It’s unimaginable, but those with disabilities are more at risk of abuse. Having worked in a nursery playgroup for children with special needs/ disabilities I know they were very vulnerable. Each child was cared for throughout their time playing and learning. Some couldn’t talk and others had hearing aid or glasses with thick lenses so they could see a few things. Only a few could walk. The parents of these children were very connected to their child and gave them lots of care which the staff saw in the children art which had drawings with smiles or happy stickers. I left with a false sense of security that all kids with disabilities were cared for. As a mum of a child with his own disabilities, I was overprotective. My son and many of the nursery children went on to a special needs school that was very protective of the children.
I knew abuse happened but the statistics didn’t seem to include those with a disability. One year I moved home and a policeman knocked on our door which had an accessible front entrance and handed me his card saying if anything happens let him or the police station know. It seems abuse against those with disabilities was a known fact and this policeman was being protective. When I worked in therapy centres, I saw people with disabilities and their stories were terrible but they didn’t have access to therapy because their medical or social needs always took priority. They did need these priorities but emotional needs after they experienced harm should have been available.
I want to look at the frequency first of what is known on abuse. The statistics on abuse can seem shocking with 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men who have been on the receiving end of harm. As a trauma psychotherapist, I believe the stats are higher because when I speak with adults who went through childhood abuse no police or social workers appeared so it didn’t make any statistics. According to LWA (Living Without Abuse), those living with domestic violence are harmed 30+ times before being noticed by police which doesn’t always lead to anything changing due to varied circumstances. It’s also a top reason for homelessness because sometimes no walls are safer than four walls. Each year on average 104 women and 30 men are murdered because of domestic violence. There is also a greater risk of suicide which 400 did within six months of being in the hospital for domestic violence injuries.
Some of these figures may have had disabilities but categories didn’t indicate that, but when checking various at-risk groups, it seems they were vulnerable. The news on occasion will talk about financial abuse where carers are using a person’s disability payments for their own needs. Carers mostly are very supportive and do meet the various needs of people. What is never spoken about is sexual and physical abuse; psychological services even when support is requested can be a challenge because not all clinician understand about the various ways communication may happen and things like sex education weren’t really taught so some didn’t know they had been harmed. It can be confusing if the person doing the harm is also washing and dressing as the person with a disability can’t do that for themselves. It’s much hard to say abuse is happening when that person is helping you to survive or go out. Not all refugees are accessible so it’s even harder to get them in a place of safety.
According to Woman’s Aid, disabled women are twice as likely to be abused than other women. They can be subjected to all the abuses known about however they may have devices or equipment taken away like hearing aids, emergency alarms, wheelchair and light. I mentioned light because some need dimmer or brighter lights to see. If the light above or to the side of you stopped working you would change the bulb and maybe go to a different room until you get it replaced. Many people with complex disabilities can’t change lightbulbs and open or close curtains and their carer might have removed them. Carers may be either be staff or family members because not all are protective and safe.
Those that experienced a lot of various abuse in childhood are at greater risk of conditions in adulthood that may develop into a disability. Fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, diabetes and many others however these conditions don’t mean it’s only because of abuse they may happen because of varied medical reasons as well. Medical clinics barely ever ask if abuse has happened in the past so even less likely to get psychological support.
So, what psychological support is available? Some counsellors, psychotherapists and psychologist do specialise in working with those with chronic conditions or disabilities which I also do. At the moment many clinicians are still working online so those with additional needs can access support online. The first priority is for them to have space away from the harm to say what’s happening, it may be a visiting relative that calls for help as they realise abuse is happening. If speech is more difficult then there are computer programs like Dragon which can make communication possible. Some have eye sensor computers that mean email therapy can happen. Techniques such as EMDR or brainspotting can occur if the client with disabilities want it. Just because they may be vulnerable, they have a right to what happens in therapy; their trust has already been violated and we don’t want to take away their choices if they’re not ready or need to build trust first before working with what happened to them.
Help can also be found at
Olivia Djouadi is a UKCP-accredited psychotherapist and counsellor, and an ACTO-accredited supervisor.