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While most researchers and advocates assert that people with disabilities experience much higher rates of violence than people without disabilities, there are no national data measuring this phenomenon. Estimates of the prevalence of violence vary greatly. Researchers have estimated that violence against people with cognitive disabilities occurs 2 to 5 times more often than against people without disabilities, and some estimate that as many as 90% of people with cognitive disabilities will experience violence at some point in their lives. Similarly, estimates of violence against people with physical disabilities range from virtually similar to people without disabilities to as much as 5 times greater. While many countries collect data nationally on violence, disability is generally not included in these data, and thus there are no official statistics on violence related to people with disabilities. Nonetheless, there is general agreement that people with disabilities experience significant levels of violence and often experience violence that is uniquely related to having a disability.
People with disabilities can experience intimate partner violence, stranger violence, and violence by their formal (paid) or informal (unpaid) caregivers. People with disabilities are in intimate relationships similar to others, and thus experience intimate partner violence similar to people without disabilities. People with disabilities also can experience violence from people who provide personal support services and can be vulnerable to violence because of their increased levels of interdependence. Finally, people with disabilities also experience stranger violence and are sometimes viewed as “easy targets” because they are perceived as vulnerable.
People with disabilities can experience the same types of violence as people without disabilities, including sexual abuse, physical abuse, economic abuse, and emotional abuse. However, for people with disabilities, these types of violence can take on additional manifestations. For example, physical abuse can include leaving an individual to sit in their own feces for extended periods of time or failing to provide other types of personal care. Economic abuse can include the stealing of an individual’s Social Security Disability Insurance checks by a partner, caregiver, or stranger. Emotional abuse can include using a person’s need for support related to their disability as a way to further their dependence, such as by saying, “If I didn’t take care of you, you’d have to live in an institution.”
Additional types of violence that relate directly to a person’s disability include control or restraint, inappropriate distribution of medication, deliberately placing barriers, and manipulating his or her disability triggers. Control or restraint can be used to isolate a person with a disability. Control or restraint tactics include refusing to help someone get out of bed when he or she is unable to do so without support, hiding an individual’s wheelchair, or restraining the hands of a deaf person to limit his or her ability to communicate. Another type of disability-related violence involves inappropriate distribution of medication. This type can range from overmedicating an individual as a form of chemical restraint, to withholding medication to exacerbate an individual’s medical problems, to stealing an individual’s medication to sell it or for use by the perpetrator. Another form of violence against people with disabilities is the deliberate placement of barriers for purposes of causing injury or for control. For example, a barrier could be to rearrange the living space of a person who is blind with the purpose of causing physical injury or putting an inaccessible latch on a door to prevent someone from leaving his or her home. The threat of a placement of barriers can also be a form of restraint, as a person may not be comfortable moving about his or her home with the fear of physical injury. Another specific type of abuse against people with disabilities is to deliberately manipulate a person’s disabilities by exacerbating his or her triggers or challenges. For example, many people with autism require surroundings of low stimulation. A form of violence toward a person with autism could be to purposefully create a high-stimulation environment for the reason of causing distress.
People with disabilities experiencing violence also may find it more difficult to get help for a variety of reasons. First, the domestic violence service system has tended not to be accessible to people with disabilities. There are few domestic violence shelters that are accessible to people with physical, intellectual, or cognitive disabilities. For shelters to be accessible, all services and physical environments must be reviewed and modified to meet the needs of people with disabilities. Modifications to the environment can include installing ramps, widening doors for wheelchair accessibility, and having all essential services available on the first floor (bedrooms, kitchen, laundry, and bathroom). Modifications to services include providing sign language interpreters, allowing service animals and personal assistants, changing screening instruments, and understanding the manifestations of disability-specific abuses. As many types of disabilities are hidden, shelter staff should ask all survivors if they need accommodations at intake. Shelter staff may also require additional training related to specific disabilities and be knowledgeable of how to make referrals for services. Staff training for shelter workers should include general disability awareness, medication, personal care needs related to disability, communication techniques, and the disability service system. As people with disabilities are often dependent on their perpetrators for financial support and/or personal care, they also may be reluctant to seek help for fear of losing social contact, personal care, and financial resources. By reporting an abuse, a person with a disability may not have the financial resources to live independently. Additionally, he or she may not have the transportation or other resources necessary to access help.
- Abramson, W., Emanuel, E., Gaylord, V., & Hayden, M. (Eds.). (2000). Impact: Feature Issue on Violence Against Women With Developmental or Other Disabilities, 13(3). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Retrieved from http://ici.umn .edu/products/impact/133/
- Hoog, C. (2001). Enough and not yet enough: An educational resource manual on domestic violence advocacy for persons with disabilities in Washington state. Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Retrieved from http://www.mincava.umn.edu/documents/wscdv/ wscdv.html
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