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The unseen epidemic

Disability abuse, like elder abuse, is widespread but seldom reported.
Paul Russell | 17 September 2013
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“Despite thousands of such stories over the past two years, very little investigative reporting has been done to expose the “big picture” of abuse of people with disabilities as a national epidemic.”

Many reports, surveys and commentaries find their way into my inbox. But this report from the US Spectrum Institute jumped out and demanded attention!

The report: Abuse of People with Disabilities Victims and Their Families Speak Out - A Report on the 2012 National Survey on Abuse of People with Disabilities is a shocking indictment of the treatment of people with disability in a First World, 21st century nation like America. However, I wonder if the scale of the problem isn't common in much of the developed world.

The report says that more than 7,000 Americans from all states participated in an online survey from May to October last year. Most of them had a direct connection with disability. About 20 percent had a disability themselves and 47 percent had a family member with one. Online surveys have their limitations, but they do hint at the scale of the problem.

And in this case, the problem is huge. Alice Vachss, a special prosecutor in Oregon, described the finding as an condemnation of the American legal system:

“While these documented failures are not shocking …  the pervasiveness of our incompetence is. This country is supposed to stand for the proposition that justice is a fundamental right. These findings instead represent fundamental wrongs.”

About 35 percent answered “yes” to the following question: “Have you or your family member with a disability ever experienced abuse?” The report went on to say that, "Nearly half of victims with disabilities did not report abuse to authorities. Most thought it would be futile to do so. For those who did report abuse, nearly 54 percent said that nothing happened. In fewer than 10 percent of reported cases was the perpetrator arrested."

Here are some of the key findings:

  • Over 70% of people with disabilities reported they had been victims of abuse.
  • More than 63% of parents and immediate family members reported that their loved one with a disability had experienced abuse.
  • Some disability types had a higher incidence of abuse. Nearly three-quarters of people with mental health conditions reported they had been victims of abuse. About two-thirds of those with a speech disability, autism or an intellectual or developmental disability had experienced abuse. The figure for those with a mobility disability was about 55 percent.
  • Victims cited futility, fear, and lack of information as reasons for not reporting.
  • Almost three-quarters of people with disabilities reported they had been victims of bullying. For most of them it was a frequent experience and nearly 40 percent said that it had gone on for years.

The report makes suggestions to people with disabilities and their families, and agencies about reducing the risk.

“The first step in risk reduction is to acknowledge that abuse does occur to children and adults with disabilities. If you have a disability, admit that someone may take advantage of you or hurt you – emotionally, physically, sexually, or financially.

“If you have a family member with a disability, as hard as it may be to think about this, admit it – someone may abuse your loved one. If you are a provider of services to people with disabilities, you need to be aware that someone associated with your company or agency may abuse a client.

“The next step in risk reduction is to know who likely perpetrators might be. A person with a disability is more likely to be abused by a family member or someone in their daily routine than they are by a complete stranger. Perpetrators are often predators who misuse a position of trust or take advantage of a victim with actual or perceived vulnerabilities.”

It struck me immediately how similar this abuse pattern is to Elder Abuse, which is also reaching epidemic proportions in the West. Abuse by a family member or carer; abuse by someone in a position of trust; perceived futility or fear of reporting. It's a similar story.

Abuse of the disabled and elder abuse are compelling reasons why we should never legalise euthanasia and assisted suicide. Every valid legislative inquiry has made this point and it is truer now than ever.

And if you think that I'm exploiting this report to further the argument against euthanasia you are wrong. For me, the father of a developmentally challenged son, it is personal, very personal. That's why the thought of abandoning vulnerable people through euthanasia legislation infuriates me so. My wife and I know that Joseph will always need support and we worry about his future. The thought of the state putting him at risk is unbearable.

That's why when I hear euthanasia activists spouting the autonomy line, "I want the right to choose", I wonder whether they've ever considered anyone else. Get over it! As the great English poet, John Donne noted, like it or not, our lives are intertwined:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

Paul Russell is Executive Director of HOPE: preventing euthanasia & assisted suicide and is Vice Chair of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition International. This article has been reproduced with permission from his blog

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | abuse, disability, elder abuse, euthanasia
Copyright © Paul Russell . Published by MercatorNet.com. You may download and print extracts from this article for your own personal and non-commercial use only. Contact us if you wish to discuss republication.

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