Research on abuse of people who experience a disability is still a relatively new field, and is limited in number and methodology. While there is no single source research that reliably details how many people who experience a disability may be the victims of abuse, there is limited research that suggests that people with disabilities are abused in alarming numbers, at rates significantly higher than their nondisabled general population.
In 2012, for example, 1.3 million violent crimes—including rape and physical assault—occurred against people with disabilities and that number has been steadily increasing since 2008, making people with disabilities one of the most harmed and at-risk groups in the United States.
Individuals who experience a disability are at greater risk of being victimized. They are 3 times more likely to experience violent victimization as adolescents and adults; 3 times more likely to experience rape, sexual assault, aggravated assault, and robbery; 3 times more likely to be sexually abused as children; 1.6 times more likely to experience abuse or neglect as children; and, 1.5 times more likely to experience repeated abuse or neglect as children.
The risk of violent victimization is even greater for some categories of people who experience a disability including women who experience a disability, people who experience cognitive or developmental disabilities, people who experience a psychiatric disability, and people who experience multiple disabilities.
There are several factors that contribute to people who experience a disability having higher rates of victimization than their nondisabled general population correlates. These include the following:
- Perceptions of vulnerability: Individuals who experience a disability are often perceived as being especially vulnerable by reason of their disability.
- Concern about being believed: Negative life experiences of many individuals who experience a disability has conditioned them to expect that people with disabilities are frequently devalued, and are commonly perceived as being less smart, less capable, less able, and not deserving of being treated with dignity and respect. As a result, they may feel that they would likely not be believed were they to attempt to report abuse they experience, and will hesitate to do so.
- Isolation: Individuals who experience a disability often routinely experience isolation in their day-to- day lives because of the social segregation that may exist between people with disabilities and those without a disability. Due to this, they may lack access to someone in proximity to them with whom they could discuss their situation and who could offer counsel on how they should best proceed.
- Uncertainty on how to report: How to report abuse, to whom to report it, and what the reporting procedures are not known by most abuse victims nor is it clear to them how they can go about securing such knowledge.
- Reporting mechanisms present structural barriers: Reporting mechanisms or agencies may have structural barriers built into their operations which can pose barriers or obstacles to ready and easy engagement with individuals seeking access to services.
- Fear of losing support: By reason of who the perpetrator is (a spouse, a partner, a family member, a caregiver, a neighbor, etc.), and the degree of reliance (day-today functioning, care, shelter) the individual with a disability has on the perpetrator, many may feel they must endure the abuse if they want continued access to the supports or helps the perpetrator provides to them.
- Lack of access to advocates: The individual may lack access to a knowledgeable and informed advocate, who is able to provide them with information to make decisions on how to address their abuse situation, and who will continue to be available as an ongoing resource while the person takes the necessary steps to satisfactorily address and resolve their abuse situation.
The Our Lives Program is designed to give individuals who experience a disability an opportunity, in a community-based disability services organizational environment with which they are familiar, to access information on different types of abuse, conduct a structured self-assessment of their own situation to identify either manifest or latent abuse-related vulnerabilities that might be a feature of their own lives, receive support to self-determine how they wish to address those vulnerabilities if they exist, ongoing support to help facilitate successful engagement and interaction with external abuse-related services organizations, agencies or facilities, develop a forward-looking safety plan – with action steps – by which the individual can markedly improve their day-to- day safety profile, and an opportunity to interact, on a peer-to- peer basis, with other individuals who have had abuse experiences and who also experience a disability. All of this is done in a facilitated process in collaboration with Our Lives-trained individual Centers for Independent Living disability peer advocates.