According to the Equal Rights Center, domestic violence can intersect with disability in four key ways:

  • Domestic violence can cause temporary or permanent disability;
  • People with disabilities experience higher rates of domestic violence, sexual assault and abuse;
  • Violence, assault and abuse against a person with a disability often take on non-“traditional” forms; and
  • People with disabilities face additional barriers when seeking help.

The red flags of abuse are the same for everyone, but a person with disabilities may experience non-”traditional” signs, including an abusive partner who:

  • Tells them that they are “not allowed” to have a pain flare up
  • Steals or withholds their Social Security Disability check
  • Tells them that they are a bad parent or could never be a parent because they have a disability
  • Uses gaslighting to invalidate their disability (for example: “You’re faking it” or “It’s all in your head”)
  • Uses their disability to shame or humiliate them
  • Refuses to help them use the bathroom or complete necessary life tasks when they had previously agreed to
  • Withholds or threatens to withhold medication; purposefully over-medicates them or mixes medications in a dangerous/non-prescribed way
  • Instigates sexual activity when they know their partner is not capable of consenting
  • Withholds, damages or breaks assistive devices
  • Does not allow them to see a doctor
  • Threatens to “out” their disability to others (for example, someone who is HIV-positive may not wish to disclose their status, and their abusive partner will use their status to control them)
  • Threatens to harm or harms their service animal
  • Uses a disability as an excuse for the abuse; tells them that they “deserve” abuse because of their disability

The Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), adopted in 1990, provides protection from discrimination for people with disabilities. The ADA defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities.”

It’s important to note that under Title II of the ADA, social services such as domestic violence shelters must be accessible for people with disabilities. Title III of the ADA covers public accommodations, which generally includes all places open to the public, such as offices for counseling services, legal services, translation services, doctors’ offices and shelters.

Per the ADA, to be accessible to people with disabilities, shelters and offices are required to:

People with disabilities must have an equal opportunity to benefit from programs, services and activities. People with disabilities must be treated equally and may not be excluded from shelters on the basis of having a disability.

For example, it is not permissible to deny admittance to an individual because he or she has a mental health disability or HIV.

‘Reasonable accommodations’ – alterations to policies, practices and procedures – allow a program or shelter to provide the same services to people with disabilities as people without disabilities. Reasonable accommodations must be made unless they entail significant difficulty or expense.

For example, if a shelter has a no pet policy, that policy may need to be altered to admit an individual who has a service dog.

A building must be free of structural barriers to people with disabilities. Although people with mobility disabilities are the most affected by structural barriers, people with a range of disabilities can benefit from the removal of structural barriers or modifications of physical attributes.

Resources for Survivors with Disabilities

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse of any kind from an intimate partner, Hotline advocates are here to support you. Please note that Hotline advocates are mandatory reporters of abuse of people with disabilities. This means that to protect confidentiality, it is advisable not to disclose identifying information when speaking with a Hotline advocate.