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Cerebral palsy and abuse too often co-occur. The disabled are vulnerable because they may be perceived as weak, unable to communicate, and unable to fight back. Anyone who cares for and loves a child with cerebral palsy should be aware of the possibility of abuse and familiar with its signs.
Cerebral Palsy and Disability Abuse Statistics
According to studies regarding the abuse of children and adults with disabilities, the risk of abuse is significantly higher in these populations. Children with disabilities are 3.7 times more likely than non-disabled children to be victims of violence. These children are three times more likely to be victims of sexual violence.
According to multiple studies, the risk for abuse is high amongst those with physical disabilities and even higher for those with intellectual disabilities. Children and adults with disabilities are 1.5 times more likely to suffer physical violence and four times more likely to experience sexual assault than their non-disabled peers.
Survey results also shed light on these staggering statistics. One survey of more than 7,000 disabled people or their caregivers found that 70 percent had experienced some type of abuse. Half of these described physical abuses, 40 percent experienced sexual abuse, and 90 percent reported being emotionally or verbally abused. Others reported financial abuse and neglect.
Why the Disabled Are Vulnerable to Abuse
Many factors make children and adults with cerebral palsy and other disabilities more vulnerable to being victimized. These people are often dependent on caregivers, and they may be less likely than others to report abuse. This may be the result of limited ability to communicate but also a result of the fear of consequences.
Physical disabilities also make cerebral palsy abuse more common. A child who is limited physically may not be able to fight back or even just walk away from an abuser. This child is like a prisoner in a terrible situation, unable to leave because of their body.
A disabled child or adult may also have a poorer understanding of what abuse is and what to do about it. Especially if the victim is intellectually or developmentally disabled, it may not be clear to them that something isn’t right. Furthermore, the victim may be confused by the nature of the relationship with the abuser if it is a close family member, friend, or caregiver.
What Constitutes Abuse?
Abuse is a broad term encompassing many actions and inactions. It may be purposely or unintentionally perpetrated by caregivers, family members, teachers, neighbors, someone who lives in the same home, social workers, doctors, or even strangers or acquaintances. Abuse is anything that takes away someone’s liberty, human rights, or dignity or causes harm or injury.
Abuse can be perpetrated by anyone in any location, even where you wouldn’t expect it or from someone you trusted. Abuse is more common when there is a relationship between two people of unequal power, such as a caregiver and a disabled child.
Abuse is also more common when there are significant age differences, when someone has been given complete financial or legal power over someone else, when resources for care are limited, and when a caregiver or other person is blindly trusted and never checked.
Types of Abuse
Abuse can take many different forms, from physical violence to misuse of money. It is important to be familiar with how a disabled person may become a victim of abuse. Only by being aware can you stop or prevent this abuse from happening. Abuse categories may sometimes overlap, but a few main types emerge:
- Physical violence. This type of abuse is any kind of physical harm inflicted on a person. It may include hitting, kicking, bruising, grabbing, shoving, slapping, punching, burning, hair pulling, or other physical harm. Physical abuse may even involve medications, forcing a person to take too much or too little medication or even a recreational drug or poison. Inappropriate restraint of a disabled person could also be considered physical abuse.
- Sexual abuse. Any non-consensual sexual act or any sexual act with a minor or someone incapable of giving consent is sexual abuse. It may be inappropriate touching, sexual comments or harassment, showing someone pictures or parts of one’s body, performing sexual acts in front of someone, or forcing someone to engage in any kind of sexual act, including sexual intercourse.
- Neglect. Neglect is an example of abuse that results from inaction. If someone with a disability is not being cared for adequately, the person responsible is guilty of abuse. Neglect could mean not providing medication, not providing therapy, not providing adequate nutrition, or even isolating someone socially.
- Verbal or emotional abuse. Verbal abuse involves any kind of cruel statements or words that cause a person discomfort, emotional pain, or fear. Emotional abuse can be much more wide-ranging, although the effects may be the same. Any kind of action or inaction that harms a disabled person emotionally, such as threats to withhold treatment or food, is considered emotional abuse. This can overlap with neglect.
- Financial abuse. Financial abuse is any misuse of a disabled person’s money. This could mean spending it frivolously, wasting it, or stealing it. Using the person’s money for any purpose other than their care or agreed upon spending is considered abuse.
- Bullying. Bullying is a special category of abuse. It could take many forms, from physical violence to emotional and even financial abuse, but it has a consistent, regular, and frequent pattern that keeps the victim fearful and intimidated.
Signs of Abuse
There are many signs of abuse that loved ones and caregivers should be aware of and on the lookout for, even if they believe they can trust all the people the disabled person spends time with. Physical abuse may show as bruises, cuts, burns, malnutrition, a worsening of illnesses, or any other physical harm that cannot be explained any other way.
Emotional and verbal abuse may cause the victim to exhibit behavioral changes that you can’t explain. These may include lower self-esteem, crying more often, trouble sleeping, acting out or being violent, acting fearful, or any other changes that just don’t seem normal.
Signs of neglect of a disabled person may include behavioral changes as well, but also a lack of cleanliness and personal hygiene, weight loss, infections, and other signs that they are not receiving adequate care.
Signs of sexual abuse may also include behavioral changes, as sexual abuse is not just physical; it has emotional effects too. Other possible signs of sexual abuse include being afraid of physical contact with other people, behaving overtly sexually, acting fearful of someone specific, and physical symptoms such as abdominal pain, bleeding, irritation in the genitals, and sexually transmitted infections.
Financial abuse may only be evident if you investigate the disabled person’s money and find that some is missing or that care is lacking due to diminished resources. Bullying signs include physical signs as well as emotional and behavioral reactions like those described above, as well as fear of a specific person.
Anyone who suspects any type or degree of abuse of a child or adult with cerebral palsy or any degree of disability must report it. It is the only way to help the victim and make the abuse stop. Younger people can report to a trusted adult, such as a parent, teacher, doctor, or religious leader.
Adults who suspect abuse should report it to the police. If the suspected abuser is a hired caregiver, teacher, doctor, or other professional, the suspicions should also be reported to their organization. Abuse may also be reported to child protective services, welfare offices, civil rights, and disability advocacy groups.
Preventing Cerebral Palsy Abuse
Any suspected abuse should be reported, but it is much better if it can be prevented. If you have a disabled loved one in the family, be aware of the risks and take steps to prevent abuse. This means never putting complete, blind trust in one person.
All caregivers and people who spend time alone with the disabled child or adult should be checked on regularly. Anyone innocent of abuse will not mind this and, in fact, will encourage it for the protection of the child. If you have a loved one living in a residential facility, visit often and investigate the facility before choosing it.
Education is also essential for prevention. If your loved one is intellectually or developmentally disabled, they may not understand what abuse is. Even those that are only physically disabled may have a hard time understanding the line between care and abuse. Talk to your loved one about abuse, what it means, and how to communicate anything that makes them uncomfortable.
Cerebral palsy abuse and abuse of other types of disabled children and adults is a reality. It happens much more often than anyone would like to admit. If you love someone who is disabled, take steps to learn more about abuse, how to spot it, how to prevent it, and how to report it and put a stop to it.
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- Jones, L., Bellis, M.A., Wood, S., Hughes, K., McCoy, E., Eckley, L., Bates, G., Mikton, C., Shakespeare, T., and Officer, A. (2012, September 8). Prevalence and Risk of Violence Against Children with Disabilities: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies. Lancet. 380(9845), 899-907.
Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22795511/
- Gandhi, S., Palermo, D. G., & West, B. (2007). Defining abuse: A study of the perceptions of people with disabilities regarding abuse directed at people with disabilities. Disability Studies Quarterly, 27(4).
Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v27i4.54
- Childhood maltreatment among children with disabilities. (2019, September 18). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandsafety/abuse.html