Violence and Abuse Against Disabled People

Trigger Warning:This page includes information about sexual assault, violence and abuse.

Physical violence and abuse are commonplace in the lives of many disabled people. These stories of violence are almost always individualized. They are painted as individual tragedies (much like disabilities themselves) and this depiction does a grave disservice to disabled people and our experiences. Second wave feminists fought to take violence against women out of the individual sphere and acknowledge that it is systemic. A similar refocusing needs to happen around violence against disabled people, particularly disabled women (who, while they often experience abuse have largely been excluded from feminist movements to address and end violence against women).

Rates of violence against disable people are terrifyingly high. We are one of the groups most frequently victimized by violent crime.

There are numerous tragic stories of people being targeted because they are disabled and subject to public humiliation and violence, yet the United States federal government does not consider an attack on a disabled person because they are disabled to be a hate crime. Legislation to include disability as a federal hate crime was defeated in 2002. Only 32 states recognize disability as a protected group under hate crime legislation. There have been about 1,100 reported hate crimes against disabled people in the United States since 1991.

In Canada, disabled people are supposedly classified as an identifiable group for the purposes of a have crime but it is very rarely used.

Violence Against Disabled Women

Disabled women are especially at risk for violent assault, sexual assault and abuse. There are a number of reasons for this, including double (or sometimes more) marginalization, the perception they are unable to fight back, the reality that the perpetrators of this violence will likely not be criminally charged or convicted and the fact that most anti-violence against women campaigns have failed to adequately address disabled women’s issues, educate disabled women or the public or provide resources for disabled women.

Because our society is constructed (physically and otherwise) to separate disabled and non-disabled people, feminist and governmental programs developed to address violence against women have largely excluded disabled women.

However, disabled women are very likely to be victims of violence. And, at times, the separation disabled women experience makes them more vulnerable. For example, in Toronto, the public transit system is largely physically inaccessible; therefore, women who require accommodation often have to ride Wheeltrans, the wheelchair accessible transportation. Oftentimes, women find themselves alone in a small bus or car with a strange man and are subject to verbal harassment. There have been a number of women who have been sexually assaulted on Wheeltrans as well – they are easy targets because they are alone in a confined space.

DAWN Ontario (DisAbled Women’s Network) found that “women with disabilities are 1.5 to 10 times as likely to be abused as non-disabled women, depending on whether they live in the community or in institutions.”

Women confined to institutions are particularly vulnerable because they are unable to escape, are under the full control of those with power in institutions (doctors, administrators, attendants, nurses, etc.), and are often less likely to be believed (especially if they have intellectual disabilities or are psychiatrized).

Married disabled women are 40% more likely to be victims of violence by their husbands than non-disabled women.

Outside of the institution or in it, the likelihood of those who abuse disabled women being reported, charged and ultimately convicted is extremely small, particularly in regards to intellectually disabled women. One study found that although the offender was known in 95% of the cases, only 22% of the perpetrators were charged with an offence, and only 8%… were convicted.”

A Swedish court found that a paralyzed, intellectually disabled woman was not raped because she could not dissent.

Once women seek help, they often find themselves with no where to go. One 2005 Study by DAWN found that only 1/2 of the women who sought help from houses for abused women were accommodated.

There are also many people who have been murdered because they are disabled.

Experimentation As Assault

The medical establishment is likely the biggest perpetrator of abuse against disabled people. This has included direct sexual or physical assault by doctors and young children and adults being stripped and forced to stand in front of groups of doctors while they analyze and mock disabled people’s bodies.

Medical experiments have often been done on disabled people as well. Frequently, they are done without any consent or information given to the people being subjected to the experimentation. These experiments often result in harm, or even torture to the people who they are forced upon.

There are 4 main reasons why disabled people are so often targeted for experimentation:

  • Disabled people are seen as less than human so the same ethics and moral standards do not apply;
  • Disabled people are deemed unlikely or unable to complain, or litigate if there are abuses;
  • Disabled people are deemed to be biological novelties; and/or,
  • There is a tremendous amount of contempt or even hatred within the scientific community towards disabled people.

Here are just a few examples of how disabled people have been abused, assaulted or even murdered through experimentation:

The Lobotomy: Tens of thousands of people were subject to this brain surgery between 1935 and 1955. Some of the consequences of this surgery are extreme personality changes, impaired judgment, and lack of impulse control.

Quaker Oats Radiation Experiments: dozens of intellectually disabled children at the Fernald State School Massachusetts were fed radiation-spiked cereal in nutrition experiments during the 1940s and 1959s. Their parents were unaware of the experiments.

Plutonium Injections: In the 1940s, the U.S. Government injected 18 “terminally ill” people with high doses of plutonium to see what would happen. Those injected did not consent to the procedure, which likely killed several people. Those who survived were only told about the injections in 1974.

Electro Shock: ECT (Electro Convulsive Therapy) is the treatment of choice for major depression. It has been used in the States since the 1940s and quickly became a favourite procedure of psychiatrists (by 1966 1 in 3 were using it). Doctors still do not know how or why it “works” and it has lead to very serious side effects for a number of people. Some ECT survivors refer to it as torture.

Teeth and Organ Removal: Thousands of psychiatrized people were subject to surgeries to “cure” insanity beginning in the early 1900s Some of the more drastic surgeries had a death rate upwards of 30% and sometimes 40% (not surprisingly, most of the people operated on were women and their surgeries often involved removing reproductive organs).

Violence Against Disabled Children

Disabled children are disproportionately targeted for abuse, whether it is from other kids or from adults. It is very difficult to find any concrete research that has been done on abuse of disabled people and the definitions of disability vary but one thing is clear: disabled kids are neglected, emotionally, physically and sexually abused more than other kids

Disabled 10 and 11 year-olds in Canada were two to almost three times as likely to be bullied all or most of the time as their non-disabled counterparts.

In 1968, the records of all of the kids who were under 15 years old (41-56 years old now) show that 7 in 10 of the children were disabled.

Children with intellectual disabilities are particularly vulnerable, with a third to two-thirds of girls and almost a third of boys experiencing sexual abuse by the time they are 18 years old.

From time to time, there is a horror story about the treatment of disabled children, like the children in Ohio who were locked in cages at night or the rape of an intellectually disabled girl with a baseball bat.

However, the day to day abuses of disabled kids often go unnoticed and unpenalized. Some people believe that this is, in part, caused by the people seeing the abuse – teachers, neighbours, friends and family, attributing it to the extra stress of having a disabled child and fail to intervene to defend the abused or neglected child. This phenomenon may be exacerbated by the belief of the people failing to act, and/or social services that disabled children will not be cared for or have their needs met outside of the home so they tolerate the abuse.

Obviously, this is unacceptable and the presence of a disability is no reason to permit abuse to continue.

Personal Attendants As Perpetrators

Many disabled people rely on attendant care (paid or unpaid) to help do a lot of things from cooking and eating to shopping and going to the bathroom. There is an inherent power imbalance in this relationship because the attendant can withdraw their services at any point – having devastating consequences for the person who needs those services to get by.

This power dynamic, along with the devaluing of disabled people in society, means that the people who are supposed to be providing care for disabled people sometimes become abusers.

One study found that 30 percent of people with personal attendants were mistreated reported mistreatment from their primary provider, and 61 percent reported mistreatment by another provider.

Theft and Extortion:
Commonly, attendants steel from disabled people or extort money knowing that the threat of the loss of care (which literally means going hungry or not being able to go to the bathroom) will keep people from seeking help or ending the relationship with the provider.

Over a quarter of people with “severe” disabilities who rely on attendants have experienced neglect. This could be anything from not cutting food small enough so someone chokes to not checking for bedsores. While it is common, it is not okay.

Physical Abuse:
It is likely that the majority of physical abuse instances involving attendants are when attendants are too rough or don’t listen properly so it results in injury (sometimes the line between this type of physical abuse and neglect is very thin and other times it is clearly physical abuse). Some people intentionally rough handle disabled people in a way that the victim is unsure what was going on, making them less likely to report the attendant or end the relationship.

Sexual Abuse:
This type of abuse can take a number of forms – from inappropriate and unwanted sexual comments to focusing on certain areas of the person receiving the services (especially while bathing or dressing), inappropriate touching, and rape.

What Can Be Done About Attendant Abuse?

The primary thing that needs to happen is a fundamental reorganizing of society and an elimination of oppression, in the interim, there are a lot of other things that people can work to make happen.

Direct Funding:
Disabled people who direct their own care and have more autonomy have less of a power imbalance with the people who are providing care. At least one study has shown that having direct funding does not lead to a reduction in abuse; however, that is a study of the system as it is now – a broken system. If disabled people not only have control over how their funding is used, but also enough funds and staff and hours to not be in a constant precarious position in relation to their care, there would likely be a substantial reduction in the instances of abuse.

Worker Education:
Training schools for attendants and unions should offer anti-ableist training for everyone who is going into the paid attendant care field, nurses and orderlies. A great deal of the cause of abuse is rooted in ableism and helping people develop better politics and understandings of disability will help reduce abuse.

Listen & Believe:
A major fear for many abuse survivors is that no one will believe them. This can be exacerbated by a power imbalance and people’s experiences of discrimination. If someone tries to talk to you about abuse they are experiencing, listen to them and do not brush off what they are saying for any reason, especially their disability.

Talk About It:
If you are being abused by a caregiver, tell someone you trust about it. Even if you take no other action, talking about it will help you process what happened.

Give/Take Direction:
When you are abused you lose control. An important part of the recovery process is ensuring you have the power to direct how it is dealt with. If you are supporting someone, ask them how they want to deal with it and respect that decision. It is the individual’s choice about how to deal with it and if they are forced to seek a remedy they are uncomfortable with it could damage your relationship and work to victimize them further.

In-text links used in this post:

DAWN Ontario

study about the criminal charges laid against perpetrators

The Lobotomy

Quaker Oats Radiation Experiments

Plutonium Injections

Electro Shock

Teeth and Organ Removal

children in Ohio locked in cages

the rape of an intellectually disabled girl