Medical Whistleblower Advocacy Network

Human Rights Defenders

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

 Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Article 1



Why Are the Disabled More Vulnerable?


According to US statistics a person with a disability is 4 to 10 times more likely to be a victim of a crime than a person without a disability.  60% of women with hearing impairments, 59% of women with visual impairments, 57% of women with learning disabilities, and 47% of women with mobility impairments will be physically abused in their lifetimes.   81% of people with psychiatric disabilities have been physically or sexually assaulted. 85% of women with disabilities have been victims of some form of domestic abuse.  Women with disabilities stay in relationships with their batters almost twice as long as women without disabilities.  

According to one Canadian Study about 14.7% of women in the general population have disabilities.In both the disabled and non-disabled communities, most abuse is inflicted by a person known to the victim. In both communities, 95% of victims of spousal assault are women,6 and at least 89% of abusers are men.7 More disabled men are abused than are non-disabled men. The incidence of abuse is 20% or higher in the developmentally disabled and deaf community.8

Probably the single biggest factor affecting the incidence of family violence against women with disabilities is the extent of these women's "families". Women with disabilities must often depend on a variety of people to provide them with assistance in carrying out their everyday lives. For this reason, their "family" is understood to include not only parents, husbands, boyfriends and other relatives, but also friends, neighbors and caregivers.

Caregivers can include attendants, interpreters, homemakers, drivers, doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, psychiatrists, therapists, counselors, and workers in hospitals and other institutions. This large number of people and the intimate physical and emotional contact involved in the care they provide, greatly increase the risk of abuse to persons with disabilities.

Women who live in institutional settings, and women who are multiply or profoundly disabled, are most vulnerable to abuse because they are more dependent upon even larger numbers of people, and less able to get away. It is estimated 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. (1)

While a disability can make it more difficult for a woman to escape or report abuse, social attitudes towards persons with disabilities are probably a bigger factor in her increased vulnerability to violence. The way in which society views persons with disabilities handicaps these women in many ways:

  • they tend to be viewed and treated as children, as lacking intelligence;
  • they may be trained to be compliant and are sometimes punished for assertiveness or for challenging authority figures. This is in direct contrast to the street-proofing taught to many children in schools;
  • women with disabilities are considered to be non-sexual and are often not given sex education, which can result in an inability to distinguish between abusive behavior and normal or necessary forms of touching;
  • they may be considered incompetent witnesses by police and the courts, particularly if they have difficulty or require assistance in communicating; and
  • when they do report abuse, they may not be believed.(2)Women with disabilities are vulnerable at all stages of their lives because they are women and because they have a disability. Growing old increases the likelihood of becoming disabled, which can increase the likelihood of abuse.(3)

It should be noted that abuse can result in disability. Physical abuse can cause permanent physical damage. "Disciplining" babies by shaking them is a major cause of brain injury and death in infants.(4)  Women have cited violence by husbands as causing loss of vision, and loss of mobility.(5) All forms of abuse are emotionally traumatic and can leave psychological scars from which a victim never recovers.


  • Research has only just begun in this area, but indications are that women and children with disabilities are one of the most highly victimized groups in our society.
  • A survey conducted in 1985 by DAWN Canada: DisAbled Women's Network found that violence and fear of violence were the most critical issues facing women with disabilities.(6)
  • The degree of risk of sexual abuse of persons with disabilities "appears to be at least 150% of that for individuals of the same sex and similar age without disabilities".(7)
  • It is estimated that only 20% of the cases of sexual abuse involving disabled people are ever reported to the police, community service agencies, or other authorities.(8)
  • Two hundred and forty-five women with disabilities responded to DAWN Canada's 1988 Canada-wide questionnaire:

40% had been raped, abused or assaulted;

  • 53% of women who had been disabled from birth or early childhood had been abused;
  • women with multiple disabilities had experienced multiple abuse; and
  • 10% of women who had been abused sought help from transition houses; only half of these women were accommodated.(9)
  • One study suggests that we can expect to encounter significant disabilities in about one of every seven victims of child sexual abuse. This can be expected to increase as case reporting for children with disabilities improves. (10)


It is extremely difficult for any abused woman to leave a situation of abuse. "A woman is hit by a husband or partner an average of 35 times before she calls the police."(11) Battering undermines self-esteem and can make a woman feel she is somehow responsible for her own abuse. For a woman with a disability, this situation is even more difficult.

She may be dependent on her abuser for affection, communication and financial, physical and medical support. If she reports the abuse, she may risk poverty and loss of housing. She may fear she will not be heard or believed if she speaks out. She may face further violence, institutionalization, or loss of her children if she seeks help. She may not have access to information about existing support services for victims of violence.

Even if she has this information, many sources of support are not be accessible. She may not be able to contact the police or women's shelters because they do not have communication devices such as Telecommunication Devices for the Deaf (TDDs). She may not be able to physically leave her situation because of a lack of accessible transportation.

Her lack of options may leave her feeling so powerless and despairing that suicide seems the only viable choice. And if she seeks help in dealing with suicidal thoughts or attempts, she is unlikely to find counselling which takes account of her own reality. And so she is left isolated and possibly suicidal.


Violence against women with disabilities can take many forms, which can occur at the same time. It occurs not only as deliberate maltreatment and abuse, but also in the more passive form of neglect:

  • neglect - denial of food, lack of or inappropriate personal or medical care;
  • physical abuse - assault, rough or inappropriate handling, inappropriate personal or medical care, overuse of restraint, inappropriate behavior modification, overmedication, confinement;
  • psychological abuse - verbal abuse, intimidation, social isolation, emotional deprivation, denial of the right to make personal decisions, threat of having her children taken away;
  • sexual abuse - denial of a woman's sexuality, denial of sexual information/education (e.g.. about birth control and childbirth), verbal harassment, unwanted sexual touching, assault, forced abortion or sterilization; and
  • financial exploitation - denial of access to and control over her own funds, misuse of financial resources.


The abuser occupies and violates a position of power with respect to the victim. The abuser may:

  • use authority over the victim to obtain "consent" for sexual contact;
  • attempt to justify sexual abuse by rationalizing that he is doing the victim a favour because nobody else would be sexually interested in her;
  • threaten the victim with violence or death if she tells anyone;
  • use the victim's disability or difficulty in communicating to discredit her story if she tells; and
  • is more likely to be believed than the victim, particularly if he is in a position of authority.

Hate Crimes against the Disabled

The social history of the lives of people with disabilities in the United States is largely a story of lives lived on the margins — of school, the workplace, the community, and society in general.  People with disabilities are mostly marginalized, even by those who are themselves outsiders, and with this comes isolation, and frequently, fear and/or hatred.  People with disabilities may look "different," may respond "differently," may just seem "off" to the general public, and for whatever reason, this sometimes inspires hatred. 


In 1994, due to the growing prevalence of studies and massive anecdotal instances of hate crimes against people with disabilities, the category of "disability" was added to the Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990, and in 1997, the FBI began to collect data on these crimes under its Uniform Crime Reporting Program.  Preliminary reporting to the FBI is quite low.


However, numerous disability and criminology studies, over many years, indicate both a very high crime rate against people with disabilities, as well as a very high level of disability discrimination.  The U.S. Office on Crime Statistics reported in 2002 that in many cases, crime victims with disabilities have never participated in the criminal justice process, "even if they have been repeatedly and brutally victimized."


There are a number of challenges for disability-based hate crime reporting.  For instance, hate crimes against people with disabilities are often never reported to law enforcement agencies.  The victim may be ashamed, afraid of retaliation, or afraid of not being believed.  The victim may be reliant on a caregiver or other third party to report the crime, who in fact never does so.  Or, the crime may be reported, but there may be no reporting of the victim's disability, especially in cases where the victim has an invisible disability that they themselves do not divulge.


Perhaps the biggest reason for underreporting of disability-based hate crimes is that disability-based bias crimes are all too frequently mislabeled as "abuse" and never directed from the social service or education systems to the criminal justice system.  Even very serious crimes — including rape, assault, and vandalism — are too-frequently labeled "abuse."


In one of the few cases successfully prosecuted, in 1999, Eric Krochmaluk, a man with cognitive disabilities from Middletown, N.J., was kidnapped, choked, beaten, burned with cigarettes, taped to a chair, his eyebrows shaved, and ultimately abandoned in a forest.  Eight people were subsequently indicted for this hate crime — making this one of the first prosecutions of a disability-based hate crime in America. (Nicolas Steenhout, "A Confrontation," Ragged Edge Magazine, May 6, 2002)

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Violence against vulnerable individuals and groups is a systemic problem. Preventing family violence will require fundamental changes in societal attitudes. People need to learn to appreciate differences, to value other people as equals, and become responsible partners in our common community.

There are many changes needed to improve the present situation for women with disabilities who are victims of violence:

  • abusive behaviour needs to be acknowledged as a serious social and in some cases criminal problem, rather than being considered a private matter;(12)
  • protocols need to be developed for institutions to screen potential employees and volunteers;
  • protocols need to be developed to address the abuse that occurs in institutional settings;
  • community living alternatives need to be made available for women with disabilities;
  • courses need to be made accessible and available to women with disabilities (e.g.., in self-defense, assertiveness training, and sex education).
  • appropriate suicide counseling which meets the special needs of women with disabilities needs to be made available;
  • transition houses and other existing support services need to be made accessible, and front-line workers in shelter facilities need to be sensitized to the needs of women with disabilities;
  • women with disabilities need to be hired to provide this training and to work in these centers; and
  • women in all communities need to work together to develop a coordinated approach to dealing with the abuse of all women.


1. Secretary of State, Statistics on Persons with Disabilities in Canada, a summary of the original document, "An Economic Profile of Persons with Disabilities in Canada (1986 statistics)", 1990, p.4.

2. Peter Jaffe, David Wolfe, and Susan Kaye Wilson, Children of Battered Women, (Newbury Park, Cal.: Sage Publications), 1990.

3. Standing Committee on Health and Welfare, Social Affairs, Seniors and the Status of Women, The War Against Women (Ottawa, June 1991), p.6.

4. Charlene Senn, Vulnerable: Sexual Abuse and People with an Intellectual Handicap (Toronto, 1988). 

 5.  Dick Sobsey, "Sexual Offenses and Disabled Victims: Research and Practical Implications", Vis-A-Vis, 1988.

6. Dicky Sobsey, Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of People with Disabilities (Developmental Disabilities Centre, University of Alberta, Edmonton, 1988), pp.6,11.

7. Natalie I. Migus, Elder Abuse, (The National Clearinghouse on Family Violence, Health and Welfare Canada, November 1990).

8.  Colleen McGrath, "The Crisis of Domestic Order", Socialist Revolution (FBI statistics), Jan.-Feb. 1973.

9. Shirley Masuda, Meeting Our Needs - An Access Manual for Transition Houses (Vancouver, 1991), pp.20-23, 1985.

10. Jacqueline Pelletier, Report: Women with Disabilities Networking Meeting, June 20-23, 1985.

7. Dick Sobsey, "Sexual Offenses and Disabled Victims: Research and Practical Implications", Vis-A-Vis, 1988.

8. Dick Sobsey, Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of People with Disabilities, quoting Ryerson 1981, p.2.

9. Jillian Ridington, Beating the Odds: Violence and Women With Disabilities, March 1989, pp. 1,6.

10. Ibid, p.5.

11. Peter Jaffe, David Wolfe, and Susan Kaye Wilson, Children of Battered Women, (Newbury Park, Cal.: Sage Publications), 1990.

12. Linda Lawson, "Domestic Violence", in B.C. Woman to Woman, April 1992, p.8. "75% of Canadians believe assault at home is a private matter, not a criminal code offense."

Charlene Senn, Vulnerable: Sexual Abuse and People with an Intellectual Handicap (Toronto, 1988). 

 The health impact of violence: A disability perspective,by C. Jennings, in Home Truths: Stop Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, a National Challenge Conference, Melbourne, September 2004: presentations, Melbourne, Vic, CASA Forum, 2004, [Click Here]

Web Resources:

Double the Odds Domestic Violence and Women with Disabilities

The Health impact of violence: A Disability Perspective

“No Secrets” Guidance on developing and implementing multi-agency policies and procedures to protect vulnerable adults from abuse 

Safeguarding Adults: A National Framework of Standards for good practice and outcomes in adult protection work

First Response to Disabled Victims

Disability Abuse Project

Verbal Abuse

Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence

National Center for Injury Prevention and Control

The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

When Love Hurts

Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s Association

Alzheimer’s Association’s Safe Return Program

 Vision impairment or Blind

American Council of the Blind
(800) 424–8666

American Foundation for the Blind

Mental Illness

Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
(formerly the National Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association )

(800) 826–3632

Treatment Advocacy Center
(703) 294–6001

Mental Retardation

American Association on Mental Retardation
(800) 424–3688

National Down Syndrome Congress
(800) 232–6372

The Arc of the United States
(800) 433–5255

Deaf or Hard of Hearing

National Association of the Deaf

National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders

Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf




“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
― Leo Buscaglia

Medical Whistleblower Advocacy Network


P.O. 42700 

Washington, DC 20015

MedicalWhistleblowers (at)


"Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself."  Confucius

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

Theodore Roosevelt- Excerpt from the speech "Citizenship In A Republic", delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France on 23 April, 1910