Disability and Partner Abuse

There are some very specific challenges for people with disabilities who are suffering domestic abuse. This article talks through why people can become more vulnerable to partner abuse, barriers to seeking support and advice on how to support a friend or relative you are concerned about.


A report published by Public Health England in 2015 found that disabled people experience disproportionately higher levels of domestic abuse and for longer periods of time than non-disabled people. The abuse also tends to be more frequent and more severe.

People with disabilities aren’t just vulnerable to abuse from their spouse or intimate partner. The perpetrator can be a family member or someone in a position of trust, for example carers (paid or volunteer), care home workers and other healthcare professionals.

Why are disabled people vulnerable to abuse?

Victims can have complex care needs which increase their reliance on others for everyday needs. If they are in poor health, have reduced mobility, mental health problems or learning difficulties, this can also limit their ability to access support services. Disabled people are vulnerable in other specific ways:

  • Reduced or no mobility – not able to get to a phone, access services or physically escape.
  • Hearing or visual impairment – not able to hear or see an attack coming.
  • Communication – mental health, learning or speech difficulties may prevent them communicating what is happening to them.
  • Social isolation – disability may mean they can’t go out and therefore don’t have a support network outside the home.
  • If they are dependent on their abuser, they are less likely to have time alone with health professionals they could confide in.
  • Lack of power – their abuser acts as a ‘gatekeeper’ controlling who they see, their ability to act independently and coercing them.

Types of abuse

Abuse can occur anywhere, not just in a disabled person’s own home. It can be in the homes of their family, in hospitals, care homes and day centres. The abuse can take many forms:

  • Physical.
  • Psychological or emotional, e.g. the abuser using a person’s disability to degrade them.
  • Sexual.
  • Neglect (intentional or unintentional) or withholding care (such as medication) and failing to provide for the victim’s basic needs.
  • Removal of mobility or sensory devices (e.g. hearing aids) or any other devices that aid independence.
  • Financial abuse: e.g. the abuser may claim benefits on behalf of the victim but keeps/controls the money.

Not all abuse is intentional. This of course does not make it any less unacceptable. Passive, unintentional abuse can occur where someone doesn’t have the skills to care for a disabled person, for example an under-trained carer.

What are the barriers to seeking help?

In addition to physical limitations, there are several real and perceived reasons why disabled people may be reluctant or unable to engage with support services. These include:

  • Fear that they won’t be believed as their carer is seen to be selfless or a ‘saint’.
  • Fear they won’t be believed owing to their mental health, learning disabilities – the carer telling others the victim is mad or making it up.
  • Concern that leaving an abusive relationship will mean leaving a specially adapted house.
  • Fear that reporting the abuse may lead to institutional care.
  • Support services not being accessible, e.g. information isn’t available in braille or audio, or services are only available in places they can’t physically access (such as via a staircase).
  • Worried about being a burden on shelter/refuge services or that such accommodation isn’t accessible (e.g. to wheelchairs).

Unfortunately, for these reasons, there are many invisible victims who don’t come forward.

Do you think you know someone who is suffering abuse?

Things to look out for that might indicate abuse:

  • Unexplained injuries or untreated problems.
  • Failure to take medication regularly – missed GP appointments, unfilled prescriptions.
  • Partner or carer refuses to let the person be seen alone.
  • Unexplained changes in appearance, personality and behaviour.
  • Being left dirty, inappropriately dressed, or in unsafe/unsanitary living conditions.

Our guide to spotting the signs someone is being abused has a more comprehensive list of things to look out for.

Steps you can take to help them:

  • Start a conversation with them about what is happening.
  • Consider involving adult care services – a disabled person may be regarded as a ‘vulnerable adult’ and therefore policies and procedures for safeguarding and protection must be followed by agencies.
  • Tell them where they can go for help and offer to make contact for them. Give them our number for FREE confidential advice: 08 088 088 088.
  • Discuss whether there is a safe place they can go to escape an immediate threat of abuse.
  • If you think someone is being abused in a care home or by a carer, contact your local council.

Are you being abused?

If someone is causing you distress or harm in any way, threatening you, or is forcing you to do something against your will, then you are being abused.

  • If it is safe to do so (and you are physically able to), contact us on 08 088 088 088 to talk confidentially to someone trained to help you find support.
  • If you cannot immediately remove yourself from the abuse, reduce the opportunity for it to happen. Could a trusted friend be present when the perpetrator is with you?
  • If you are dependent on the perpetrator for your mobility and access to other people, then GP or dentist appointments can be an ideal opportunity to talk privately to someone who can help.

REMEMBER, in an emergency, always call 999 if you can.

The Herts Domestic Abuse Helpline is a FREE and confidential service providing advice and support to anyone who is impacted directly or indirectly by domestic abuse. Call 08 088 088 088 to speak to a local expert who can offer bespoke advice and signposting to support groups and the most appropriate agency support. Don't suffer in silence contact us today.