Abuse in Disability Communities

Studies show that people with disabilities are more likely to experience abuse than people without them. Abuse is premised on power and control, and people with disabilities often face specific barriers to accessing help that make them more vulnerable to abuse.

The Equal Rights Center offers four keys ways that disability intersects with domestic violence:

Abuse can cause temporary or permanent disability.

People with disabilities experience higher rates of domestic violence, sexual assault, and abuse.

Violence, assault, and abuse against people with disabilities often takes on non-traditional forms.

People with disabilities face additional barriers when seeking help.

Non-traditional forms of abuse impacting people with disabilities can make it difficult to identify the abuse when it occurs. Examples of non-traditional expressions of abuse include:

  • Telling you that you “aren’t allowed” to have a pain flare up.
  • Stealing or withholding Social Security Disability checks.
  • Telling you that you’re a bad parent or can’t be a parent because of your disability. Invalidating or minimizing a disability with claims that you’re “faking it.”
  • Using a disability in an effort to shame or humiliate you.
  • Refusing to help you complete necessary life tasks, including using the bathroom or dispensing medication.Withholding or threatening to withhold medication, or intentionally giving you incorrect doses by over-medicating or mixing medications in a dangerous or non-prescribed way.
  • Sexual activity if your disability makes you incapable of giving consent.
  • Withholding, damaging, or destroying assistive devices.
  • Preventing you from seeing a doctor.
  • Threatening to “out” your disability to others if it’s non-visible or carries social stigma.
  • Harming or threatening to harm your service animal.
  • Using your disability to justify an abusive partner’s behavior.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), first adopted in 1990, provides for certain legal requirements intended to benefit people with disabilities and defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities.”

This definition can’t fully capture all the complexities of disability and the ADA is primarily a place to start when it comes to disability and its intersections with relationship abuse: under Title II, social services including domestic violence shelters must be made accessible for people with disabilities; Title III includes accessibility measures for public accommodations, which generally means spaces open to the public including counseling offices, legal services, doctor’s offices, translation services, and other shelters.

The ADA’s requirements mean that public spaces are required by law to:

  • Admit people with disabilities. People with disabilities must have an equal opportunity to benefit from programs, services, and activities. They must be treated equally and may not be excluded from places like shelters on the basis of disability, including mental health disabilities or HIV.
  • Provide reasonable accommodations. Reasonable accommodations entail adjustments to existing policies, practices, or procedures to provide equal services to people with disabilities. Reasonable accommodations must be made unless they entail significant difficulty or expense. For example, a shelter could adjust a pet policy to admit an individual with a service dog.
  • Eliminate structural barriers to access. The ADA requires that buildings be made free of structural barriers for people with disabilities. Newer buildings will generally take this into consideration during construction, but because certain exceptions may be made on the basis of significant difficulty or expense, older buildings sometimes still possess significant barriers to access (like a lack of elevators in a building).

Our advocates are available 24/7 by phone or chat to discuss your situation and help you identify your options. Note: advocates at The Hotline are mandatory reporters of abuse for people with disabilities. If confidentiality is a concern for you, we advise you not to disclose any identifying information when you contact us.

Disability covers a wide range of identities and communities, and the ways in which they intersect with domestic violence appear in different forms.

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