The Intersection of Disability and Abuse

Initiating Change at The Initiative
May 8, 2014
Sexual and Reproductive Health Awareness for Persons with Disabilities
February 12, 2018

By Jessica Higgins
December 7, 2017

Domestic violence can happen to anyone. However, some populations are more likely to experience higher rates of violence and abuse, and that includes individuals with disabilities. Persons with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be victims of violent crime, and women with disabilities are 40% more likely to experience intimate partner violence – plus, the abuse they report is longer lasting and more intense. But why is the link between disability and abuse so strong? And what can you do to help?

Exploiting Vulnerability

At its core, abuse is always about power and control. Abusers employ a variety of tactics to exert absolute power over their victims, including controlling finances, isolating the victim from friends and family, verbally abusing them, and more. Because abuse is about power, abusers target people they perceive as being vulnerable – for example, they might target someone because the person has a disability.

When it comes to abuse targeted against people with disabilities, the tactics are often heightened because the abuser has access to a high degree of power. For example, caregivers of people with disabilities have control over a person’s daily functions. They have the power to decide whether a person gets to eat, use the bathroom, bathe, take their medications, and more. Caregivers also have access to time alone with their patients – in a person’s home, a bathroom, a bedroom, etc. – giving them opportunities to abuse or assault vulnerable people without anyone witnessing the behavior.

For people who don’t need a caregiver but have a disability, there are still vulnerabilities that abusers can exploit. Assistive technologies, such as wheelchairs, communication programs, and hearing aids can be hidden or destroyed. Needed medications can be withheld, compromising a person’s health or pain level. A person’s disability might make them unable to physically escape an abusive confrontation. And abusers can use a wide range of emotional and verbal abuse: telling the person their disability is the reason they’re being abused, that the abuse isn’t actually happening and the person is just “crazy,” telling the person that their disability makes them incapable of living independently, and so on.

Disability Caused by Abuse

Along with abusers targeting individuals with disabilities, disability and abuse are also linked because abuse causes disability. This can include short term disabilities that will eventually heal, like broken bones, and long term or permanent disabilities. Blows to the head and face, as well as strangulation, can cause brain injuries that impact memory, personality, cognition, and more. A brain injury can affect someone for their entire life.

Abuse is also responsible for high rates of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. For survivors who are trying to move on from the abuse, these mental health disabilities can significantly impact their journey to healing.

What You Can Do

So what can you do about this? For one thing, you can support local and national disability organizations that address issues of abuse, like the Colorado Cross Disability Coalition, DOVE, The Arc of Aurora (and other chapters of The Arc), and, of course, The Initiative. You can support legislation that provides more safety nets for victims of abuse with disabilities – like continuing funding for Medicaid programs that allow individuals with disabilities to live independently. And if you want to get more involved, check out our volunteer opportunities to see how you can help us create an abuse-free culture for all!


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