Impact Impact Feature Issue on Violence Against Women with Developmental or Other Disabilities

Faces of Violence Against Women with Developmental Disabilities


Dick Sobsey  is Director of the JP Das Developmental Disabilities Centre at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He may be reached by e-mail at dick.sobsey@ualberta.ca

In a 1996 survey that asked women with a variety of disabilities to rank the most important research topics affecting their lives, 92% ranked violence as their top priority (Doe, 1997). Their ranking of violence as top priority is not surprising because many of their lives have been directly affected by violence and because there has been little research on the causes and nature of this violence. This article describes some of what is known about violence against women with developmental disabilities and points out some things that still need to be studied.

Sexual Violence

Women with developmental disabilities are much more likely than women without disabilities to experience sexual violence. Although more comprehensive studies are needed, preliminary information from a series of smaller scale studies suggests that women with developmental disabilities are 4 to 10 times as likely to be sexually assaulted as other women are. Wilson and Brewer (1992) reported that women with developmental disabilities were 10.7 times as likely to be sexually assaulted as other women.

Some researchers suggest that as many as nine out of ten women with developmental disabilities will experience a sexual assault at some time. Others think that such estimates may be too high and may lead to a false belief that this violence is inevitable. Even more conservative researchers agree, however, that many, probably most, women with developmental disabilities will experience some form of unwanted sexual contact at some time in their lives.

The University of Alberta Violence and Disability Project analyzed reports of 100 women and adolescent girls (age 15 and older) with developmental disabilities who were sexually assaulted. The 100 cases analyzed were taken from a larger database of 320 sex crimes against people with a wide range of disabilities in Canada, New Zealand, and the U.S; the 220 cases excluded from the analysis were crimes committed against women with other categories of disabilities, as well as children or males with disabilities. In the instances studied, a wide variety of unwanted sexual behavior occurred including fondling, oral sex, and sexual intercourse. Most of these women experienced repeated assaults. Almost half (46.6%) reported assaults on more than 10 occasions, while 27.4% reported a single episode of assault. Only 8.3% of the offenders were strangers to their victims. Offenders included special service providers (27.5%); neighbors, family friends, and other acquaintances (19.3%); generic service providers (13.8%); other people with disabilities (12.8%); family members (9.2%); transportation providers (4.6%); and dates (4.6%). The vast majority (88%) of cases involved only male offenders. Female offenders acting alone committed 3% of offenses, and 9% involved both male and female offenders.

More than half of these women (54.1%) had apparent physical injuries. In addition, some (3%) became pregnant, and some (4%) contracted sexually transmitted diseases. Social, emotional, and behavioral harm, however, were virtually universal and were reported in 95% of cases. Because the other 5% involved women with severely impaired communication, it is probably more accurate to say that such effects were not observed or recorded in these cases than to conclude that they did not occur. Only 20% of the women who were sexually assaulted received counseling or treatment services that met their needs. More than a quarter (26%) were unable to access any services, and more than half were not provided with necessary service accommodation (36%) or were provided with inadequate accommodation (18%) to meet their needs.

Many of these cases (35%) went unreported to authorities. Of those that were reported, only 32.8% resulted in formal charges, and half of those charged were convicted. Overall, this meant that convictions occurred in just 11% of the 100 cases analyzed.

Physical Violence and Homicide

Sexual violence is not the only maltreatment experienced by women with developmental disabilities. Many other forms of violence also appear to be significant problems for them. According to Wilson and Brewer (1992), adults (women and men) with developmental disabilities are more than four times as likely to be assaulted as other adults.

The University of Alberta Violence and Disability Project database on homicides includes 208 women and adolescent girls with developmental disabilities who were victims of homicide or attempted homicide. While 35 (16.8%) of these cases appear to have been sex crimes, the remaining 83.2% appear to have been motivated by a wide variety of other factors including financial gain, punishment, displaced anger at another individual, neglect, elimination of caregiving demands, and thrill killings. Women with developmental disabilities occasionally became incidental victims of crimes that targeted others. For example, in one case the mother of a young woman who had cerebral palsy became involved with an alleged serial killer she met through the Internet. The mother arranged to go away with the man she met and took her daughter with her. Neither mother or daughter have been seen alive since they left. Fatal injuries were inflicted on women with developmental disabilities by a wide variety of methods including beating (22.5%); shooting (13.5%); suffocation, strangulation, or asphyxia (13.0%); stabbing (7.7%); starvation or dehydration (7.2%); and drowning (5.3%). The alleged perpetrators of these crimes included family members (30.3%); paid caregivers (18.3%); strangers (11.1%); other acquaintances, such as neighbors and family friends (9.1%); and disabled peers (2.9%), often sharing the same residences. The alleged offenders implicated in these cases were 61.0% male and 39.0% female. A variety of others were implicated in the remaining cases. In addition, the identity of the offender was unknown in 18.8% of cases.

While some of these offenses resulted in severe sentences, too many of these cases appeared to go unsolved or resulted in minimal sentences. Of cases for which sentencing information was available, 9.8% of those convicted received the death penalty and 17.1% received sentences from 30 years to life in prison. Another 12.2% received sentences ranging from 11 to 30 years, and an additional 7.3% received sentences of between 6 and 10 years. More than half of those convicted, however, were sentenced to less than five years in jail, with 24.4% sentenced to one to five years, 9.8% sentenced to less than one year and, 19.5% given probation, community, or suspended sentences. More severe sentences were often associated with multiple murders, particularly when victims without disabilities also were killed.

Some cases appeared to be poorly investigated. For example, the disappearances of several young women from group homes in various states were not criminally investigated. Years later, these cases were recognized as the probable work of a serial killer, only after a man who had worked in each of the group homes at the time of the disappearances was arrested and convicted for attempted murder of another young woman with a developmental disability. While the killing of women with disabilities represents an extreme form of violence, nonfatal assaults are much more common. Researchers need to study these nonfatal assaults because they are common and have received little attention.

Intimate Partner Violence

Many women with developmental disabilities experience violence perpetrated by spouses, dates, or sexual partners. Little is known about the incidence of these events and comparisons to the general population may be misleading since woman with more severe developmental disabilities are much less likely to be married, live in a common law relationship, or participate in dating. It is suspected, however, that intimate partner violence is very common among women with developmental disabilities who have intimate partners. Carlson (1998), for example, reported a consensus among experts from the fields of developmental disabilities and domestic violence that intimate partner violence was a common and serious problem for women with developmental disabilities. Women with developmental disabilities interviewed by Carlson described being physically abused by an intimate partner, often repeatedly and severely enough to require medical attention. They also described being threatened with severe harm, controlled, insulted, and having their property taken or destroyed. This emotional abuse often took the form of being blamed and being isolated from contact with others. Some also described being forced to have sex with their partners or their partners forcing them to have sex with others. Women with developmental disabilities may have particular difficulties escaping intimate partner violence because many fear that leaving an abusive partner could result in reinstitutionalization or having children taken away from them by authorities who may consider them incapable of caring for them without assistance. Women with developmental disabilities also experience two other forms of domestic violence: caregiver violence and peer violence.

Caregiver Violence

Many women with developmental disabilities depend on caregivers who exert control over them. Relationships between people with developmental disabilities and their caregivers can be important sources of pleasure and personal growth, but when caregivers turn out to be cruel, excessively controlling, or exploiting, they can do very serious harm. The sexual assaults and homicides attributable to caregivers mentioned previously in this article are an important part of that harm, but intimidation, excessive control, neglect, and general disrespect also are much more common forms of violence. Many individuals with developmental disabilities are powerless to escape from this form of maltreatment because they are not given any choice about where they live, who provides their care, or what programs they attend. Some are not aware of their right to humane treatment.

Intrusive and restrictive programs can also constitute violence. While professionals and advocates may debate about whether some procedures can ever be justified, there is no question that misuse of restrictive and intrusive procedures sometimes amounts to assault and intimidation.

Peer Violence

Women with developmental disabilities also experience significant amounts of violence from other people with disabilities. Because people with developmental disabilities often have little control over where or with whom they live, it is often difficult or impossible for them to avoid violence from others. Violence among peers with disabilities is sometimes the legacy of caregiver violence. When staff victimize their clients, those who have been victimized or who witness violence often go on to victimize others. The clustering of dangerous offenders with vulnerable people in service programs also adds substantially to the risk. In addition, some agencies make little attempt to protect the people they serve from violence by other clients. A growing number of successful lawsuits for negligent security on behalf of individuals who have been victimized in service environments is helping to make agency administrators more aware of their responsibility to make reasonable efforts to control risk.


Violence against women with developmental disabilities takes many forms and occurs with alarming frequency. Its impact on lives is often devastating. Research over the last decade is helping us to understand the nature and extent of this violence, but more research is needed to help determine the best strategies for prevention and treatment.


  • Carlson, B. (1998). Domestic violence in adults with mental retardation: Reports from victims and key informants. Mental Health Aspects of Developmental Disabilities, 1(4), 102–112.

  • Doe, T. (1997). Violence tops agenda for women with disabilities. Contemporary Women’s Issues Database, 14.

  • Wilson, C., & Brewer, N. (1992). The incidence of criminal victimization of individuals with an intellectual disability. Australian Psychologist, 27(2), 114–117.