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Promising Practices in Serving Crime Victims With Disabilities Printer-Friendly Option Promising Practices in Serving Crime Victims With Disabilities Image of an elderly man in a wheelchair. Image of one woman consoling and embracing another woman.
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Crime and Disability

Most of the challenges noted in Working with Victims of Crime with Disabilities still exist today. For example, there is still no “authoritative research” on criminal victimization of people with disabilities, or on criminal acts that result in short- or long-term disability for the victim. Therefore, the challenge of quantifying the problem is largely left to academia, advocates, and victim service providers studying the issue in their city, state, or region. Existing statistics, surveys, and anecdotal evidence do, however, reveal a devastating problem that is not going away.

Many People With Disabilities Suffer Abuse

A recent survey of women with physical disabilities1 identified a range of victimizing situations commonly experienced by persons with all types of disabilities. More than half of all respondents—56 percent—reported being abused. Of that group, 87 percent reported physical abuse; 66 percent reported sexual abuse; 35 percent were refused help with a physical need; and 19 percent were prevented from using an assistive device they required. In addition, 74 percent of the women who had been abused reported ongoing victimization, and 55 percent reported multiple episodes of abuse in their adult lives. However, only 33 percent of women with physical disabilities who were surveyed sought help with their situation, and they had “mixed reactions” as to whether getting assistance had been a positive experience.

The following statistics also suggest that the problem is more widespread than current crime reporting may reflect:

  • People with developmental disabilities are 4 to10 times more likely to be victims of crime than other people.2 Although they are also more likely to be victimized again by the same person, more than 50 percent never seek assistance from legal personnel or treatment service providers.3

  • Children with disabilities are more than three times more likely to be abused or victimized than children without disabilities.4 A 5-year study of 4,340 pediatric hospital patients with disabilities revealed that 68 percent were victims of sexual abuse and 32 percent were victims of physical abuse.5

  • The National Rehabilitation Information Center estimates that as many as 50 percent of patients who are long-term residents of hospitals and specialized rehabilitation centers are there due to crime-related injuries. In addition, it is estimated that criminal acts cause at least 6 million serious injuries each year, resulting in either a temporary or permanent disability.6

  • In a 2005 survey of people with disabilities in the Tucson area,7 60 percent reported being forced to engage in unwanted sexual activity, and almost half never revealed the assault.
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Patterns of Victimization and Response

Perpetrators of crimes against people with disabilities frequently know or have access to their victims through a personal or service relationship.8 A study published in the Journal of Sexuality and Disability estimates that more than half of all abuse is perpetrated by family members or peers with disabilities.9 Persons working in disability-related fields (paid or unpaid caregivers, doctors, nurses, and other professionals) are also believed to be responsible for significant numbers of incidents.10 When the abuser is an intimate partner or someone involved in the person’s emotional or physical well-being, seeking help or justice can be extremely complicated for the victim.11

In the Tucson survey,12 the top three reasons given for not reporting an incident were embarrassment, shame, and fear of not being believed. When abuse survivors chose to report their victimization, it was most often to friends (58 percent) or family members (54 percent), rather than adult protective services, law enforcement, or a social service agency. Persons with disabilities may worry about the consequences of reporting a crime, such as loss of attendant care, blame or criticism from loved ones, or the threat of further harm from the abuser.13 Reporting processes can also be intimidating, especially for persons who have had a negative experience with law enforcement or victim services in the past. And some victims may simply not understand that what they experienced was a crime, or know where to go for help.

In this light, it is not surprising that many victim service providers report that they rarely serve crime victims with disabilities. In a 2003 national survey of domestic violence and rape crisis agencies,14 67 percent of respondents said they had served people with mental illness, but few reported serving people with cognitive disabilities (7 percent), physical disabilities (6 percent), or persons who were blind, deaf, or hard-of-hearing (1 percent). However, these responses cannot be attributed to underreporting alone. Often, local entities charged with helping crime victims are unsure of how to identify and respond to persons with disabilities who seek assistance. The fact that only 9 percent of the agencies surveyed in 2003 set aside funds in their budgets to address accessibility or accommodations for clients with disabilities speaks volumes about the education and outreach work still needed. Gaps in services and community responses revealed a basic need for disability-related training and awareness and understanding within the agencies responsible for serving all crime victims.
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