Domestic Violence and the Disabled Community Part I: Defining Domestic Violence

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on October 08, 2020 # Health, Relationships

Domestic abuse hotlines across the United States field more than 20,000 calls each day. These hotlines require an urgent response to a public health crisis that plagues millions of people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men have experienced acts of sexual violence, stalking, and physical violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime; additionally, 43 million women and 38 million men have reported experiencing psychological aggression.

No matter what form it takes, abuse is asserting control over another person against his or her will and can occur in any relationship, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. While this potentially life-threatening issue affects people of every race, socio-economic level, and age group, adults living with disabilities face a significantly higher rate of domestic violence than those without disabilities; women, the elderly, and people with developmental disabilities are especially vulnerable.

Domestic Violence Hotline- 1-800-799-7233

There is no single definition of an abusive relationship within the disabled community: an individual may experience physical, psychological, sexual, or financial abuse or some combination of each. A relationship can be abusive even without violence, and abusers can vary widely, from a husband, partner, or family member to a personal attendant or transportation provider.

Common types of abuse include:

  • Physical – including violent acts such as being choked, beaten, or kicked; being held hostage; and having food withheld or forced sleep deprivation.
  • Sexual – may range from any unwanted physical contact, including kissing and touching the body without consent, to rape; being forced to watch pornography, and being denied the use of contraceptives and control over reproductive decisions.
  • Emotional – including verbal insults, threats, and humiliation; isolation from family and friends; and gaslighting, in which an abuser manipulates and distorts an individual’s sense of reality.
  • Financial – may range from an abuser’s restricting a spouse or partner from access to money or employment to stealing an individual’s paycheck and using his or her credit cards without permission.
  • Medical – including withholding medication and necessary daily care, a particular risk for those living with critical health conditions or disabilities.

The effects of these and many other types of abusive behaviors can destroy the lives of individuals and their families. Physical violence may lead to disability, severe injuries, and sometimes death. But even in abusive relationships that do not involve physical harm, the consequences can be severe and long-lasting: Women who experience domestic violence are more likely to develop an array of secondary health conditions, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, stomach ulcers, heart problems, and substance abuse.

For people with disabilities—especially women– it is important to be aware of the increased risk of abuse. The physical limitations and decreased mobility caused by paralysis sometimes require individuals to seek help with personal care, including intimate acts such as bathing and dressing. Abusive behavior may occur in such vulnerable moments or through the isolation that may be cultivated by an abuser with control over the day-to-day care of a person with a disability.

Understanding how to identify an abusive relationship, and the specific, non-traditional warning signs experienced by those with disabilities, is the first step toward recognizing the problem and seeking help. Coming soon, Part II: Red Flags for People with Disabilities.

For support or more information about domestic abuse, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or text LOVEIS to 1-866-331-9474 for anonymous, confidential help available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Resources and further reading:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Intimate Partner Violence Fact Sheet

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence Statistics

National Domestic Violence Hotline: Abuse & People with Disabilities

American Psychological Association: Abuse of Women with Disabilities Fact Sheet

Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation: Domestic Violence and Disabilities Fact Sheet

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.