Disabled people

Domestic and sexual violence

"Disability is related to sexual and domestic violence in two ways. 

1)         Disabled people are more likely to be abused both as children and adults than non-disabled people. It is not possible to give reliable statistics as the numbers vary according to study design, the population studied, methodology etc.  However, the consensus is that “Violence against women with disabilities has been identified as not only more extensive than amongst the general population but also more diverse in nature than for women in general." i

2)         Domestic violence can result in short and long term disability including acquired brain injury, mental health problems, blindness, hearing loss and muscular skeletal injuries.  Deliberate neglect and abuse can cause chronic illness and loss of function (mental and physical) which results in long-term disability.   Sexual violence is strongly associated with mental health problems and could also result in physical disability and brain injury as a result of physical attacks associated with the sexual violence.

In New Zealand domestic violence legislation, domestic violence is defined as occurring between people who live in a domestic relationship – not necessarily a sexual relationship.  For disabled people the relationships that this can include are much wider, as disabled people are reliant on a range of people to support them. 

This is explained in the booklet Domestic violence and disabled people. ii

“People who experience disability may rely on a variety of people to provide them with assistance.  Some of these people are family and friends; others are paid caregivers and staff from agencies that people who experience disability use.

Family violence is abuse of one person by another in a domestic relationship and under New Zealand law, it is child abuse when children witness or hear violence between adults.

The domestic violence act defines a domestic relationship as

• a spouse or partner
• a family member
• someone that you ordinarily share a household with
• a close personal relationship

There does not need to be a sexual relationship.

In your family this could be your husband, wife, brothers and sisters, parents, aunties, uncles, grandparents, in laws, boyfriends and other people living in the same household, for example in a flat or institutional setting.

People who are not covered by the Domestic Violence Act, but could still abuse you are: your home help, taxi driver, medical personnel such as nurses, doctors and therapists, care givers, interpreters, teachers, social workers, counsellors and the range of staff in hospitals and other institutions.”

This describes the complexity of the relationships and the higher risk of sexual and/or domestic violence that a disabled person is exposed to."

Domestic Violence and Disability. (2012). Briefing paper for Auckland Council: Sexual and domestic violence and disability

Physical and sexual violence

“The scarcity of information about abuse of women with disabilities suggests a continued reluctance of society to acknowledge that violence toward this population may be occurring. This is compounded by the overall devaluation of those with disabilities, and the categorizing of women with disabilities as dependent and asexual (Curry et al., 2009). Historically, attitudes toward people with disabilities have been negative, dismissive, resulting in marginalization and oppression (Chenoweth, 1996; Mackelprang & Salsgiver, 1996). Researchers suggest that cultural biases and negative societal views toward those with disabilities that include such behaviours as dehumanizing, depersonalizing, and devaluating adds to the continuation of abuse of these individuals (Chenoweth, 1996; Hassouneh-Phillips & McNeff, 2005; Sobsey, 1994).


Although statistics vary, it is clear that at the very least women with disabilities experience abuse at the same rate as nondisabled individuals and at worst they experience higher rates of abuse, incidents of disability-related violence, and sexual assault. Consistently, studies suggest that individuals with disabilities are abused for extended periods of time, are at greater risk of abuse by multiple types of perpetrators, and experience abusive tactics that target one’s disability. The risk of abuse and neglect of women with disabilities has been attributed to a number of identified factors. These risk factors include increased risk of isolation, abuse by multiple potential perpetrators, dependency as a result of disability, difficulties identifying and naming disability related abuse, and cultural/societal barriers.”

Plummer, S., & Findley, P. (2012). Women With Disabilities’ Experience With Physical and Sexual Abuse: A Review of the Literature and Implications for the Field. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 13(1) 15-29

Note: This page was created as pre-reading for the Auckland Regional Networking Meeting, Family and Sexual Violence held at Western Springs in September 2012.