Violence against people with disabilities: New developments and important implications

Three studies highlighting the prevalence of violence in the lives of children and adults with disabilities

By Emily M. Lund, MEd

It has been an important few years for our knowledge of violence against people with disabilities. Namely, three thorough review articles have been published on the prevalence of interpersonal violence against children and adults with disabilities. Hughes, Lund, Gabrielli, Powers and Curry (2011) published a systematic review examining the prevalence of lifetime, past five year and past year violence against adult men and women with disabilities. In 2012, Karen Hughes and colleagues and Jones and colleagues published meta-analyses on the prevalence of violence against adults and children with disabilities, respectively. Although all three studies noted important limitations in the literature, such as a primarily North American- and Euro-centric literature base, all three firmly concluded that, at least in the Western world, people with disabilities appear to be at substantially increased risk for violence when compared to the general population.

Implications for psychologists 

As a group, these studies highlight the importance of understanding and recognizing the possibility and prevalence of violence in the lives of children and adults with disabilities. Clinicians who work with clients with disabilities must be aware of the heightened possibility that their clients will have experienced interpersonal violence either as a child or adult and are also at increased risk for experiencing violence in the future. Thus, they should become comfortable with screening for and discussing violence-related issues in a culturally competent manner. To this end, clinicians should put forth effort to become familiar with the disability-specific aspects of interpersonal violence. For example, research has indicated that individuals with disabilities may be reluctant to report violence due to fear of losing personal assistance services or losing their independence if they are judged incapable of keeping themselves safe in the community (Saxton et al., 2001, 2006). Psychologists who work with clients with disabilities need to be aware of such issues and able to navigate them in a way that is sensitive to both their clients’ safety and their right to autonomy.

Implications for people with disabilities 

On a broader level, this research suggests yet another way in which people with disabilities are a marginalized group. Petersilia (2001) suggests that some perpatrators may see people with disabilities as “ideal victims” who are unlikely to report abuse or be believed if they do report. Similarly, when given vignettes about abuse of children with and without disabilities, child protection workers are more likely to attribute blame to the child and feel empathy toward the abusive parent when the child in the vignette has a disability (Manders & Stoneman, 2009). Given these societal attitudes, it is important that the finding of these studies are interpreted in a way that is beneficial, not harmful, to people with disabilities.

Accordingly, it is important to ensure that these studies are not used as a means to paint people with disabilities as “weak” or “helpless” but rather as a means by which to raise awareness of the barriers that people with disabilities face and the societal norms that may facilitate the increased occurrence of interpersonal violence. As with all violence work, we must avoid blaming the victim. Additionally, an emphasis should be put on empowering adults with disabilities to both seek help when necessary or desired and to implement strategies to increase their safety as they live and work in the community. As advocates for people with disabilities, we must ensure that these studies are understood in broader social context of disability and that their findings help to create positive, empowering change for people with disabilities.

About the author

Emily M. Lund, MEd

Emily M. Lund, MEd, is a Graduate Research Assistant at Utah State University in Logan, Utah.


Hughes, K. Bellis, M.A., Jones, L.,Wood, S. Bates, G., Eckley, L., McCoy, E., … Officer, A. (2012). Prevalence and risk of violence against adults with disabilities: A systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. The Lancet, 379, 1621-1629. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(11)61851-5

Hughes, R.B., Lund, E.M., Gabrielli, J., Powers, L.E., & Curry, M.A. (2011). Prevalence of interpersonal violence against community-living adults with disabilities: A literature review. Rehabilitation Psychology, 56, 302-319. doi:10.1037/a0025620

Jones, L., Bellis, M.A., Wood, S., Hughes, K., McCoy, E., Eckley, L., ….Officer, A. (2012).  Prevalence and risk of violence against children with disabilities: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. The Lancet, 380, 899-907. doi 10.1016/S0140-6736(12)60692-8

Manders, J.E., & Stoneman, Z. (2009). Children with disabilities in the child protective services system: An analog study of investigation and case management. Child Abuse & Neglect, 33(4), 229-237. doi:

Petersilia, J.R (2001). Crime victims with developmental disabilities: A review essay. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 28, 655-694.

Saxton, M., Curry, M. A., Powers, L.E., Maley, S., Eckels, K., & Gross, J. (2001). "Bring my scooter so I can leave you": A study of disabled women handling abuse by personal assistance providers. Violence Against Women: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal, 7(4), 393-417. doi:10.1177/10778010122182523

Saxton, M., McNeff, E., Powers, L.E., Curry, M.A., Limont, M., & Benson, J. (2006). We are all little John Waynes: A study of disabled men’s experiences of abuse by personal assistants. The Journal of Rehabilitation, 72(4), 3-13