Barriers in Disability Organizations

There are many kinds of disability-related organizations: residential, personal care, advocacy, and peer-run organizations. A lot of disability-related organizations focus first and foremost on people’s disabilities; very few seek to identify and address the potential abuse of people with disabilities. Disability organizations also tend to keep to themselves or work only with other disability organizations because they believe no other system would really understand “their people.” As a result, disability-related organizations and systems have barriers that prevent survivors with disabilities from getting the help they need.

Common Barriers

Here are common barriers people with disabilities have reported:

  • I didn’t know if it was safe to talk to my caseworker.
  • No one ever asked me if I was being abused.
  • My caseworker didn’t believe me that I was raped. She said I’d been unstable since I stopped my medication.
  • The agency fired my personal care attendant after he abused me, but never even checked in to see how I was doing.
  • I was afraid my advocate would make a report to Adult Protective Services if I told her what was happening.
  • The shelter wasn’t accessible, so I was moved to a nursing home.
  • I had to see the person who raped me everyday; he was a client of the same program I attended.
  • The staff didn’t think that I’d understand the supports they could have provided me.

Why Barriers Exist

There are a number of factors that contribute to the barriers survivors with disabilities face when trying to get help from disability organizations.

Providers lack awareness of the problem.

Many providers working in the field of disability are not aware of the high rates of abuse among people with disabilities. Limited research exists on the problem and the research that does exist isn’t widely known. In addition, providers don’t routinely receive specialized training on domestic and sexual violence, unique considerations when addressing trauma (including safety, confidentiality, empowerment, and healing), and the implications for their work.

Abuse falls outside of the scope of issues many agencies explicitly address.

Abuse is one of many issues facing people with disabilities. Housing, healthcare, education, and employment, for example, remain fundamental issues for many. Most disability agencies are organized around addressing these issues and not abuse, which has historically been a hidden problem.

State reporting laws and/or agency practices have a silencing effect on victims.

Every state and territory of the United States has a law that requires certain individuals to report certain injuries or cases of abuse or neglect of “vulnerable adults” to law enforcement, social services, and/or a regulatory agency. To comply with these laws, disability organizations frequently report abuse to authorities. While these efforts are designed to protect people with disabilities and keep them safe, these practices often do not allow people with disabilities to decide for themselves whether, when, and from whom to ask for help. Anecdotal reports from survivors with disabilities suggest this lack of control prevents people from reaching out to disability organization for help.

Providers aren’t equipped to address victimization or to support survivors.

Staff members don’t know when or how to safely and appropriately ask the people they serve about their experiences with abuse and their safety, and often don’t recognize the overt signs that someone is being abused. Staff members are also unsure of how best to respond when abuse becomes known, including what to say, who to tell, what services and supports to offer the person, and how to handle difficult and more complicated situations, such as what to do when the abuse is committed by a staff member or by another client. Most agencies don’t have policies and protocols in place to guide their staff’s practices in these areas or training to increase their knowledge and comfort levels.

Partnerships with experts in domestic and sexual violence are rare.

Most disability organizations lack connections – informal or formal – with domestic violence programs and rape crisis centers in their area. Without this assistance, they have no one to turn to when they have questions or need support when serving a survivor with a disability.


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