Abuse Is More Than Just A Five Letter Word

Disability abuse is considered a hate crime.  It is not limited to those who are visibly disabled (such as those who use wheelchairs) but also those with learning and other disabilities.  Unfortunately it is one of many forms of abuse that is on the rise.  I would like to take the time to discuss bullying, sexual abuse, emotional and physical abuse.

“People with disabilities experience domestic or sexual violence at a higher rate than people without disabilities. Here are some of the grim statistics:

  • Dr. Brian Armour of the Centers for Disease Control has found that women with a disability are significantly more likely than women without a disability to experience domestic violence in their lifetime, 37.3% vs. 20.6%. Women with a disability are much more likely to have a history of unwanted sex with an intimate partner, 19.7% vs. 8.2% (Armour, 2008).
  • 80% of women and 30% of men with intellectual disabilities have been sexually assaulted. 50% of those women have been assaulted more than ten times (Sobsey & Doe, 1991; Sorenson, 2000).
  • 83% of women with disabilities will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime (Stimpson & Best, 1991). Only 3% of sexual abuse cases involving people with developmental disabilities are ever reported (Valenti-Hein and Schwartz, 1995).
  • 54% of boys who are Deaf have been sexually abused, compared to 10% of boys who are hearing. 50% of girls who are Deaf have been sexually abused, compared to 25% of girls who are hearing (Sullivan, Vernon & Scanlan, 1987).”

Over 50% of children with autism are bullied in school.

actors such as physical vulnerability, social skills challenges, or intolerant environments may increase the risk of bullying. Students who are targets of bullying are more likely to experience lower academic achievement, higher truancy rates, feelings of alienation, poor peer relationships, loneliness, and depression. We must do everything we can to ensure that our schools are safe and positive learning  environments—where all students can learn.

Did you know it is the schools responsibility to make sure students with disabilities who are subject to bullying receive Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)?  This was created because school districts in the past were “blaming the victim” and removing the bullied students from the classroom and causing additional stress on them.  It is now the school’s responsibility to remove the cause of the problem, the bully.

Sexual Abuse:
People with disabilities are more vulnerable to sexual abuse.  They are also less likely to report such abuse according to a 2012 survey.  Due to ableism many victims are not believed or taken seriously.  An example of ablesim is “disabled” people are not raped.  It’s absurd and unfortunately it social prejudice against people with disabilities.  Acknowledging the sexuality of people with disabilities and teaching healthy sexuality is necessary to help combat sexual abuse.

Every type of abuse is horrific but statistics show less people report sexual abuse than other forms of abuse.   The most common reason given by victims (23%) is that the rape is a “personal matter.” Another 16% of victims say that they fear reprisal, while about 6% don’t report because they believe that the police are biased.

Physical Abuse:
Women with disabilities have a 17% higher rate of abuse than women without disabilities.  Physical abuse is physical force or violence that results in bodily injury, pain, or impairment. It includes assault, battery, and inappropriate restraint.

Abuse by personal assistance service (PAS) providers (paid or unpaid / friends, family or formal providers) is a unique problem for many people with disabilities. Nosek et al., (2001) found that 15% of women with disabilities reported physical abuse by service providers.

Emotional Abuse:
Emotional abuse is any kind of abuse that is emotional rather than physical in nature. It can include anything from verbal abuse and constant criticism to more subtle tactics, such as intimidation, manipulation, and refusal to ever be pleased. Emotional abuse is like brain washing in that it systematically wears away at the victim’s self-confidence, sense of self-worth, trust in their own perceptions, and self-concept. Whether it is done by constant berating and belittling, by intimidation, or under the guise of “guidance,” “teaching,” or “advice,” the results are similar. Eventually, the recipient of the abuse loses all sense of self and remnants of personal value. Emotional abuse cuts to the very core of a person, creating scars that may be far deeper and more lasting than physical ones (Engel, 1992, p. 10).

You may feel like if you’re not being hurt physically, you are not being abused. But attempts to scare, isolate, or control you also are abuse. They can affect your physical and emotional well-being. And they often are a sign that physical abuse will follow.

You may be experiencing emotional abuse if someone:

  • Monitors what you’re doing all the time
  • Unfairly accuses you of being unfaithful all the time
  • Prevents or discourages you from seeing friends or family
  • Tries to stop you from going to work or school
  • Gets angry in a way that is frightening to you
  • Controls how you spend your money
  • Humiliates you in front of others
  • Threatens to hurt you or people you care about
  • Threatens to harm himself or herself when upset with you
  • Says things like, “If I can’t have you then no one can.”
  • Decides things for you that you should decide (like what to wear or eat)

Challenges people face when reporting abuse:
There are many barriers a person with a disability may face when being abused such as Fear, Isolation, Lack of Access and Credibility.

Fear- the abuser may have a hold over the person with the disability which can keep them from disclosing the violence.  The abuser may be threatening to remove their services, hurt the person or their family member, or threaten to take away their children.

Isolation- Some people have little or no contact with other people other than their caregivers or immediate family.  When a caregiver or a family member becomes the abuser, the person is left with few or no options.

Lack of Access-People with disabilities do not have full access to violence-related support services.  If they do not know which services exist or cannot gain access to them, they have little opportunity to tell someone about the abuse in their lives.

Credibility- “People with disabilities are often considered to be less competent and less reliable as witnesses simply because they have a disability (Cusitar, 1994).”

Recognizing Signs of Abuse:
“Nosek (1996) discusses the actions which people can take to help prevent abuse of people with disabilities. These actions include:

Learning to recognize the signs of abuse, such as:

  • The types of injuries either reported or observed.
  • Behavioral extremes, like hyperactivity and/or mood swings.
  • Sleep disturbance like nightmares.
  • Eating disturbance or loss of weight.
  • Somatic disorders.
  • Fear of intervention.

Listening to, believing and acting on accounts of abuse.

Doing everything within your power to create opportunities for quality personal assistance.

Doing everything in your power to prevent institutionalization.

Acknowledging the sexuality of people with disabilities.

Acknowledging the basic human rights of people with disabilities.

Teaching a healthy questioning of authority figures.

Teaching independent behaviors.

Teaching healthy sexuality.

Reinforcing a positive sense of self.”


What to do if you are being abused:
by National Network to End Domestic Violence


Women don’t have to live in fear: In the US: call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE).

UK: call Women’s Aid at 0808 2000 247.

Australia: call 1800RESPECT at 1800 737 732.

Worldwide: visit International Directory of Domestic Violence Agencies for a global list of helplines and crisis centers.

Male victims of abuse can call:

If you think you are in an abusive relationship, it is important to make a plan to keep yourself and your children safe.  Think of a safety plan like keeping an emergency kit in your car.  Hopefully you won’t need it but if you do, it could save your life.  Here are some things to consider:

In an abusive relationship:

  • Plan how you could get out of the house quickly if your partner becomes violent.  Try to position yourself near a door where you can escape quickly.
  • Put together a suitcase and keep it at a friend or family member’s house.  Put in it clothes for you and the children, needed medicines, important papers, car keys, photographs, money, and emergency phone numbers.  Add anything else you might need if you have to leave suddenly.
  • Tell neighbors about the abuse and have them call the police if they hear noises coming from your house.
  • Talk to your children about how they can keep themselves safe as well.

If you are thinking about leaving a battering relationship:

  • Identify things that have worked in the past to keep you safe.
  • Think about what has happened in the past and how the abuser has acted.  Identify clues that indicate when things might become violent (i.e. behavioral — body language, drug/alcohol use, etc. — and event driven — paydays, holidays, etc.).
  • Identify what you will do if the violence starts again.  Can you call the police?  Is there a phone in the house?  Can you work out a signal with the children or neighbors to call the police or get help?
  • Explore ways to have dangerous weapons (i.e. guns, hunting knives, etc.) removed from the house.
  • Plan an escape route and practice it.  Know where you can go and who you can call for help.  Keep a list of addresses and phone numbers where you can go in crisis and keep them in a safe place.
  • If possible, open a bank account or hide money to establish or increase independence (more financial tips).
  • Gather together the following items and hide them with a trusted individual or somewhere accessible outside the home:
    • Money/cab fare
    • Check book
    • Credit card/ATM card
    • Order of Protection
    • Passport
    • Immigration documents
    • Work permit
    • Public Assistance ID
    • Driver’s license and registration
    • Social Security card
    • Your partner’s Social Security number
    • Medical records
    • Insurance policies
    • Police records
    • Record of violence
    • Children’s school and immunization records
    • Lease
    • Birth certificates
    • Baby’s things (diapers, formula, medication)
    • Medications
    • Clothing
    • Eye glasses
    • Family pictures
    • Address book
    • Important telephone numbers
    • Mobile phone/coins to use a pay phone

After leaving:

  • Change the locks on doors and windows (if the abuser has a key or access to a key).
  • Increase the police’s ability to find your house by having a large visible street address outside the house.
  • Obtain a P.O. Box and forward all your mail to it.
  • Ensure that utility companies will not give out your information to your abuser (more information about confidentiality for victims of domestic violence).
  • Determine the safest way to communicate with the abuser if they must have contact.  If you agree to meet, always do it in a public place (preferably a place with a security guard or police officer), and it’s best to bring someone else.  Make sure you are not followed home.
  • If your partner follows you in the car, drive to a hospital or fire station and keep honking the horn.
  • Create a safety plan for leaving work.  Talk with your supervisor and building security at work and provide a picture of the abuser, if possible.  If you have an Order of Protection, give the security guard or receptionist a copy.
  • Teach your children a safety plan, including calling the police or family and friends if they are taken and where to go during an emergency.
  • Talk to your schools and childcare provider about who has permission to pick up the children and develop other special provisions to protect the children.
  • Keep a journal of harassing phone calls and times you may see your abuser around the work place or neighborhood.  Save and/or print any threatening emails.  Keep a journal of anything that happens between you, the abuser, and the children regarding visitation.

VERA Institute of Justice (A guide for rape crisis, domestic violence and disability organizations)

Disability Advocacy Project (Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence)

References Allington, C.L.J. (1992). Sexual abuse within services for people with learningdisabilities: Staffs’ perceptions, understandings of and contact with the problems of sexual abuse.Mental Handicap, 20, 59-63.
American Psychological Association. (1996).Violence and the family: Report of the American Psychological Association presidential task force on violence and the family. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Benjamin A.E, Matthias, R., Franke, T., Mills, L., Hasenfeld, Y., Matras, L., Park, E.,Stoddard, S., & Kraus, L.(1998, September).Comparing client-directed and agency models for providing supportive services at home final report. Los Angeles, CA: University of California at Los Angeles.
Brown, H., Stein, J., & Turk, V. (1995).The sexual abuse of adults with learning disabilities: Report of a second two-year incidence survey. Mental Handicap Research, 8 (1), 3-24

Nosek, M.A., Rintala, D., Young, M.E.,Clubb Foley, C, Howland, C., Rossi, D.,Chanpong, G., & Bennett, J. (1995, October). Findings on reproductive health and access to health care: National study of women with physical disabilities.Unpublished report, Baylor College of Medicine, The Center for Research onWomen with Disabilities, Houston, TX.
Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs  http://www.wcsap.org/disability-community
National Center on Domestic Violence  http://www.nationalcenterdvtraumamh.org/
World Institute on Disability http://wid.org/access-to-health-care/health-access-and-long-term-services/curriculum-on-abuse-prevention-and-empowerment-cape/recognizing-and-interrupting-abuse-of-adults-with-disabilities
Keeping Students with Disabilities Safe from Bulling http://www.ed.gov/blog/2013/08/keeping-students-with-disabilities-safe-from-bullying/

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