An estimated 15% of the American population has a disability. These disabilities include mental illness, mental impairments, and/or physical disabilities.
While there isn’t a great deal of research on the topic, studies suggest that those living with disabilities are at greater risk of domestic abuse from a caregiver or intimate partner. And those with a mental illness are particularly vulnerable.
What Abuse Looks Like for People with Disabilities
Abuse is often about power and control. Because those living with disabilities are more likely to depend on others for their care, they are more susceptible to abusive partners who offer a false sense of security.
Abuse in disabled communities often manifests differently than in relationships without a disabled partner. Forms of domestic abuse can vary in all relationships, but people with disabilities often experience other forms of abuse, including:
- Diminishing the disability or saying it “isn’t real.”
- Stealing or withholding disability payments.
- Saying the disabled person is a bad or unfit parent because of their disability.
- Refusing to help with basic daily tasks.
- Withholding medication or giving incorrect dosages of medication.
- Unwanted sexual contact.
- Taking away modes of transportation or contact with others.
Those living with disabilities rely heavily on their partners and caregivers. If that caregiver is abusive, it creates a power dynamic that is difficult for the victim to escape.
Abuse and Developmental Disabilities
Those with developmental disabilities experience abuse at higher rates than the general population. However, these victims often have trouble recognizing and identifying abuse and cannot effectively report the abuse to proper authorities.
In many cases, the abusers in these situations are parents or other family caregivers. Statistics show that children and adults with developmental disabilities are more likely to experience severe abuse, and experience it for more extended periods of time.
When abuse does occur, those with developmental disabilities – particularly those who cannot communicate effectively – do not have the means to report the abuse. Even if they can report the abuse, these victims might not have anywhere else to go and/or cannot live on their own. For many, staying in an abusive environment feels like the only option they have.
Barriers to Getting Help
The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, requires domestic violence helping agencies to be accessible for people with disabilities. That might mean making shelters wheelchair accessible, guaranteed admittance for people with disabilities, and other accommodations as necessary by law.
However, even with the ADA guidelines, people living with disabilities face significant barriers when leaving an abusive relationship. We already know that it’s incredibly difficult for abuse victims to leave – even those without disabilities.
Physical, mental, or emotional disabilities only make leaving even more complicated. Physical limitations might mean being “trapped” in a home without transportation options. Others might feel like they will have no one to care for them if they leave. And many people living with a disability have limited or fixed incomes, which makes leaving feel impossible.
Those with developmental disabilities simply do not have the tools or the means to report the abuse, much less escape it. These victims leave abusive situations only if social services identifies the abuse. And in these instances, the disabled person may end up in a group home or with other caregivers, where abuse may be even more prevalent.
How You Can Protect People with Disabilities
You can start by educating yourself about domestic abuse, its prevalence in our communities, and the barriers that people with disabilities face every day. Then, share that information with other people in your life. You can also contact your local domestic violence helping agencies to ask about their accessibility practices, what services they offer, and how you can help.
If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, it’s never too late to get help. Contact your local domestic violence shelter or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text “START” to 88788. If you or someone else is in immediate danger, call 911.