Feature Issue on Engaging Communities Underrepresented in Disability Research

Responders Can Do More to Help


Max Barrows is outreach director for Green Mountain Self-Advocates in Montpelier, Vermont. He may be reached at

Karen Topper is administrative director at Green Mountain Self-Advocates. She may be reached at

Youth with disabilities face all the typical risk factors for being exploited or victimized that all young people face, and more. Potential predators view youth with disabilities as weak and unable to take care of themselves, and often assume they can get away with abuse because the victims won’t be believed. Low reporting and conviction rates back this up. Perhaps even worse, when an abuser is a family member or someone providing care, youth with disabilities may feel pressure to stay silent for long periods of time. People with disabilities who are immigrants, meanwhile, may be dependent on an abusive relationship for citizenship or immigration status.

In May 2022, we worked with our partners at Activating Change to present a webinar on Serving Human Trafficking Survivors with Disabilities. As part of that presentation, we talked about human trafficking and all of the legal, social, and cultural issues that continue to affect people with disabilities in all aspects of their lives. At the Judge Rotenberg Center in Massachusetts, for example, students wear vests that deliver electric shock devices remotely controlled by staff members, despite years of protests and a ban by the Food & Drug Administration. The institution won a subsequent legal challenge to be able to continue the use of the shock treatments. At the Rotenberg Center, nearly 9 in 10 students are people of color with disabilities.

Black and Brown people are subject to police brutality and excessive force more than white people. The violence goes back for centuries and it seems to defy all attempts to stop it.

Mental health factors, along with race and disability status, are overrepresented in the majority of police arrests and police use of force. This is often due to the police not knowing how to approach and effectively interact with people who experience disabilities and/or mental health issues. It can also be due to racism and ableism.

Being sensitive to trauma is important, but it goes beyond that. Providers and advocates need to understand intersectionality. When we get services from people who feel comfortable recognizing and responding to racism and ableism, it gives a strong message that we will be listened to and believed.

So, what can health, safety, and protection officials do to better engage youth with disabilities in general?

  1. Explain who you are and why you are there.
  2. Consider asking if the pace of the conversation is too fast or too slow.
  3. Keep distractions to a minimum.
  4. Give one direction at a time. Ask one question at a time.
  5. Ask open-ended questions, rather than “yes/no” questions
  6. Allow enough time to answer.
  7. Avoid asking questions about specific times or dates. Instead, ask if it was after lunch or dinner, or around a certain holiday, or in a particular season.
  8. Use clear words and visual or concrete examples. Repeat or re-word what you said. Check back for understanding. Ask the person to tell you what was said, but in their own words.
  9. In general, do not assume the person can’t read, but also don’t assume they can.
  10. Sometimes people want to tell you what you want to hear. Try not to influence the person with your gestures or tone of voice.

A young, Black man wearing a Vermont sweatshirt holds a red marker as he looks down at a poster about diversity that he is creating while at a human rights rally.

Max Barrows of Green Mountain Self Advocates at a rally.

When people with disabilities experience trauma, they are capable of understanding and participating in therapy. Here are some suggestions for family members, friends, and responders:

  1. Be educated about various types of disability and any alternative communication devices or methods that people with disabilities may need.
  2. Presume competence – do not make assumptions about what people with disabilities can or cannot do. Respect their intelligence, whether they speak verbally or use supported typing to communicate. Try to remember that if you want to see competence, it helps if you look for it.
  3. “Nothing about me without me.” Anytime you are working on something that involves the lives of people with disabilities, make certain that people with disabilities are at the table.
  4. Keep reminding people who have been victimized that what happened to them was a crime and it was not their fault.
  5. Provide enough time for someone to talk at their own pace.
  6. Listen to what people with disabilities want to talk about before asking them to share details.
  7. Instead of telling people what to do, ask what they need.
  8. Respect privacy.
  9. Use language interpreters, and cultural brokers. A cultural broker is someone who helps people understand a group’s culture.
  10. Avoid criticizing actions. Only give advice if you are asked. Believe in people with disabilities as human beings. Accept that they made the best decisions possible under extreme conditions.
  11. Please be honest about how you support people, what your role is, and the boundaries of the relationship.
  12. Don’t give too much information. Let people know you care and support them to decide what happens next.
  13. Be aware that what someone needs to heal will change over time. What felt supportive yesterday might not be what’s needed today. Keep asking what people need.

Recognizing and responding to violence in the lives of Black and Brown people with disabilities can feel like a huge problem that is impossible to solve. Because it is hard to know what to do, a lot of people do not want to talk or think about it. But we can’t ignore this problem. Everyone has to help end violence.

Ableism and racism can make people forget that violence and abuse against people of color with disabilities is bad. Having more than one identity can be empowering, but also can be a challenge. All of these different parts that make us who we are intersect to make up a person's unique experiences. Don’t turn away because it seems too complicated to help. Understand the connection between ableism, racism, and violence. This understanding will open the door to disability and racial justice.