Abuse of People With Disabilities




Violence has always been a troubling problem for our society. In this day and age, the media is fraught with stories about crimes that occur on a daily basis. In my experience as a student pursuing a sociology minor, I have taken the time to examine the topic of crime much more in-depth. I have studied various aspects of criminology such as the different types, the kinds of areas more prone to those specific types, the offenders, and the victims. My courses have taught me that, more often than not, members of society’s minority groups are likely to be the victims of crime. These minority groups are composed of women, people of different races and ethnicities, and those of lower socioeconomic status. Interestingly enough, my sociology classes seemed to leave out a crucial group of people who are abused perhaps more often than we would care to admit: people with disabilities.

In an age when scientific innovation has made life possible for virtually anyone, it is imperative that we as a society focus on the victimization of all people, including those with disabilities. According to a study done by Doctors Schofield, Powers, and Loxton, roughly two million people with disabilities are abused every year. Another article from a periodical titled The Lancet shows that, in 2008 and 2010, the number of disabled people who suffered some form of abuse was more than twice the number of those who did not have some kind of disability. In this population, one in four adults were people classified as having some kind of mental disorder. Equally as troublesome was that this same study cited only one in five women with disabilities being asked by healthcare providers whether they were suffering some kind of abuse.


The Child Welfare Information Gateway defines “child maltreatment” using the Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA): “…any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.” In a similar vein, they employ the same definition of “child with a disability” as the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): “…a child with mental retardation, hearing impairments (including deafness), speech or language impairments, visual impairments (including blindness), serious emotional disturbance…orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, or specific learning disabilities, and who…need special education and related services.”

Children with disabilities, like their adult counterparts, are subject to abuse at the hands of their caretakers.  The Child Welfare Information Gateway report shows that 11% of child maltreatment victims had a reported disability.  The organization further claimed that children with emotional or behavioral disorders were at the greatest risk for maltreatment, while those with communication or sensory impairments were at a far greater risk for abuse.

In addition to providing statistics on the subject, The Child Welfare Information Gateway provides a number of risk factors that contribute to the abuse and maltreatment of children with disabilities.  The first category of risk factors comes from a societal level.  Caregivers’ limited knowledge about the children’s disabilities and how to adequately handle them place them at greater risk for maltreatment and abuse.  Some of these risk factors include separation from their peers, the naive belief that caretakers would never harm the children, and a lack of training of social workers, teachers, and other professionals.

The next level of risk factors is comprised of issues within the family and pertains mostly to parents and caregivers of children with disabilities.  These include the family viewing the child as “different,” a lack of skills and resources, the use of physical punishment, and unresponsiveness to a child’s special needs.

The last level of risk factors is comprised of issues related to the child.  These include, simply, more specific or special needs depending on the disability or impairment that the child has.

Below is a video featuring the case of a man who discovered that his autistic son was being abused in his public school.  When he noticed his son’s unusually erratic behavior, the father slipped a tape recorder in the boy’s pocket and sent him to school with the device running for six hours.  He discovered bouts of verbal abuse from his teacher.  His act ignited a fire, and soon parents nationwide were searching for signs that their disabled children were being mistreated.




People with disabilities suffer many of the same kinds of violence found in society’s crime reports. Just like other crime victims, they are exposed to various kinds of neglect, as well as physical, emotional, psychological, sexual, and financial abuse. Part of the problem is that people with disabilities are not often able to live independently, as their disabilities and the lack of accommodations make it difficult for them to live without an able-bodied person to help them. As a result, reports have found that it is the caretakers who often commit these crimes.  According to the National Center for Elder Abuse, 30% of adults who employ the use of a Personal Assistance Service (PAS) suffer some kind of abuse or mistreatment at the hands of the people employed to help them.

People with disabilities are more prone to abuse for a number of reasons. In addition to living with disabilities, a study found that people who suffered from depression and loneliness were likely to victims of abuse. Additionally, these people tended to have poorer life quality, poor health, and are of a lower socioeconomic class. One especially important factor to note is that abuse victims often rent their living quarters as opposed to owning their own homes. Their dependence on others for assistance makes them vulnerable and open to all kinds of abuse. This, ultimately, leads to shorter life spans.


A specific example of the mistreatment of people with disabilities can be found in the case of Suzanne Basso, a woman who was executed in February 2014. Basso had married Louis “Buddy” Musso, an autistic man, for his life insurance money. She not only financially abused him, but reports show that she tortured and murdered him as well. While this may be an extreme occurrence, it perfectly exemplifies why the criminal justice system ought to place more emphasis on the victimization of people with disabilities.

Abuse is a pressing problem that requires immediate action by the criminal justice system. By improving identification of victims, creating more agencies that can provide care and support for victims, and increasing awareness both in the public as well as the criminal justice spheres, we can address this problem and tackle it head-on. In a day and age when people with disabilities are becoming more and more vocal about their conditions, it is time for the government to step up and create a safer world for this relatively new demographic.


“Abuse of Adults With a Disability.” National Center on Elder Abuse. Administration on Aging, n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2014. <http://www.ncea.aoa.gov/Resources/Publication/docs/NCEA_AwDisabilities_ResearchBrief_2013.pdf>.

Hughes, Rosemary, Emily Lund, Joy Gabrielli, Laurie Powers, and Maryann Curry. “Prevalence of Interpersonal Violence Against Community-Living Adults With Disabilities: A Literature Review.” Rehabilitation Psychology 56 (): 302-319. Print.

“People With Disabilities: The Forgotten Victims of Violence.” The Lancet 379 (): 1573-1574. Print.

“The Risk and Prevention of Maltreatment of Children With Disabilities.” Child Welfare Information Gateway (): n. pag. Print.

Schofield, Margot, Jennifer Powers, and Deborah Loxton. “Mortality and Disability Outcomes of Self-Reported Elder Abuse: A 12-Year Prospective Investigation.” Clinical Investigation (): 679-685. Print.

“Suzanne Basso | Murderpedia, the encyclopedia of murderers.” Suzanne Basso | Murderpedia, the encyclopedia of murderers. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2014. <http://murderpedia.org/female.B/b/basso-suzanne.htm>.