​Domestic Violence and the Disabled Community Part II: Red Flags for People with Disabilities

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on October 22, 2020 # Health, Relationships

Violent behavior is a red flag in any relationship, whether it’s the physical act of hurting another person or throwing plates in a fit of rage. However, many other warning signs mark abusive relationships, including behaviors resulting in medical, financial, or sexual abuse. Though abusive behaviors can vary, all acts of abuse are linked by one factor: Control.

Adults living with disabilities (especially women) experience higher rates of domestic violence than those without. “Traditional” warning signs such as isolating individuals from family or friends and the telltale marks of frequent bruising may be apparent, but it is also important to be aware of less visible red flags specific to individuals with disabilities.

Social Security Disability Insurance checks may be confiscated or stolen, medication withheld or denied, and the use of a walker or wheelchair restricted. A family member or personal attendant may inappropriately touch a person with disabilities while overseeing bathing and changing needs. Frequent bed sores and steady weight loss might signal neglect. The disability itself might be used as a source of emotional abuse, deployed to denigrate individuals by telling them they are inadequate parents or humiliating them because of a bathroom accident.

Additional warning signs of abuse specific to people with disabilities include:

  • Weaponizing essential medical care as a means of control, including withholding or giving incorrect medication; restricting access to assistive devices and equipment; and delaying or refusing visits to doctors, therapists, or healthcare providers.
  • Physical neglect, such as restricting food; suddenly refusing to help with essential tasks as promised, especially bowel and bladder management, and punishing an individual by leaving them in soiled underwear.
  • Gaslighting to manipulate an individual’s sense of reality, including dismissing the disability as fake or imagined.
  • Isolating individuals from family and friends by restricting access to the phone, Internet, disability-related resources, and activities outside the home.
  • Emotional abuse, including telling people with disabilities they deserve the abuse or using the stress of caregiving as an excuse for abuse.
  • Threatening or physically harming service animals.
  • Economic deprivation, including theft of wages or disability checks and limiting access to household accounts or employment.

Women with disabilities face particularly high risks for a range of sexual abuse, from inappropriate touch to rape. Limited mobility and communication challenges can increase vulnerability to unconsented touch from spouse, partner, or caregivers.

Abusive behaviors can develop and intensify over time, and abusers can be anyone who is in close contact with the individual, including intimate partners, adult children, caregivers, transportation providers, and personal attendants.National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233

Adults with disabilities may face additional barriers in reporting abuse: isolation or a lack of independence cause some to feel trapped with an abuser on whom they depend for care; the general public’s lack of awareness around disability needs may cause some individuals to worry that their reports of abuse will not be believed; and the constant physical presence of the abuser, whether a personal assistant or family member, may leave individuals fearful of speaking up.

No one needs to face this struggle alone. Resources and support are available at both state and local levels to help individuals and loved ones recognize, navigate, and safely escape abuse. Coming next, Part III: How to Find Help.

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.

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

Resources and further reading:

National Domestic Violence Hotline: Abuse Defined

National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence: Power & Control Wheel

RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) National Sexual Assault Hotline 1-800-656-HOPE

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence: Signs of Abuse

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.