The Unacknowledged Crisis of Violence Against Disabled People

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Cameron Morgan

**content warning: violence and sexual assault against disabled people**

Living with a disability is undoubtedly linked to a higher probability of experiencing violence. Though research on the intersection of violence and disability is limited (which inherently reflects unconcern for our experiences), existing work illustrates this link unmistakably. In 2015, disabled people were 2.5 times more likely than nondisabled people to experience violent victimization.1 And serious violent crimes (i.e., sexual assault, aggravated assault, and robbery) were even more disproportionate, more than three times as likely to impact disabled people.1

These statistics only reflect violence against disabled people living in households, excluding those who are homeless and the many who have been forced into institutions. And disabled people constitute an exceptional proportion of the institutionalized population: 95% of those age 65 or older in 2015.1 Moreover, research has suggested that an overwhelming 82% of violence against developmentally disabled adults is carried out in institutions, largely because institutions inherently promote the abuse and dehumanization of disabled people.2 Without encapsulating institutional abuse, these already grave statistics are only a partial estimate of the reality of violence against disabled people.

But unpacking just the violence against noninstitutionalized disabled people is no simple task. Much of it is even more disproportionate than the already covered statistics suggest. Sexual assault is one severe example, 7 times more likely to impact intellectually disabled people—and 12 times more likely to impact intellectually disabled women—than nondisabled people.3 More than 90% of people with developmental disabilities will experience sexual abuse in their lives; 49% will experience this abuse at least ten times.4

Abusers perceive disabled people as conveniently vulnerable. This is reflected in this unsettlingly disproportionate violence as well as when it occurs. Disabled people are more likely than nondisabled people to be victimized during daytime hours 5, as if the vulnerability that nondisabled people only experience at night is inescapable for disabled people even when the sun rises.

This vulnerability is certainly inescapable in our interactions with law enforcement. Police violence comprises so much violence against disabled people that we constitute up to half of those killed by law enforcement officers.6 They are quick to view disability, from deafness 7 to neurodivergence to physical disabilities, as noncompliance—and even quicker to use that perceived noncompliance to justify excessive force.

Disabled children have to deal with this vulnerability in school, too. Of the nearly 50,000 US students who were physically restrained during the 2013–2014 school year, more than 75% were students who received disability accommodations.8 This is absurdly disproportionate given that these students represented just 14% of the student population.9 And this only includes disabled students accommodated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, meaning that even more of the physically restrained students were likely disabled.

Most pervasively, we are vulnerable to the people close to us. In contrast to nondisabled people, disabled people face a significantly higher percentage of violence from family members and well-known acquaintances, who are the source of half 1 of the violence we face. This would rise to almost two thirds if it included violence from intimate partners, which is 40% more likely to affect disabled women than nondisabled women.10 In the past five years, there have been more than 550 reported cases of disabled people 11—many of whom were children 12—murdered by their families; the real number, including unreported cases, is likely much higher.

This is all even more frustrating and terrifying because it is overwhelmingly ignored. The media’s coverage of violence facing marginalized communities is often scant and problematic, but violence against disabled people has been especially disregarded. More immediately, this violence is so often upheld in court, where allegations of sexually abusing a disabled person often yield no charges against the offender, let alone a conviction.13

Ironically, although people hardly acknowledge this violence, they talk about disability in ways that perpetuate it so well.

They say that it must be so hard for the parents of a disabled child to deal with them every day; that these parents are the real victims of a system that doesn’t adequately serve disabled people.14 And so we should empathize with parents who killed their disabled child because they just couldn’t suffer the burden any longer—who could?

They say that the only disability is a bad attitude; that we shouldn’t see disability (unless it can be manipulated to justify a parent murdering their child, that is); that disabled people have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps just like everyone else. This just makes things easier. When someone “doesn’t see” disability, there’s no need for them to acknowledge their deep-seated ableism or the systemic barriers we face or the terrifying rates of violence against us.

They say that disabled people are such an inspiration when we simply decide to get out of bed and carry on living with our disabilities. When disability isn’t erased, it’s framed as inherently frail and demoralizing and pitiable. So when we’re victimized, people are satisfied thinking of it like an inexplicable outlier. They ask, “What kind of monster would do that to someone with a disability?”—never recognizing that that very attitude helps attackers see us as vulnerable in the first place.

They don’t say that our culture systemically subjects disabled people to extreme rates of violence.

They don’t ask what can be done to change it.



1. United States. Department of Justice. Office of Justice Programs. Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2017). Crimes Against Persons with Disabilities, 2009-2015 by E. Harrell. Retrieved from

2. Thornberry, C. & Olson, K. (2005). The abuse of individuals with developmental disabilities. Developmental Disabilities Bulletin, 33(1), 1‐19. Retrieved from

3. Shapiro, J. (2018, January 8). The sexual assault epidemic no one talks about. National Public Radio. Retrieved from

4. Valenti-Hein, D. & Schwartz, L. (1995). The Sexual Abuse Interview for Those with Developmental Disabilities. Santa Barbara, CA: James Stanfield Company.

5. United States. Department of Justice. Office of Justice Programs. Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2016). Crimes Against Persons with Disabilities, 2009-2014 by E. Harrell. Retrieved from

6. Perry, D. M. & Carter-Long, L. (2016). Media coverage of law enforcement use of force and disability: A media study (2013-2015) and overview. The Ruderman Foundation. Retrieved from

7. Dollhopf, J. (2016, September 12). Police interaction with the deaf. Retrieved from

8. United States. Department of Education. Office for Civil Rights. Civil Rights Data Collection. (2017). Number and percentage of public school students with and without disabilities subjected to physical restraint, by race/ethnicity, whether with disabilities served under IDEA or Section 504, and English proficiency, by state: School Year 2013-14. Retrieved from

9. United States. Department of Education. Office for Civil Rights. Civil Rights Data Collection. (2017). Public school students overall and by race/ethnicity, students with disabilities served under IDEA and those served solely under Section 504, and students who are English language learners, by state: School Year 2013-14. Retrieved from

10. American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Abuse of women with disabilities. Retrieved from

11. Autistic Self Advocacy Network. (n.d.). Disability Community Day of Mourning. Retrieved from

12. Disability Day of Mourning. (n.d.). Retrieved from

13. Shapiro, J. (2018, January 16). How prosecutors changed the odds to start winning some of the toughest rape cases. National Public Radio. Retrieved from

14. Sobsey, D. (2001, March). Why we shouldn’t blame the murders of disabled kids on lousy services. Retrieved from