Abuse of Persons with Disabilities
The abuse of persons with disabilities is defined as the physical, sexual, emotional abuse or exploitation of any person with developmental, physical or intellectual disabilities (Baladerian, Coleman, and Stream, 2013). Abuse of persons with disabilities is often underreported and unrecognized despite the fact that they are more than three times likely to be abused than a person without disabilities (Baladerian et al., 2013). Being disabled makes people vulnerable to abuse regardless of what category of disability they fit in; though there are some disabilities that appear more likely to experience abuse and also fail to report it.
Prevalence of Abuse
Baladerian et al., (2013) surveyed over 7000 persons with disabilities, family members, service providers, professionals, response personnel, and advocates in an effort to determine the types and frequency of abuse suffered by people with disabilities. While others were included, most of the people who took the survey were directly connected to disability issues either as a person with a disability or having an immediate family member with a disability (Baladerian et al., 013).
Of those surveyed with disabilities, over 70% reported being a victim of abuse at some point in their lives, with more than 63% of parents or family members reporting their relative had experienced abuse (Baladerian et al., 2013).
The survey conducted by Baladerian et al. (2013) found that the type of disability was related to the number of abuse incidents: Mental health conditions (74.8%), speech disability (67.1), autism (66.5%), intellectual or developmental disability (62.5%) and a mobility disability (55.2%).
Types and Frequency of Abuse
Baladerian et al. (2013) found that the prevalence of abuse varied with the type of abuse experienced. Dixon, Biggs, Stephens, and Tinker (2013) found that abuse could occur in singlular or multiple acts and could be:
Physical, verbal or psychological, it may be an act of neglect or omission to act, or it may be when a vulnerable person is persuaded to enter into a financial or sexual transaction to which he or she has not consented or cannot consent.
The most common form of abuse experienced was verbal or emotional abuse at 87.2% (Baladerian et al., 2013). Physical and sexual abuse accounted for 50.6% and 41.6% of abuse reports respectively (Baladerian et al., 2013). Neglect accounts for 37.7% of abuse incidents (Baladerian et al., 2013). Of those surveyed, 31.5% reported experiencing some type of financial abuse (Baladerian et al., 2013). It is also important to note that the statistics related to the abuse of disabled persons is considered to be very unreliable due to a failure to report (Sin, Sheikh, & Hohini, 2012).
Baladerian et al. (2013) report that sexual abuse showed the most varied responses according to the type of disability the victim had: mental health conditions (47.4%), intellectual or developmental disabilities (34.2%), mobility disabilities (31.6%), and autism (24.9%). More research needs to be conducted to determine if it is the type of disability or the sensitive nature of sexual abuse that has resulted in such vast differences in reporting prevalence. It is curious that minor abuse is the most often reported.
The frequency of abuse experienced by persons with disabilities is stunning. Over 90% report being abused multiple times with 57% of them stating they had been abused more than 20 times, and 46% reporting it had occurred on countless occasions (Baladerian et al., 2013). The abuse can occur in any setting and in any type of relationship (Dixon et al., 2013)
Perpetrators of Abuse
Abuse can occur in many settings, from a home or school environment to community and residential settings. Dixon, Biggs, Stephens, and Tinker (2013) report that current definitions of both abuse and perpetrators vary widely and include content that is both imprecise and subjective. The lack of concise and comprehensive definitions leads to random and subjective awareness, prevention, and interventions of abuse situations (Brammer & Biggs, 1998).
Dixon, Biggs, Stephens, and Tinker (2013) highlight the many ways in which current definitions of a perpetrator fail to recognize the complexities of abuse and neglect and the relationships involved therein. There is often is a lack of balance between concerns about the experience of the victim and what the perpetrator intended (Brandl et al., 2007). There is also a problem with the generally accepted idea that perpetrators of abuse must be in a position of trust. Dixon et al., (2013) point out that there are many instances in which abuse occurs that a trust relationship does not exist because they have not “assumed a duty of care.”
One consistent characteristic of an abuser is the desire or need for power and control (Brandl et al., 2007). For them, a person who is in some way disabled is the perfect target (Brandl et al., 2007). A physically disabled person may not be able to defend himself or herself from physical or sexual assault or remove themselves from neglectful situations (Brammer & Biggs, 1998). A person who is mentally disabled may not know or understand that abuse is happening to them or have the capacity to report their abuse (Brandl et al., 2007). Having a disability can also change the power dynamics in such a way that the victim is dependent on their abuser, which also makes getting out of the situation difficult (Brandl et al., 2007).
There are many cases in which social and economic pressures along with a caregiver’s inability to cope can lead to a person becoming a perpetrator (Brinig, 2012). Many relationships are based on reciprocity in some form or fashion but when caring for a person who is disabled, especially if those disabilities are severe, there is little compensation for the effort they put forth and the person who is disabled becomes a scapegoat (Brinig, 2012). This is also known as caregiver fatigue or stress (Brandl et al., 2007).
Systemic Responses to Abuse
A lack of information, fear, and the belief that nothing would happen are the primary reasons that persons with disabilities and their loved ones fail to report abuse (Baladerian et al., 2013). These numbers fail to improve regardless of the seriousness of the abuse and only slightly improve with family member involvement (Baladerian et al., 2013).
Many of those tasked with reporting, investigating, and prosecuting those who have perpetrated abuse against a person who is disabled are ill prepared for that task. Sin, Sheikh, and Hohini (2012) report that there is poor accountability and a lack of training and support for professionals. There are limited policies and procedures that are specifically designed to meet the needs of those in the community who are disabled (Sin, Sheikh, & Hohini, 2012). For the most part the agencies who are tasked with handling the abuse do not have the experience or training necessary to create effective intervention and
Those within the disabled community see how the authorities treat other victims and come to believe that their attempts to hold the abuser accountable are futile. Statistics related to prosecution and conviction of abuse strongly support those fears. In 52.9% of cases where someone with a disability reported abuse, nothing happened and only 9.8% of the perpetrators were ever arrested (Baladerian et al., 2013). Numbers diminished when family members made the reports with nothing happening in 42.8% of cases and only 7.8% of alleged perpetrators being arrested (Baladerian et al., 2013).
A lack of information and understanding about what abuse is and the importance of reporting is the primary hindrance for the arrest and prosecution of those responsible for abusing person with disabilities (Baladerian et al., 2013). Family members, community members, and services providers should also be educated about indicators of abuse and proper reporting and intervention methods to ensure they are able to protect those who are unable to protect themselves (Baladerian et al., 2013).
Even when a disabled person reports their abuse and either the perpetrator is punished or they are removed from the situation, the extreme lack of services and placements make it so that the victim doesn’t have a place to go (Baladerian et al., 2013).
With only 37.3% of abuse victims reporting abuse to authorities, it is no wonder that so few perpetrators ever face arrest or prosecution (Baladerian et al., 2013). Family member involvement improves these numbers only slightly to 51.7% (Baladerian et al., 2013).
Many states offer victim compensation programs, yet less than 5% of disabled persons benefit from these type of programs (Baladerian et al., 2013). Victim compensation programs often include therapy and other support services that could be highly beneficial to the person who has been abused. Despite this, over 65.4% of abuse victims who have a form of disability never receive any type of counseling or therapy (Baladerian et al., 2013). This is tragic because when those who have received therapy have found that it was helpful.
The population of disabled persons is in great need of change to the way abuse is determined, reported, and handled. Even with disabled persons being three times more likely to be abused, there is yet to be a single federal employee who is tasked with handling abuse (Brandl et al., 2007). A lack of organization and information oftentimes lead to a failure of victims and their families to report as well as anything to be done when they do. Our most vulnerable members of society have little to no protection; remaining at the mercy of the negligent, overwhelmed, or cruel.
Baladerian, N. J., Coleman, T. F., & Stream, J. (2013). Abuse of people with disabilities: Victims and their families speak out. A Report on the 2012 National Survey on Abuse of People with Disabilities, , 1-39. Retrieved from http://disability-abuse.com/survey/survey-report.pdf
Brammer, A., & Biggs, S. (1998). Defining elder abuse. Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law, 20(3), 285-305. doi:10.1080/09649069808410253
Brandl, B., Dyer, C. B., Heisler, C. J., Otto, J. M., Stiegal, L. A., & Thomas, R. W. (2007). Elder Abuse Detection and Intervention. New York, New York: Springer Publishing Company, LLC.
Brinig, M. F. (2012). Explaining abuse of the disabled child. Family Law Quarterly, 46(2), 269-296. Retrieved from https://ezproxy.shsu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1272443428?accountid=7065
Dixon, J., Biggs, S., Stephens, M., & Tinker, A. (2013). Defining the "perpetrator": Abuse, neglect and dignity in care. The Journal of Adult Protection, 15(1), 5-14. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/14668201311299872
Sin, C. H., Sheikh, S., & Hohini, K. (2012). Police readiness for tacklling hate crime against people with learning disabilities-areas for improvement and examples of good practice. Safer Communities, 11(3), 145-153. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/17578041211244058