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

More Common Than We Think:
Recognizing and Responding to Signs of Violence


Leigh Ann Davis is Project Specialist with The Arc of the U.S., Silver Spring, MD. She may be reached  by e-mail at ldavis@metronet.com

Victimization is a real threat in the lives of women with disabilities and is more likely than not to occur. They are often victims of neglect, domestic violence, child abuse, sexual victimization, financial abuse, emotional abuse, homicide, physical abuse, and other types of crimes. They can be victimized by family members, acquaintances, institutional staff, caregivers, and strangers. Research studies from Canada, Australia and Great Britain have consistently shown that people with disabilities face a much higher risk of becoming crime victims and of being re-victimized than persons without disabilities. If any doubt remains

Parents, women with disabilities themselves, case managers,advocates, and support staff must raise their own awareness of thesigns of victimization and be prepared to act when it occurs.

about the magnitude of the problem, read carefully the following statistics and really let them “sink in”:

  • The risk of abuse for people with disabilities is at least twice as high and may be five or more times higher than for the general population.
  • Children with any kind of disability are more than twice as likely as children without disabilities to be physically abused, and almost twice as likely to be sexually abused.
  • People with developmental disabilities have a 4 to 10 times higher risk of becoming crime victims compared to those without disabilities.
  • Persons with developmental disabilities have a high risk of being sexually abused. One researcher estimates that 90% of people with developmental disabilities will be sexually victimized in their lifetime, yet only 3% of the assaults will ever be reported. (Sobsey & Doe, 1991; Tyiska, 1998).

Parents, women with disabilities themselves, case managers, advocates, and support staff must raise their own awareness of victimization, and must be prepared to act when it occurs.

A good way to build awareness of possible victimization is by education of people who regularly spend time with individuals with developmental disabilities on a one-to-one level. When some behavior or mood occurs which is uncharacteristic of an individual, it’s more likely that it will be noticed by those who have ongoing contact with her, and they can take the step of finding out what instigated the change. Research suggests that victimization is often perpetrated by someone the individual knows very well and trusts, such as a relative, caregiver or a staff person. Because of this it’s important that women with developmental disabilities have a number of people who know them well and with whom they interact frequently. The more significant, safe relationships a woman has, the more likely victimization can be prevented or, if it occurs, the more likely signs will be noticed, information disclosed, and assistance sought.

Victim advocates and researchers have created lists of specific signs of victimization. For example, if someone is being sexually victimized, the person may shy away from being touched, withdraw from others, regress to a prior developmental stage, become involved in drug or alcohol abuse, have new fears that trigger memories of the victimization, have a loss of appetite or obsession with food, have nightmares or other sleep disturbances, and suddenly show fear or discomfort in being around a particular person. Parents, people with disabilities themselves, case managers, advocates and support staff must be familiar with the various signs of different types of violence in order to increase awareness and reporting of such crimes. Such information can be obtained from local victim assistance programs in your community. Many of the signs observed in victims with disabilities are similar to or the same as those found in victims without disabilities. Specific information relating to victims with developmental disabilities can be found in materials such as Reaching Out: A Guide for Victim Advocates on Helping Victims with Mental Retardation, in development by The Arc of the U.S.

The following tips (White, undated) may also be helpful in recognizing and responding to the possible signs of victimization:

  • A person may not have the ability to tell exactly what happened, but may convey physical, sexual or emotional trauma through behavior changes. Be alert to any sudden changes. Whenever a sudden or dramatic change occurs, investigate the cause immediately.
  • Use your own intuition and do not deny any feelings you may have that something is wrong. More often than not, your feeling is correct.
  • As you begin paying more attention and asking about victimization, be prepared for the information you receive. The more prepared you are, the more likely you will be open to receiving the information and seeking help for the victim.
  • Keep in mind that false disclosures are rare. People may retract their stories of victimization due to fear, confusion or pressure from the perpetrator or others.
  • The simplest way to find out if someone has been hurt is to ask. Victimization is so common among people with disabilities that it should be asked about routinely.

Once victimization is disclosed, action must be taken as quickly as possible in order for the individual to be and feel safe in her daily environment, and begin the healing process. Many crimes occur in places where women with disabilities receive services, learn, work or live. For this reason, when violence occurs, a call to the police must be thoughtfully considered. The individual should have the opportunity to decide whether or not to report to the police. However, reporting suspected abuse, neglect or exploitation to Adult Protective Services is the law in most states. If there are no safe people who can be trusted by the victim, reporting the crime to police may be an important option to consider. Often when crimes occur they are reported only to the administrator or supervisor of the facility where the crime happened. However, this is a short-term solution because the perpetrator is usually given minimal consequences (such as being fired) and is able to continue victimizing others elsewhere.

Some people who know about or suspect victimization against a person with a developmental disability may hesitate to act because of confusion about what constitutes a crime. The type or level of seriousness of victimization may include both criminal and non-criminal acts or a mixture of both. It is important to be familiar with your state criminal code because it defines which acts are considered to be criminal offenses. If there is any question about whether an act is criminal in nature, the local victim assistance program should be called. Victim advocates can assist in determining what next steps should be taken and can assist the woman in getting help even if the act is not legally considered a crime. Victim advocacy services are available in most communities and are generally located within police stations or the prosecutor’s office. Community-based victim assistance programs include rape crisis/sexual assault centers, domestic violence programs and shelters, and survivors of homicide victim programs. All of these resources should be considered as appropriate whenever victimization against a woman with a developmental disability occurs.

Both disability advocates and victim advocates have much to learn from one another in reaching a common goal of decreasing the incidence of victimization in the lives of women with developmental disabilities. The National Organization of Victim Assistance (NOVA) and The Arc of the U.S. joined together almost a year ago to create guidebooks for victim assistance and disability advocates. The guidebooks provide information on signs of victimization, ideas on reaching out to this underserved population, and guidance on how victim assistance and disability agencies or organizations can begin working together in addressing the unmet need for victim services among the population of people with disabilities. A committed group of advocates from various places throughout the country is working together to put an end to the violence that is part of the lives of so many women with developmental disabilities on a daily basis. More advocates are needed to increase awareness of and effective response to the reality that victimization in the lives of women with developmental disabilities is more common than people think.


  • Sobsey, D., & Doe, T. (1991). Patterns of sexual abuse and assault. Sexuality and Disability, 9(3), 243–259.

  • Tyiska, C. (1998). Working with victims of crime with disabilities (OVC Bulletin). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justic.

  • White, C. (n.d.). Becoming attuned to physical and behavioral changes in identifying sexual abuse or domestic violence in people with disabilities (handout). Madison, WI: Access to Independence.