Skip to main content
Skip to navigation

Abused Women with Disabilities at Greater Risk for Domestic Violence, MU Study Finds

Nov. 12, 2008

Story Contact:  Jennifer Faddis, (573) 882-6217,

COLUMBIA, Mo. – National surveys reveal that up to 31 percent of American women have been physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend and these numbers do not include emotional abuse. In a new study, a University of Missouri researcher found that women with disabilities are abused at rates equal to or greater than women without disabilities and have fewer avenues for recourse, thus putting them at an even greater risk.

 The study examined how women with disabilities are kept from participating in life activities that are important to them due to physical, sexual or emotional abuse from family members or caretakers. This treatment is called occupational injustice.

 “Occupational injustice occurs when a person, in this case, a woman with a disability who is the victim of domestic violence, is deprived of participation in meaningful and purposeful occupations by the perpetrator,” said Diane Smith, assistant professor of occupational therapy and occupational science in the MU School of Health Professions.

 Smith gives the example of someone taking car keys away from their spouse. While she says taking transportation away is inconvenient for anyone, a caregiver refusing to help a woman with a disability out of bed, locking her wheelchair or placing physical barriers in the home is abuse. Smith refers to this treatment as “layers of abuse” that lead to a downward spiral.

 “Layered upon the physical and sexual aspects of abuse is emotional abuse that make women with disabilities feel stuck and spiral into low self-esteem and possibly worse,” Smith said. “Often the abuser also is the caregiver so women are afraid to complain for fear of retaliation or being institutionalized.”

 The study also discusses women with cognitive or mental disabilities. Often, they can be abused and dismissed as “crazy” or someone not to be believed.  

 The study suggests empowerment as a remedy, such as personal empowerment for women with disabilities to know they have resources and options for help. Awareness also is emphasized for front-line medical staff, such as emergency room personnel and caregivers.

 “Health care providers need to stop looking only at the diagnosis and start looking at the person,” Smith said.

 Smith’s study – “An Occupational Justice Perspective of Domestic Violence against Women with Disabilities” – was published in the October 2008 edition of the Journal of Occupational Science.