Abusive Relationships and People Experiencing Disability

Occasionally, we hear public service announcements highlighting the facts, dangers, and signs of domestic violence. But, seldom is it a […]

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Occasionally, we hear public service announcements highlighting the facts, dangers, and signs of domestic violence. But, seldom is it a topic of daily, weekly, or even monthly discussion among family and friends unless they or someone they know is impacted by it. Similarly, disability is rarely approached by individuals outside of the aging and disability community. Dialogue involving violence encountered by individuals with disability during health care, dating, romantic, and sexual relationships is virtually silent.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence, as physical, sexual, or psychological harm by a current or former partner or spouse. It also includes threats. According to the Center, approximately 8.5 million incidents of intimate partner violence occur each year among people 18 years of age and older. Although anyone can experience abuse, studies generally focus on women as they encounter and report abuse more often than men. One study discovered that at least one out of four women and one out of five men had experienced some sort of physical, sexual, or psychological abuse during their lifetime. Common injuries range from scratches, bruises, and welts to more serious and long-term conditions such as central nervous system abnormalities, gastrointestinal difficulties, heart problems, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Historically, little has been known about the unique effects of abuse on women with physical disabilities. In recent years, work by various advocates, health care professionals, and researchers have been uncovering new information. Dr. Dena Hassouneh-Phillips is one such person examining and raising awareness of this very important issue. Her most recent paper, “I Thought I was Less Worthy: Low Sexual and Body Esteem and Increased Vulnerability to Intimate Partner Abuse in Women with Physical Disabilities,” was published in the December issue of Sexuality & Disability.

Dr. Hassouneh-Phillips shared several findings with us during a recent exchange of e-mails. She said, “Women with physical disabilities experience violence at similar or higher rates than women in the general population. Women with physical disabilities are also more likely to be abused by multiple perpetrators than non-disabled women. Although women with physical disabilities experience the same types of abuse that non-disabled women experience, they also suffer from care-related and disability-related forms of abuse. Care-related abuse and disability-related abuse are intentional harmful or potentially harmful acts that are related in some way to disability-status. Care-related abuse is always perpetrated by a care provider. Funded by the Paralyzed Veterans of America, I am conducting an ongoing study with individuals with spinal cord injury and dysfunction. Based on these findings, women with physical disabilities who experience abuse have an increased risk for the onset of secondary conditions such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Currently abused women are also less likely to engage in healthy behaviors such as eating well, exercising, and accessing preventative health care.”

Dr. Phillips also indicated that individuals surviving previous abuse and individuals physically relying on others for personal assistance are at greater risk for abuse. In addition, she identified a few “warning signs” of abusers, such as “controlling behavior, jealousy, alcohol and drug use, and past history of violent behavior.” Regarding identifying individuals who have experienced or are experiencing abuse, she said some signs are “increased social isolation, onset or increased use of alcohol or drugs, psychological distress and depressed mood, and physical injury.”

Finally, Phillips said, “Women with physical disabilities who use wheelchairs often have limited options for fleeing their abusers for a number of reasons. First, many women rely on their abusers for essential personal care. Second, many women have accessible home environments set up to maximize their functional status. For this reason, when a woman has to suddenly leave her home she may also lose some or much of her functional ability. Third, some women with physical disabilities cannot physically flee from their abusers. Fourth, many local shelters are not physically accessible. [Some strategies that could be employed in local communities, which would help women with physical disabilities stay safe, are: checking the physical accessibility of local domestic violence shelters, organizing systems to provide emergency back-up care, and finding ways to remove abusers from women’s homes.]”

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse or would like more information about abusive relationships and potential assistance, please feel free to contact either the National Domestic Violence Hotline or the Communication Service for the Deaf of Minnesota. The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached via telephone at 1-800-799-7233 or at www.ndvh.org. Individuals experiencing deafness or difficulty hearing can contact the Communication Service for the Deaf of Minnesota at 1-800-759-8331 or at www.c-s-d.org. Links to additional sources of information can also be found on our Web site, see organizations.

Editor’s Note

We would like to thank Dr. Dena Hassouneh-Phillips for her valuable contributions and tremendous guidance developing this article. She has worked as an advocate, health care provider, and researcher in the field of intimate partner violence since 1991. Currently, Dr. Hassouneh-Phillips is an assistant professor with the Oregon Health & Science University’s School of Nursing. Her research primarily focuses on violence against women from often-under-served and often-neglected populations.


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