By Jo-Anne Herina Jeffreys, Esq.

It’s well documented that individuals with disabilities are far more likely to suffer abuse and violence than the rest of the population. They’re often isolated, poor, and dependent upon others for living assistance, making them particularly vulnerable. Trusted caregivers, in fact, are frequently the perpetrators.

In addition to sexual and other physical abuse, victims may be subjected to verbal or psychological mistreatment through repeated humiliation or intimidation. Often, they may be neglected, denied proper nutrition, medical treatment, clothing or living conditions. The results can be devastating resulting in injury, depression, substance abuse and major disruption of their efforts to become active members of the community.

Too often, people with disabilities don’t realize that emotional or verbal abuse is unacceptable behavior. They also may not be able to identify inappropriate physical contact. If they haven’t been encouraged to speak for themselves, they may not realize that they have the right to complain or may fear that they won’t be believed. Even if they’re aware of hotlines, shelters and support groups that could assist them, they may fear that public agencies could force them to enter a group home or that they’ll be separated from parents, children or pets.

What Can Be Done

I always advise people to be “nosy neighbors.”” Learn to recognize the signs of abuse, such as altered behavior, a decline in personal hygiene or untreated health problems. Be prepared to investigate changed circumstances.

It’s critical that individuals with disabilities understand that they are entitled to respect, safety and healthy living conditions. They should have access to multiple caregivers so that they don’t become trapped in abusive situations. They should also be armed with information about where to get help when faced with abusive treatment, and they should be helped to identify a trusted friend or family member to whom they can confide.

Although much remains to be done to sensitize community services to the needs of individuals with disabilities, many reliable supports are currently available. Provide your loved one with a wallet card listing emergency phone numbers—911, the police or an Adult Protective Services hotline. Teach them to identify inappropriate behavior and to reach out for assistance at the earliest sign of mistreatment.

About this Article: We hope you find this article informative, but it is not legal advice. You should consult your own attorney, who can review your specific situation and account for variations in state law and local practices. Laws and regulations are constantly changing, so the longer it has been since an article was written, the greater the likelihood that the article might be out of date. SNA members focus on this complex, evolving area of law. To locate a member in your state, visit Find an Attorney.

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