Frontline Initiative

Abuse in the Lives of People with Disabilities


Wayne Crawford is a quality assurance officer at Higginsville Habilitation Center in Higginsville, Missouri

Abuse happens. Sometimes it gets reported, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it gets investigated, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes we do a good job of supporting people who have been abused, and sometimes we don’t.

Twenty-five years ago, when I began working in a large institutional setting as a direct support professional, I wondered why people with disabilities had to live their lives trapped in an environment they didn’t choose only because they couldn’t express their life goals like other people. Over the past decade I’ve moved from the front line to various levels of administration, continually moving farther away from the realities of staff who support people in their daily lives. During this time I’ve seen society begin the transition from warehousing people in large congregate settings to supporting them in their own homes. I’ve witnessed society beginning to understand that every citizen, regardless of ability, can make positive contributions if given the opportunity and support to do so.

Unfortunately, as we’ve grown in our ability to understand the needs of people with disabilities, we haven’t provided the same level of continuing professional development for direct support professionals. In many cases, we’ve taken for granted the effect and potential power that direct support professionals have on the lives of the people with disabilities. Whether a person with disability lives in a institution, a group home, supported living in the community, or their own home, the direct support professional has the power to influence a person’s opportunities and success. Under-trained, underpaid, and under-supported staff who deal with complex challenges every day are at greater risk for high levels of frustration. When these frustrations come together at the wrong place and time, people get abused or neglected.

I’ve never met anyone who didn’t want to eliminate abuse. Waxman (1994) states that, “it is society’s response to disability, not the disability itself, that accounts for much of the increased risk experienced by people with disabilities” (p. 185). Research indicates that people with disabilities experience more frequent abuse than the general population. Unfortunately, the people most directly involved in the person’s life often perpetrate the abuse. We need to understand the cycle of abuse and eliminate the factors that lead to its continuation.

It’s impossible to provide an in-depth discussion of the issues that create an abusive environment in a short article. However, I believe we must consider several major themes. First, if we are to ensure a non-abusive environment for people with disabilities, then we must give them the power to control their lives. Empowered people are less likely to be subjected to another’s abusive actions. A second area that’s often overlooked is the empowerment of direct support professionals. When staff are provided the training and knowledge necessary to support a person’s life choices, they become empowered to “do the right thing.” Staff who feel confident in their commitment and skills and are respected as professionals are less likely to exhibit abusive behavior. Finally, we must know more about the people we hire. Every direct support professional involved in the life of another person is a piece in a complex puzzle. It’s necessary to hire staff who have the personality and capacity to enable the person with a disability to achieve their life goals. Every direct service worker is a vital piece in completing the puzzle that makes up a person’s life. By initiating hiring practices that reduce the probability of hiring a “bad” employee, (e.g., developing screening processes that include thorough background checks and evaluating potential employees for their ability to be a person-centered individual), we can reduce the possibility of abuse.

In summary, the issues we face in the attempt to eliminate abuse and neglect are complicated and complex. The only way we’ll solve this problem is by admitting its existence, bringing all stakeholders to the table, and developing proactive plans to eliminate this ugly aspect of our society. While we face many challenges in the attempt to eliminate abuse and neglect, we have many dedicated direct support professionals who remain an under-utilized resource in our fight against these injustices. Eliminating abuse is done one person at a time. Proper support, training, and respect for DSPs is fundamental to reducing this problem. We must challenge ourselves each day to accept nothing but the best for the people we support, which means we must determine how to find, train, and keep excellent direct support professionals.