Abuse of People with Disabilities

January 10, 2017 by dccinc

One of the enduring challenges faced by people with disabilities is that of abuse. Many people with disabilities face the specter of several forms of abuse:

  • Physical – abuse can range from hitting and pinching to forcing someone to eat faster than they are able.
  • Sexual – abuse such as inappropriate touching during toilet routines or sexual assault.
  • Financial – abuse includes withholding money or stealing money.
  • Emotional/Verbal – abuse including threats to leave the person alone, name-calling
  • Neglect – involves failure to provide the necessities of life such as proper food, medicine, or a safe, clean shelter.

An information sheet published by the Government of Alberta states that people with disabilities are 50% more likely to be the victim of some form of abuse in their lives. Some individuals have a higher risk than others. Factors that impact the level of risk are:

  • Level of disability
  • Availability of a support network
  • Isolation
  • Dependency

The sad truth is that abuse isn’t always a one-way situation. Sometimes two people abuse each other and it is the nature of the relationship that has become abusive. People with disabilities can have a high number of various caregivers and support team members. It is often the people closest to them who are abusing them.

Persons with disabilities, like other victims of family violence, are most often abused by people they know. This may be a caregiver in the person’s residence, a spouse or common-law partner, another family member or a professional with whom they have some contact as a patient or client.

While many advances have been made in areas such as equality, inclusivity, universal design, and accessibility, people with disabilities shouldn’t have to keep facing this absurdly high level of abuse in their lives. People who abuse persons with disabilities can be anyone and are usually someone they know such as a family member, caregiver, friend, staff in a facility or landlord. A 2012 report published in the U.S. revealed startling statistics regarding the prevalence of abuse in the lives of people with disabilities. The rate of reporting varied among specific “disability communities” (PWD and families). Some 55.4% of victims with autism reported abuse, while 52.8% of those with a speech disability, 44.2% of those with a mental health condition, and 39.5% of those with a mobility disability did so… More than 73% of people with disabilities who took the survey reported they had been victims of bullying. Most of these victims had experienced bullying on multiple occasions, with 38% saying that their victimization had lasted for years on end.

It is a challenge to analyze the reasons why abuse and bullying are so prevalent in the lives of people with disabilities. A key to this issue is that it is an international issue. People with disabilities around the world cope with this problem. Many do because they are dependent on the care of others. Some people with disabilities may not have the physical capability to fight back, or even call out for help. These factors render them far more vulnerable than others.

One of the first proactive steps people with disabilities can take is to engage in risk reduction. People need to understand where the risks are and find ways to reduce or eliminate them. For example, with respect to the issue of caregivers, it’s vital to take the time to interview them thoroughly, ensure their references are valid, and conduct a background check including a criminal background check. This may have a paranoid sound to it, but it’s better to be thorough upfront than deal with the abuse.  An excellent resource for this is Dr. Nora Baladerian’s book on risk reduction entitled A Risk Reduction Workbook for Parents and Service Providers.

A second step is for people with disabilities and their spouses/families to know their legal rights. In Canada, there’s a plethora of valuable information on the web. Another list of services can be found here.

D.A.W.N. The Disabled Women’s Network has worked diligently to educate and support women with disabilities around the issue of abuse.

There are many reasons why Persons with Disabilities are more vulnerable to violence.

  • The victim may not be able to call for help, protest, or get away.
  • They may be dependent on others for care which means that people, including strangers, have legitimate access to their homes and bodies.
  • A complaint by a victim may jeopardize or interrupt essential services.
  • People with disabilities may not develop adequate boundaries or may have had their boundaries undermined because they are so dependent on others for their daily functioning.
  • They are afraid they may not be believed, and that the caregiver may be seen as more “credible”.

It’s clear there is a need for disability rights activists to speak out more urgently on this issue.  There is no way people with disabilities can live completely equal and inclusive lives if they continue to face such high levels of abuse. Disability rights activists have a responsibility to work with the government, social services, and other organizations to reduce the risk of abuse in the lives of people with disabilities. This is not an easy goal to achieve as disability rights activism still faces a high degree of challenges to address in order to achieve full equality. It may also be time for educators at all levels of education to integrate this subject into the curriculum, especially as a vital topic in Disability Studies such as this one currently being taught at Brock University – “Child sexual abuse — Prevention — Study and teaching”. A discourse on abuse must be developed as part of the overall dialogue on and efforts to reduce (and hopefully eliminate) abuse, sexual assault, and bullying in our society.

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