Crimes Against People with Disabilities

It's common, offenders often close to home

by Bill Norman on May 1, 2008 - 9:36am

QUEST Vol. 15, No. 3

“Yesterday I was battered,” begins an entry in the blog of a man with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease).

In a series of such entries over a period of months, the writer (now deceased) described how his hired caregiver abused him, including taking away the bell he used to summon help, ignoring him when he did ring and ridiculing his efforts to communicate as his paralysis spread.

A woman with limb-girdle muscular dystrophy had it worse. In October, 60-year-old Sherry Taub of Green Valley, Ariz., and her husband set out on an RV trip. David Taub originally told police his wife had been robbed and fatally beaten in their RV when they parked at a New Mexico truck stop. Later, he admitted he himself was the assailant.

A pervasive, frightening situation

Crime and violence against people with disabilities is “an invisible epidemic,” said Daniel D. Sorenson, chairman of the California Coalition on Crime Against People with Disabilities, in a 2001 speech entitled “Hate Crimes Against People with Disabilities.”

These crimes include rape, assault and murder, as well as economic crimes. Sorenson noted that “most experts agree that the rate of violent crime is from four to 10 times higher for people with disabilities than for the general population.”

In his paper “Violence and Abuse in the Lives of People with Disabilities” (1994), Gregor Wolbring, research professor at the University of Calgary (Canada), characterized the types of people most frequently guilty of abuse:

  • 0-5 percent are strangers
  • 15 percent are acquaintances and neighbors
  • 15-25 percent are natural family members
  • 30 percent are disability service providers

Society’s double standard

Wolbring, who was born without legs as a result of the drug thalidomide, said the situation for disabled people is worse than for other crime victims in at least three respects.

First, even though people with disabilities are the highest-risk group for abuse and violence, society is largely unaware of the problem.

Secondly, support for disabled victims is much less available than for nondisabled victims. When people with disabilities seek victim-related assistance from social service providers, these groups often have limited knowledge of the resources available to people with disabilities.

And finally, abuse and violence against people with disabilities is much more commonly accepted and less frequently punished than for other victim groups.


For example, Wolbring created a chart pointing to the “softened” terms society often applies to crimes against the disabled versus the general population:

In a 1999 survey of Massachusetts court documents, the Boston Globe found that of 342 crimes committed against people with disabilities, only 5 percent ended in a conviction. Of crimes involving people without disabilities, the conviction rate was 70 percent.

Abuse has long-lasting effects


One of many aspects of abuse is the effect it has on the subsequent behavior of victims. In another chart, Wolbring compared counselors’ descriptions of 43 children with disabilities who had been sexually abused with 43 children without disabilities, who had been similarly abused. On all measures, abused children with disabilities did worse:

“Crime can have life-changing consequences for the health, well-being and financial stability of victims who struggle for weeks, months and years with the aftermath of victimization,” said Judith Lewis Herman in her book Trauma and Recovery (Basic Books, 1997).

Victims don’t report

Very few reliable statistics exist about people in the United States with disabilities who fall victim to crime. The victims themselves often fail to report abuse to authorities.

Crime victims who are dependent on the person abusing them are less likely to report such crimes, notes a 2007 assessment prepared by a group of three disability rights organizations (the National Council on Disability, Association of University Centers on Disabilities and National Center for Victims of Crime).

In “Breaking the Silence on Crime Victims with Disabilities in the United States” the groups found that crime victims with disabilities often fear retaliation or destitution if the abuser is arrested, “… leading many to live lives of silent desperation and hopelessness in the face of long-term, repeat victimization.”

Further, “Victims also may have feelings of powerlessness stemming from the perception that the incident or series of incidents are somehow their fault,” said Olegario D. Cantos VII, special counsel to the assistant attorney general, U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.

High hopes didn’t pan out

In an effort to get a better handle on the real numbers of crime victims with disabilities, 10 years ago Congress passed the Crime Victims with Disabilities Awareness Act.

Under the CVDAA, the U.S. Justice Department was instructed to gather data on this victim population through the country’s main source of crime victim information, the National Crime Victim Survey. But at this juncture, the CVDAA hasn’t proved to be the awareness-enhancing tool it was hoped to be.

Recognizing the act’s shortcomings, the three agencies mentioned above joined forces in 2007 to enact five goals:

  • public education to raise awareness about the circumstances and needs of disabled crime victims;
  • research to identify the prevalence and consequences of such crimes, effective crime prevention methods, and necessary victim services like crisis intervention, information about legal rights and supportive counseling;
  • public policy changes that better integrate crime victims into local, state and federal services;
  • programs and services that help crime victims with disabilities rebuild their lives; and
  • national leadership that will serve as agents of change in behalf of such victims.

Now, a year later, where do things stand? Close to where they started.

According to Kevin O’Brien, director of Education and Victim Services for NCVC, funding has been allocated to help the three organizations pursue their goals, and a convocation of victims’ rights groups will discuss the issues further, possibly in March 2009.

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