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Disability Community

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).

What is the disability community?

If you ask 100 people - all of whom have a disability - if they are part of the "disability community," many of them would probably answer "no."

There are several reasons for this. People with disabilities usually do not live in a neighborhood where they can easily gather to share stories and experiences. There are few religious gatherings, community centers, or coffee shops that cater to people with disabilities.

Many people do not see themselves - or want to be seen by others - as having a disability. For example:

  • The Deaf culture asserts that Deaf individuals do not have a disability - that there is nothing wrong with them that needs fixing. Rather, they are part of a distinct culture or community.
  • Many older people have physical issues that interfere with mobility or degenerative conditions that affect cognition, yet do not want to be seen as disabled.
  • Many people with mental health issues do not claim to have a disability because of the stigma associated with mental illness.

People with disabilities often find themselves alone in a world of people who do not understand what it is like to live with their particular disability. For example, people who are blind may not identify as belonging to the same community as people with cognitive disabilities. People with chemical dependency issues don't identify as belonging to the same community as people who are paralyzed. This results in a lack of one cohesive community, which is why people with disabilities or services providers with expertise in serving people with disabilities may use the term "disability communities" rather than the singular "community."

Without a cohesive community, living with a disability can be isolating. Isolation increases risk of abuse.

People with disabilities experience sexual violence at a higher rate than people without disabilities, and often face limited options when seeking to escape an abusive relationship. The resources they use to maintain autonomy and independence are often controlled and exploited by their abuser. When asked how an abuser "uses your disability against you," survivors with disabilities rattle off a laundry list of tactics. Abusers maintain power over the person through control of:

  • Medical equipment or mobility aids;
  • Finances, often by being appointed as the victim's legal payee;
  • Medications;
  • Disability services (including access to the case manager or social worker);
  • Access to friends and family members who provide necessary support;
  • Access to the telephone or other communication (for example, if a survivor is Deaf or has speech that is difficult to understand, abusers often control communication with others by "translating" for the person).

When someone with a disability wants to leave an abusive relationship, the stakes can be unusually high. If survivors are unable to reconstruct the network of disability-related supports they need, they may end up in an institutional or group setting. Once individuals with disabilities enter into an institutional or group setting, they often spend the rest of their lives there.

Tactics utilized by abusers against survivors with disabilities usually exploit the social bias, misinformation, and stigma surrounding people with disabilities.

Survivors report that they often hear comments such as, "Nobody will believe you, you're crazy." "If you leave me, I'll get the kids. No judge in his right mind would give you custody." "I'll tell them you get nutty when you don't take your meds." Survivors with disabilities repeatedly state that criminal justice system personnel do not treat people with disabilities as credible.

Original information contributed by Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Updated by the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs.


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Reviewed: August 10th, 2016