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The Intersections of Disability and Violence
NPR called it the “assault epidemic no one talks about.” Each year, people with disabilities—physical, mental, intellectual, and others—face disproportionate rates of sexual and domestic violence. And too often, they do not receive the support they need.
As many as 1 in 2 disabled women have experienced domestic violence—twice the rate of non-disabled women. People with disabilities also face higher rates of sexual abuse than people without, says the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). According to research by NPR, people with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted seven times more often than those without.
People with disabilities can experience the same types of abuse by their partners or other loved ones as able-bodied people, from emotional abuse to physical assault to rape. However, people with disabilities can also experience abuse related specifically to their disability. This type of abuse may occur in intimate partner relationships or between a disabled person and their caretaker.
Some of these types of abuse can include:
- Withholding treatment: Stealing or hiding medication, withholding medicine when needed or overmedicating, refusing to help with previously agreed-upon tasks like using the bathroom, or limiting access to assistive devices, such as cane or wheelchair
- Sexual abuse: Forcing sex when a partner is incapable of consenting or resisting, making decisions about birth control or reproduction for a partner, or exploiting or humiliating a partner sexually because of their disability
- Emotional abuse: Shaming a partner for their disability, disrespecting a partner’s boundaries, or intentionally startling or scaring a disabled partner
- Economic abuse: Handling all finances alone, not allowing a disabled partner to work, or stealing or using a partner’s disability income for self
- Isolation: Restricting access to others, “outing” disability to others without permission, or removing devices a partner uses to communicate, such as a computer
- Coercion and threats: Threatening to leave or harm a disabled partner, threatening to have a partner institutionalized, or threatening to harm a service animal
- Ableism and belittling: Creating physical barriers to keep a disabled partner from moving around, making relationship decisions alone, or intentionally keeping a disabled partner dependent on the able-bodied partner
- Minimizing and blaming: Lying about abuse to others, blaming the abuse on disability, claiming a partner “deserves” the abuse because of their disability, or saying abuse did not really happen (also known as gaslighting)
People with disabilities can face additional challenges in seeking help, and many do not report their abuse. Services like hotlines and online resources may not be accessible for the visually or hearing impaired, for example, and those with physical disabilities may not be able to travel to receive help. When they do report their experiences, they may be taken less seriously. And people with intellectual disabilities may be unable to testify or otherwise provide reports of their experiences.
Though the effects of this abuse are far-reaching, you can take action to prevent violence against people with disabilities, as well as support survivors. Familiarize yourself with the signs of domestic or sexual violence against people with disabilities, and report any suspected abuse to the adult protective services agency in your state.
You can also find more information from disability-focused organizations like The Arc. Resources such as the “Talk About Sexual Violence” report and videos can provide helpful information and action steps, whether you are a disabled survivor, learning how to support a disabled survivor, or a healthcare professional.
Above all, remember to listen to, believe, and validate survivors when they share their experiences with you. Resources to help are available, and you are not alone.
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual or domestic violence, please know you are not alone. For support after sexual assault, contact RAINN at 1-800-656-4673 or chat at online.rain.org. For support after domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224. Se puede obtener ayuda en Español. Finally, learn how you can support a survivor.