The Ultimate Victims

Reprinted from PN January 2001

Abuse, exploitation, and neglect of people with disabilities. Why is "victimization" so prevalent—and what steps can prevent it?

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Mike has multiple sclerosis (MS) and uses a power wheelchair. He arrived at the emergency room malnourished, extremely weak, and needing his medications. He told the medical staff he is a prisoner in his own home, and his wife has denied him access to his finances as well as the phone, bathroom, and food. A dresser blocks his bedroom door. After receiving medical treatment, Mike returned home, and the cycle continues. Why?

Tracy Latimer, a young Canadian with cerebral palsy, died in November 1993 when her father drove his truck into a closed barn and left the motor running with Tracy in the car. After she died, he placed her body back in her bed. Following an autopsy on Tracy, her father confessed to taking her life. He served less than two years in prison due to public outcry that he had already "served a sentence during the 12 years of Tracy's life." Why?

A female quadriplegic lives with her boyfriend, who is her caretaker. Although he is emotionally abusive to her, she refuses to leave him. Why?

Each year, countless individuals with disabilities become victims of crimes through abuse, neglect, and exploitation. Why is this victimization so prevalent—and what can be done to prevent it?

According to a variety of studies, people with disabilities are more likely to be victims of abuse than are individuals without disabilities. How big is the risk? Studies indicate that people with disabilities are anywhere from one to three or more times more likely to be at risk for abuse and violence.

Support services for victims with disabilities were largely overlooked until passage of the Americans With Disabilities Acts (ADA) in 1990. That year, the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA) first helped bring awareness to the many obstacles faced by victims with disabilities. Many offenders are motivated by the desire to obtain control over their victims. They see people with disabilities as unable to physically defend themselves, identify their attackers, or call for help—and thus become perfect targets.

People with disabilities may feel powerless to fight or flee, notify others, or testify about their victimization. They often do not report crimes because they depend on those who abuse them and feel helpless to do anything about it. They may fear retaliation in the form of withholding of services or being put in a home if they report the abuse. They may also think they will be laughed at and not taken seriously.

Individuals with disabilities need to take steps to keep from becoming "victims." As horrifying as it is, sometimes a caretaker, spouse, or relative is the perpetrator of abuse, neglect, or exploitation.

How does a victim deal with this "friendly fire"? The fear of being without assistance often outweighs the fear of being seriously harmed.

If you or someone you know is being abused, neglected, or exploited, seek a doctor's help immediately if you need medical attention. Call the local police to file a complaint, and contact your local state agency on adult protective services. Also, get in touch with local home-health agencies to find out what back-up services are available for interim care, or contact the local domestic violence hotline if you need emergency shelter.

What if the abuse, neglect, or exploitation originates with strangers?

— Stay alert. Avoid situations that could lead to crime, such as unlit parking lots, dark alleyways.

— Be realistic about your limitations.

— Carry a personal alarm.

— Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return.

— If you use a wheelchair, install eye-level peepholes in the doors of your home.

— If you are coming out of a mall into a large parking lot, ask a security person for an escort.

— Pepper sprays and stun guns can give you time to get away from attackers.

Carrying a cell phone and taking self-defense classes can also help keep you from being vulnerable. Remember, there is safety in numbers, so try to get someone to go with you whenever possible.

With support from the Office for Victims of Crime, the National Victim Center (NVC) has developed a training program to instruct agencies on how to provide specialized services and information to crime victims with disabilities. The Rite Away Team has a 24-hour, toll-free, assistance hot line for crime victims, especially those with disabilities.

If you or a loved one has been victimized, contact one of these agencies. Stop the cycle of abuse!

A social worker in Houston, Paula Dodd has written other articles for PN.


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