims with disabilities were abused by someone they knew and trusted, often an intimate partner, family member, caregiver, or health aide (YWCA). Family, partners, and caregivers are frequently essential to someone with disabilities to be able to function and/or thrive in life. Abusers may refuse to give the assistance the victim with disabilities requires for daily living, neglect their personal care and hygiene, or threaten to abandon them completely. They may remove or prevent access to assistance tools, such as wheelchairs or walkers, and communication devices like smartphones or adaptive speech devices. If the victim relies on a service animal, they may harm or threaten to harm that animal. Abusers may control the victim’s medications, either withholding or overdosing them, and limit or deny access to healthcare appointments or disability resources. They may steal or withhold finances, such as disability checks, or misappropriate the victim’s money. Verbal and psychological abuse, including minimizing or invalidating the victim’s disability or promoting it as a source of shame, is also common, especially for those with “invisible” disabilities. Men with disabilities are more likely to experience stalking and psychological abuse (NCADV). Physical abuse of women with disabilities is often more frequent and severe (YWCA).
Disabilities and Sexual Abuse
Sexual abuse is a specific and all too prevalent form of abuse affecting people with disabilities. People with disabilities are three times more likely to be sexually abused or assaulted than those without disabilities (NCADV). Children with disabilities are also three times more likely to experience sexual violence than children without disabilities (BBC). Among women with disabilities, 80% have been sexually assaulted and 47% of those women were assaulted more than ten times (YWCA). This may come in the form of inappropriate touching while bathing, dressing, or assisting victims with personal care, rape of those who are unable to consent, and reproductive coercion. (Learn more about consent in our April 2022 blog post, “The Complexities of Consent”.) Certain disabilities require people to let others touch them in places that are all too easy for abusers to exploit. People with developmental disabilities may be especially vulnerable to sexual abuse. Only 3% of sexual abuse cases involving people with developmental or cognitive disabilities are reported, despite people with cognitive disabilities experiencing the highest rates of violence and sexual abuse among all people with disabilities (YWCA).
Additional Barriers to Leaving/Seeking Support
Some disabilities may prevent, impede, or dissuade abuse victims from improving their safety by seeking support or by leaving their abuser. If they are dependent on their abuser for health and/or functionality, it may not be possible for a victim to leave without securing a replacement caregiver first, which could be difficult or impossible to do. Abusers may control access to other people or resources that could lend support. Some abusers may have guardianship of or Power of Attorney for a victim who is unable to easily manage their own affairs, which adds a legal complication. Due to their disability, some victims may fear the loss of autonomy, custody of a child/children, or living outside a facility if they are unable to do so without their abuser. 21% of people with disabilities in the U.S. are employed, versus 65% of those without disabilities, meaning many may not be able to be financially independent from their abuser (USDoL). For victims with disabilities that effect their cognition, they may not realize that they are experiencing abuse, know what they can do to change their situation, or be able to express their needs/desires.
Even if they are able to reach out for support and/or leave their abuser, abuse victims with disabilities may find domestic violence resources are not equipped to assist them with everything they need. Shelters may not be accessible, and only 35% of shelters have disability awareness training for their staff. A mere 16% have a dedicated staff person to deliver services to those with disabilities (NCADV). Other service providers also often lack such training. Especially in rural communities, transportation may not be available. Information about domestic violence and resources is not typically distributed in braille, large print, or audio formats for those who cannot read traditional type. People with disabilities often face discrimination, are perceived as unreliable, or are not taken seriously. They may be ignored by service providers who can help them but either won’t or don’t think they can. In general, police respond to 90% of reports by victims without disabilities compared to 77% of reports by victims with disabilities (NCADV). 70 to 85% of cases of abuse of people with disabilities are not reported. Of those that are reported, only 5% are prosecuted, compared with 70% of serious crimes committed against people without disabilities.
Disabilities and Abuse in Marginalized Communities
People with disabilities who are also members of other marginalized or minority groups, such as LGBTQIA+ or BIPOC communities, may face additional barriers to support. They may feel like outsiders in both groups and face exclusion and/or additional bullying/harassment. This can exacerbate or trigger mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. Women who have a disability and another intersecting identity are more likely to experience violence and to have difficulty reporting violence and accessing services (BBC). Overall, 36% of those who identify as LGBTQIA+ have disabilities, compared with 27% of the general population (LGBT MAP). Despite this, services that are both LGBTQIA+ inclusive and accessible are limited. People with disabilities and members of marginalized communities are also overrepresented in the criminal justice system. 32% of those in prison and 40% of those in jail have a disability. 40% of incarcerated women and nearly 60% of girls in juvenile justice facilities are LGBTQIA+. 85% of LGBTQIA+ youth who are detained are youth of color (LGBT MAP). Over half of black people with disabilities have been arrested by age 28, double that of white people with disabilities (CAP).
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990 and stipulates that all domestic violence shelters must be accessible, including admitting people with disabilities, providing reasonable accommodations, and eliminating structural barriers to access (YWCA). Unfortunately, there are still shelters that do not comply with the ADA, but it certainly helped moved things in a positive direction. Domestic violence victims with disabilities need better access to resources and services that are accessible with staff who are educated on their potential disability-specific needs. Here are a few of the great resources already available that cater to clients with disabilities:
This agency provides safe shelter and support services to domestic violence survivors with disabilities. They also have both a call and chat hotline.
This 24/7 hotline is staffed by culturally-adept, trained advocates fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) who can answer questions and provide support via videocall or email.
Though not domestic violence specific, this organization protects and promotes the human rights of people with developmental and intellectual disabilities and actively supports their inclusion and participation in the community.
This is a local agency in Concord, MA that strives to improve the lives of children and adults with disabilities through therapeutic services, employment, recreation, housing, and community involvement.
This guide is designed for advocates but can be useful to victims as well. It includes lots of information, considerations, and a fillable template with many questions and checklists.
People with disabilities have unique challenges in life, unique ways they can be abused, and unique barriers to accessing support. Abuse is a major issue among those with disabilities. There are some resources available, but work needs to be done to make all support systems more accessible. Education and inclusivity can go a long way toward shedding light on this prevalent problem.
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