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Disability abuse is when a person with a disability is abused physically, financially, sexually and/or psychologically due to the person having a disability. This type of abuse has also been considered a hate crime.[1] The abuse is not limited to those who are visibly disabled or physically deformed, but also includes those with learning, intellectual and developmental disabilities or mental illnesses.

Risk factors for abuse

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) persons with disabilities make up around 15% of the world's population, children with disabilities are three times more likely to face violence than non-disabled and there is an approximate 50% increased risk of experiencing violence for adults with mental health conditions.[2]

Persons with disabilities are easy targets for predators as they may not have the resources or abilities to escape an abusive situation or communicate about the occurrences. Hard of hearing persons are placed at twice the risk for neglect and emotional abuse in comparison to other disabilities and nearly four times in regards to physical abuse.[3]

Abuse can occur in multiple ways, most commonly seen as physical, emotional, or sexual. Those in the disability population tend to be at higher risk due to lacking skills to protect themselves. Examples include: deficits in communication, limited social environment, disempowerment, and intimate contact required for hygiene dependency.[4]  Further, as there can be tendencies for caretakers to overprotect individuals during their youth, they can more easily be exploited due to a lack of preparation. In facets such as school there is often a lack of efficient sex education for youth with disabilities and in combination of improper training for professionals working with these children, risks increase.[3] Notably there also tends to be overlap between abuse and neglect as childhood care often results in full dependency on care providers due to need for assistance throughout daily activities.[5]

A community-based participatory research study to assess abuse and current physical and mental health of 350 members within varying disabilities found a significant correlation with depressive symptoms and significant relations between childhood abuse and depression, PTSD, and negative physical health outcomes in adulthood. The main finding was that interaction of childhood and adult abuse predicted increased negative physical and psychological health rates for those with developmental disabilities.[5]

Forms of abuse


Main article: Bullying

A 2012 survey by the Interactive Autism Network found that 63% of children with autism are bullied in the United States.[6] Over a third of autistic adults said they had been bullied at work in a survey by the UK's National Autistic Society.[7]

82% of children with a learning disability in the UK are bullied, according to Mencap, and 79% are scared to go out in case they are bullied.[8]

A survey that was done shows that roughly seven out of ten people with disabilities have been abused, and that it is an ongoing problem.[9] It was found that bullying people with disabilities is a problem in various other countries, and lacks attention.[9]

Bullying is not always physical. Verbal bullying and cyberbullying occur often. Catherine Thornberry and Karin Olson claim that carers often dehumanize disabled people, taking away their abilities and qualities that make them a person and lowering them to the level of just an object or a thing. They found that the caregivers or assistants are often the ones who are unintentionally bullying the disabled individuals. The caregivers look at the individuals at lower standard than they do other people, leading to Thornberry and Olson labeling abuse of disabled individuals as a hate crime.[10]

Sexual abuse

Main article: Sexual abuse

According to Valenti-Hein & Schwartz, only 3% of sexual abuse cases involving developmentally disabled people are ever reported, more than 90% of developmentally disabled people will experience sexual abuse at some point in their lives, and 49% will experience 10 or more abusive incidents.[11]

A study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry by Sequeira, Howlin, & Hollins found that sexual abuse is associated with a higher incidence of psychiatric and behavioural disorder in people with learning disabilities in a case-control study. Sexual abuse was associated with increased rates of mental illness and behavioural problems, and with symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Psychological reactions to abuse were similar to those observed in the general population, but with the addition of stereotypical behavior. The more serious the abuse, the more severe the symptoms that were reported.[12]

Sexual abuse is less likely to be reported by individuals with disabilities. The people that surround these individuals are often found to be less likely to report these cases of abuse. Many societies still view disabled people as weak and vulnerable, making it easy for the abuser to feel no remorse or to shift the blame away from themselves. More often than not, people figure they can trust their physicians or doctors who provide care for these individuals. In a clinical study it was found that the physicians would provide poor quality of care to individuals with disabilities. They would suppress the problems instead of addressing them by giving them drugs to make them be quiet. It was also found that physicians were less likely to report sexual abuse or any abuse that they found present on these individuals. They justified these actions by believing that disabled people are less valuable.[13]

Institutional abuse

Main article: Institutional abuse

Institutional abuse overwhelmingly impacts people with disabilities, as those with intellectual disabilities and some physical disabilities often live in institutional settings. Hospitals and care homes can both be settings where abuse occurs.[14] Severe disability is a factor that increases the likelihood of elder abuse and neglect in nursing homes in Portugal.[15]

Impacts of abuse

There was one study done that shows 60 per cent of the children with disabilities come forth about being bullied regularly, versus 25 per cent of the students who are being bullied with no disabilities.[16] This can also affect their learning and school and education. Their grades are more at risk in dropping, they have a more difficult time concentrating, and there is no interest in school and the learning material. All of this can lead to the child dropping out of school.[17]

Current policies and research

There are policies such as Article 16 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities which calls for appropriate measures needed to protect all persons with disabilities in all locations, from all forms of abuse. WHO made a statement emphasizing poor public health surveillance of child maltreatment across the world which has been conveyed through examples such as the Adverse Childhood Experience questionnaire[3] which has been used to gain better understanding of the prevalence of abuse occurring worldwide, but comparisons can be challenging due to differing policies between regions.

Additional policies like the United States Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act passed in 1974 and reauthorized in 2019 created a state-based child abuse reporting and response system that requires professionals to be legally mandated to make a government report if a child alludes to the possibility of abuse or neglect to see if an investigation is needed.[3]

See also


  1. ^ Quarmby, Katharine. "Scapegoat: Why we are failing disabled people". Portobello, 2011.
  2. ^ Mikton, Christopher; Maguire, Holly; Shakespeare, Tom (2014-11-01). "A Systematic Review of the Effectiveness of Interventions to Prevent and Respond to Violence Against Persons With Disabilities". Journal of Interpersonal Violence. 29 (17): 3207–3226. doi:10.1177/0886260514534530. ISSN 0886-2605. PMID 24870959. S2CID 25563313.
  3. ^ a b c d Palusci, Vincent J. (2011), "Epidemiology of Sexual Abuse", Child Abuse and Neglect, Elsevier, pp. 16–22, doi:10.1016/b978-1-4160-6393-3.00003-8, ISBN 9781416063933, retrieved 2021-12-18
  4. ^ Wilczynski, Susan M.; Connolly, Sarah; Dubard, Melanie; Henderson, Amanda; Mcintosh, David (2015). "Assessment, Prevention, and Intervention for Abuse Among Individuals with Disabilities". Psychology in the Schools. 52 (1): 9–21. doi:10.1002/pits.21808. ISSN 1520-6807.
  5. ^ a b Hughes, Rosemary B.; Robinson-Whelen, Susan; Raymaker, Dora; Lund, Emily M.; Oschwald, Mary; Katz, Marsha; Starr, Albert; Ashkenazy, Elesia; Powers, Laurie E.; Nicolaidis, Christina; Hughes, Rosemary B. (2019-04-01). "The relation of abuse to physical and psychological health in adults with developmental disabilities". Disability and Health Journal. 12 (2): 227–234. doi:10.1016/j.dhjo.2018.09.007. ISSN 1936-6574. PMID 30655190. S2CID 58620983.
  6. ^ "Survey finds 63% of children with autism bullied". CBS News.
  7. ^ Cassidy, Sarah (2012-05-14). "Autistic adults bullied and not supported at work, poll shows". The Independent (UK). London.
  8. ^ "Eight of out 10 disabled children bullied, report finds". Mencap. 2007-06-18. Retrieved 2016-10-23.
  9. ^ a b "Survey Finds Disability Abuse Widespread". Disability Scoop. 2013-09-04. Retrieved 2016-03-09.
  10. ^ Thornberry, Catherine, and Karin Olson. "The Abuse of Individuals with Developmental Disabilities." Developmental Disabilities Bulletin 33.1-2 (n.d.): 1-19. EBSCO Host. Web. 22 Apr. 2014.
  11. ^ "People with Mental Retardation & Sexual Abuse" (PDF). by Leigh Ann Davis. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-03-18.
  12. ^ Sequeira, H, Howlin, P, Hollins, S (2003). "Psychological disturbance associated with sexual abuse in people with learning disabilities. Case-control study". British Journal of Psychiatry. 183 (5): 451–456. doi:10.1192/bjp.183.5.451. PMID 14594922.
  13. ^ Ryan, Ruth; Salbenblatt, James; Schiappacasse, Joseph; Maly, Bernard (2001). "Physician unwitting participation in abuse and neglect of persons with developmental disabilities". Community Mental Health Journal. 37 (6): 499–509. doi:10.1023/A:1017526112637. PMID 11504143. S2CID 34002240.
  14. ^ Kamavarapu, Y.S.; Ferriter, Michael; Morton, S.; Völlm, B. (February 2017). "Institutional Abuse – Characteristics of Victims, Perpetrators and Organsations: a Systematic Review". European Psychiatry. 40: 45–54. doi:10.1016/j.eurpsy.2016.07.002. PMID 27837673. S2CID 39356961.
  15. ^ Frazão, Sofia Lalanda; Correia, Ana Margarida; Norton, Pedro; Magalhães, Teresa (November 2015). "Physical abuse against elderly persons in institutional settings". Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine. 36: 54–60. doi:10.1016/j.jflm.2015.09.002. hdl:10216/114702. PMID 26397767.
  16. ^ "Top 10 facts parents, educators, and Students need to Know". Bullying and Harassment of Students with Disabilities.
  17. ^ "Top 10 facts parents. educators, and students need to know". National Bullying prevention center.

Further reading