Violence and Abuse in the Lives
of People with Disabilities
By Dr. Gregor Wolbring (1994)
Women are most frequently
affected by domestic violence and abuse, but men with disabilities also
are frequently abused. Children are sexually abused, beaten, humiliated
and intimidated by adults mostly from the family or friends of the family.
Disabled people are abused mostly by caregivers whether it is the family
or other disability service providers. Perpetrators of sexual abuse in
the case of disabled people are e.g.:
15-25% natural family members
15% acquaintances and neighbors
30 % disability service
If we compare the abuse and
violence against disabled people with the abuse and violence against women
and children the question arises whether their is a difference in the situation
for disabled people versus the situation of other victims such as women
and children. I will try to illustrate that the situation for disabled
people is worse than for the other victims in at least 3 major points.
1) Disabled people are the
highest risk group for abuse and violence and society isn't even aware
of the problem
2) Support for disabled victims
is much less available than for non disabled victims
3) The abuse and violence
against disabled people is much more commonly accepted and less frequently
punished than for the other victims groups
To point 1)
In the case of abuse of disabled
people, society is absolutely not aware of the extent of abuse against
A variety of studies exist
which show that disabled people are likely to be in higher risk of being
abused than non disabled people.
Sobsey & Varnhagen found
that the risk of people with disabilities is at least one and a half times
as high as for other people. When only more severe forms of abuse are considered
that risk may be three or more times as high as the risk for people without
disabilities. We now know that children with disabilities are more likely
to be abused than other children and have strong evidence that adults disabilities
are more likely to victims of violence. There are a long list of studies
indicating the relative risk for children with and without disabilities.
Crosse, Kaye , and Ratnofsky (1993) provide the methodologically strongest
evidence. Using a nationally representative American sample of 1,788 abused
children in a prospective study. They found that children with disabilities
were 1.67 times as likely to be abused than other children, based on all
categories of abuse and neglect. They were 1.75 times as likely to be sexually
abused and 2.09 as likely to be physically abused. The authors of this
study suggest that their estimates are conservative, based on their models
suggesting that suggested that milder disabilities were probably underdiagnosed
in the sample and that institutional abuse was largely excluded because
of the nature of the sample. In addition, the relative risk is not steady
across ages. The risk for children with disabilities under age 1 is 1.20
times as great and the risk for other children, but for children between
14 and 17 years old, the relative risk has climbed to 2.77 times. This
suggests that risk of violence in adulthood may be even higher. Although
there are fewer and less well-controlled studies of adults, the available
data seem to bear this out. Wilson and Brewer (1992) report an Australian
study suggesting that violent crime victimization is 10 to 12 times more
frequent for people with developmental disabilities than for other adults.
As the last survey I would
like to mention the one carried out by DAWN CANADA. 381 disabled women
took part in a suicide and abuse survey carried out by DAWN Canada, a disabled
In that survey the following
numbers were found. 51.1% of the women had experienced sexual abuse; 66.3%
had experienced emotional abuse; 43.1% had experiennced neglect; 34.8%
had experienced abandonment.
So the first difference between
the abuse of children or women and disabled people is in the numbers. Disabled
people are much more likely to be victims.
To point 2)
To my knowledge no support
programs exist which are able to deal with the specific abuse histories
of disabled people and no coherent policy exist from federal or provincial
governments. And that despite the fact that the problem of violence and
abuse against disabled people is greater than against women or children.
And also no public awareness exist about that problem.
Effects of Violence
A variety of emotional disorders
and symptoms have been described among victims of violence. Many of these
have been documented among people with disabilities as well as those who
do not have disabilities. We compared counsellors' descriptions of behavioral
symptoms in a group of 43 sexually abused children with developmental disabilities
and 43 sexually abused children without disabilities. The groups were matched
for chronological age and gender because there is a higher percentage of
males among abused children with disabilities and they have a higher mean
age. While the overall number of symptoms (possible sequelae) was slightly
greater for the children with disabilities, there were no significant differences
in the frequency of the vast majority of sequelae between the groups. The
few categories where there were significant differences appeared to be
as likely related to disability itself as to the response to abuse. For
example, many more children with disabilities were described as having
problems with neatness.
As seen in the following
table, these 13 findings were reported in at least 25% of the sexually
abused children with disabilities. Although most occurred with greater
frequency in this group than in the control group, most of these differences
were not statistically significant. The differences in the frequencies
that do exist might be related to differences in the intrusiveness of the
abuse or to differences in coping strategies and resilience.
Finding Percent of Abused
Children.. with Disabilities //
[Percent of Abused Children
Aggressive behavior 58% [47%]
Poor self-esteem 53% [51%]
Inappropriate anger 51% [35%]
Poor sense of personal safety
Nightmares 42% [37%]
Lack of sexual information
Emotional detachment 40%
Dissociative episodes 37%
Inappropriate touching 33%
Inappropriate sexual comments
Regression 30% [21%]
Few friends 30% [19%]
Easily led 27% [12%]
Self-abuse 26% [7%]
Again as a last survey I
would like to mention the one carried out by DAWN CANADA. 381 disabled
women took part in a suicide and abuse survey carried out by DAWN Canada,
a disabled women's organisation. The first round of analysis shows that
58.7% of the women who responded to the questionnaire had thought about
killing themselves. Abuse is strongly related to suicidal feelings.
This is the second difference.
Suicide prevention programs exist for a variety of victims (children, women)
and minorities as for example the natives. Hardly any suicide prevention
programs exist which tailor towards the special need of disabled people
and no awareness is raised in society that disabled people are actually
the group of society which is the most likely one to be abused.
To point 3)
Punishment of abuse
Offences against disabled
people are often treated less serious than offences against women and children.
Different euphemisms are used to describe crimes against disabled people
and against women and children and the different use helps to provide a
rationale for reclassifying serious crimes especially those committed within
human services, into mere "administrative infractions".
general term Term applied
to disabled victims
Assault Psychological abuse,
Battery Abuse, punishment
procedure, aversive treatment,
physical prompting, assistance,
Homicide Euthanasia, neglect,
suicide, allow to die
Rape Abuse, professional
Sexual assault Abuse, professional
It is essential that
we classify these crimes properly and respond to them as serious offenses
in order to deter their future occurrence.
On 24 November 1993, Robert
Latimer murdered his 12 year old daughter because she was severely disabled.
Her father had planed the death over several days. Tracy had cerebral palsy.
THe Latimers had recently been notified that there would soon be a permanent
place in a local institution for her. Instead, Tracy's father decided that
she should die. On 16 November 1994, Latimer was convicted of second degree
murder and given the minimum sentence of life with eligibility for parole
in 10 years. (Update: He won an appeal at the supreme court of Canada and
is now scheduled for retrial.) Among sections of the Canadian media he
has become a folk hero: the Latimers had already served a sentence during
the 12 years of Tracy's life; Latimer made a parent's decision to end his
child's suffering, why should he be prosecuted
The Latimer case shows very
clear that society measures in two different ways crimes against disabled
people and against non disabled people. For example take the case that
Latimer would have 10 kids no money lived in the slums no hope to come
out of that and he would have decided to kill his kids because they have
no future with parents who can't support them. Under the same conditions
he would have been convicted of first degree murder as it was a premeditated
act. But it was not enough that Latimer has got the lowest punishment;
he is now appealing for aquittal claiming that he has done it only to the
good of the girl.
In summary I would like to
say that disabled people are at higher risk to be abused the offenders
are likely to be treated more lightly and society's awareness of the situation
of disabled people related to abuse is lower than with the nondisabled
people. Therefore we need to increase awareness, increase support programs
for disabled people and equal the treatment of offences in front of the
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Crosse, S. B., Kaye, E.,
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