Domestic Violence and Disabilities

Side view of woman with long dark hair and brown eyes wearing green sweater looking into the distance

Violence against people with disabilities is a significant and overlooked issue. People with disabilities tend to experience more severe intimate partner abuse for longer periods of time. They are more vulnerable to prolonged abuse because they are often isolated from community, reliant on abusers for care, and face high barriers to getting help.

Women with disabilities are 40% more likely to experience domestic violence, while LGBTQ survivors with disabilities are two times more likely to be isolated by their abusive partner, three times more likely to be stalked, and four times more likely to experience financial abuse. These numbers are especially troubling, given that nearly one in four Americans has a disability.

Domestic violence as a cause of disability

A disability is a physical or mental condition limiting a person’s movements, senses, or activities. Not all disabilities are visible, and not everyone who has a limiting condition identifies as having a disability.

Survivors often experience disability because of abuse. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44. Anxiety, broken bones, PTSD, and other injuries can lead to disability. Traumatic brain injuries can leave survivors with debilitating symptoms like headaches, memory loss, and cognitive issues. Many traumatic brain injuries go undiagnosed, but as many as 90% of survivors who experience physical violence sustain at least one head, neck, or face injury.

What abuse looks like for people with disabilities

Abuse may look different for survivors with disabilities and can include:

  • Isolation from community and limited access to a phone, computer, or transportation
  • Using a disability to shame and humiliate or justify abusive behavior
  • Invalidating a disability by claiming it’s fake
  • Withholding, damaging, or destroying assistance devices like hearing aids or wheelchairs
  • Refusing to help with life tasks like using the bathroom or bathing
  • Withholding medication or overmedicating
  • Limiting access to doctors or other specialists
  • Stealing disability income or controlling ability to work
  • Threatening or harming a service animal
  • Forcing touch or sex when consent or resistance is not possible
  • Claiming that a disability makes a person a bad parent
  • Misinterpreting American Sign Language
  • Threatening to “out” a hidden disability

Challenge of leaving an abusive relationship

It can be especially challenging for people with disabilities to leave an abusive relationship. Survivors with disabilities may be concerned about losing autonomy or custody of their children. Others may mistrust medical or court systems or worry about being institutionalized. Money is a big barrier to leaving. Survivors with disabilities often experience financial abuse from their partners and struggle with economic policies that make it hard to escape poverty.

People with mobility issues may lack the transportation to get to a shelter, while people who lack hearing may find it difficult to reach out to a helpline. People with multiple marginalized identities like BIPOC and LGBTQ individuals may have an even harder time accessing resources or being believed by social workers, health professionals, police, and courts.

Additional resources:

ADAWS: Serves Deaf and DeafBlind survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and harassment.

End Abuse of People with Disabilities A resource for individuals, organizations, and government agencies working to end the abuse of people with disabilities.

National Disability Rights Network: Provides legal advocacy services for people with disabilities.