What is Abuse?

There are many types of abuse. All types of abuse involve a Power and Control dynamic. Abuse is when one person gains and maintains power and control over another person. One of the most common forms of abuse is Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), or Domestic Violence. Other types of abuse include Sexual Assault, Caregiver Abuse, Human Trafficking, Stalking, Elder Abuse, and more. Sometimes people can experience multiple types of abuse at the same time. Abuse is never the survivor's fault.

Below, you will find descriptions of some types of abuse, and how they can be related to disabilities. We hope that you find information and empowerment as you read them, and we encourage you to care for yourself and take breaks if you need to. The following statistics and descriptions might be upsetting for some people. 

To learn more about other identities and how they can relate to abuse, click here to go to our Intersectionality page. 

What is Domestic Violence (Intimate Partner Violence)?

Domestic violence is an escalating pattern of behaviors used by one partner to exert power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship. It can include physical, emotional, mental, financial, sexual, and cyber abuse, none of which is more or less serious than another. Domestic violence looks different depending on the situation, but always includes one partner attempting to maintain power and control over another. Abusive partners use various tactics to maintain power and control over victims, which may include behaviors that manipulate, intimidate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure or wound someone.

It’s incredibly difficult for anyone to leave an abusive relationship; studies show it can take up to 7 attempts for someone to leave an abuser. There are multiple reasons for this; for one thing, leaving the relationship is the most dangerous time, and can trigger the abuser’s desire for power and control in lethal ways. Other reasons can include financial considerations, wanting what’s best for the children, pressure from family or friends to stay, religious beliefs, and many others. Every individual’s situation is unique, and every individual experiencing abuse has their own reasons why they may choose to stay. It’s important to acknowledge that every individual knows their situation best, and has the right to make informed decisions about their safety and well-being.

Domestic Violence and Disabilities

For people with disabilities, all of those reasons still apply with the addition of specific barriers or considerations. For example, the abuser may be the individual’s caregiver or have control over their assistive technologies or medicine. The abuser may have isolated the individual to the point that they don’t believe there is anyone else who could provide them with care. Women with disabilities are 40% more likely to be victims of abuse, and the abuse they report is longer-lasting and more intense.  Abusers may use a person’s mental health disability against them when they try to access services, calling the person with disabilities “crazy” or “paranoid” or “delusional.” People with disabilities might not have access to affordable transportation or housing or prescriptions. 

This is a Power and Control Wheel. It can be a helpful tool to name some of the things that someone experiencing abuse might be going through:


What is Sexual Assault?

Sexual assault is any sexual contact or behavior that occurs without consent. It can include unwanted or forced kissing, groping, and touching, as well as other sexual acts and attempted or completed rape. While rape is often legally defined as involving penetration, rape can be more inclusively defined as any sexual intercourse that occurs without consent. This includes non-consensual sexual intercourse that occurs between people of any and all genders and sexualities (Learn more about gender and sexuality here). All forms of sexual assault, including rape, are never the victim’s fault.

The common thread between all forms of sexual violence is a lack of consent. Consent is the active and ongoing process of clarifying and respecting the boundaries of other people - boundaries that include physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual boundaries. When consent is active and ongoing, all parties are making the active effort to clarify their partner’s boundaries, and all parties don’t assume that consent given in the past means the person consents in the present. For example, someone could say at the beginning of the night that they feel comfortable having sex, but could change their mind later.

Consent can be violated in a number of ways. The use of physical force is obviously a violation of consent, but other violations can be more insidious. Ignoring requests to stop, claiming that they can’t stop, or saying “I know you want this” when someone is saying no are all violations of consent. Consent cannot be given when someone is under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Despite the high rates of sexual violence in the US, rape is often not reported, and when it is reported it is rare for the rapist to face any kind of criminal punishment. Unfortunately, the barriers and social consequences victims face are often far more serious than anything their rapist ever will.

The social factors that protect rapists and punish victims lead to a social structure known as rape culture, where our larger culture tends to ignore the severity and scope of sexual violence and blame victims for the crime.

Sexual Assault and Disabilities

Because rapists specifically target people whom they perceive to be vulnerable, people with disabilities are more than twice as likely as the general population to face sexual violence. (2007 Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report on Crime Against People with Disabilities) Some persons with disabilities are unable to voice or clarify their boundaries, making it impossible for them to consent to sexual acts. Others may be confused about boundaries with caregivers, especially if the caregiver touches them frequently for necessary care. Many people with disabilities are never educated about sex because of ableist attitudes toward sexuality (learn more about ableism here), making it difficult to tell the difference between consensual sex acts and non-consensual sex acts. There can also be several barriers to reporting the crime, such as a Deaf person not having access to technologies that would allow them to communicate with police.

Did You Know?

1 in 4 American women have been sexually assaulted
1 in 7 American men have been sexually assaulted
7 out of 10 rapes are committed by someone the victim knows. (source: RAINN)
47% of transgender people will experience sexual violence during their lifetime. 44% of lesbians and 61% of bisexual women have experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner, and 26% of gay men and 37% of bisexual men have experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner. (source: HRC)

What is Caregiver Abuse?

Caregivers help persons with disabilities with activities of daily living, including bathing, managing medications, and taking care of meals, bills, household chores, and more. Caregivers can be unpaid family members, or they can be paid professionals. Caregivers can provide care for people living independently or with their families, or they can provide care for those living in long-term care facilities.

Because there is an inherent power dynamic between caregivers and the people they serve, it is critically important for caregivers to respect and clarify boundaries. When a caregiver crosses boundaries and uses power and control tactics, it is a form of abuse known as caregiver abuse. Even when the caregiver is an intimate partner, such as a spouse, the violation of boundaries is never okay.

What Does Caregiver Abuse Look Like?

Like other forms of abuse, Caregiver Abuse is rooted in power and control and can manifest in a variety of ways. While these are tactics that exist in other kinds of abusive relationships, caregiver abuse is unique because of the level of influence the caregiver has over their victim. Abusive caregivers may try to justify or hide their behavior in a number of ways. They might try to justify being abusive by discussing the stress of the caregiver position - for example, being a caregiver is so stressful that they can’t help but lash out. When working with people who have mental health or cognitive disabilities, caregivers may try to gaslight their victims (convince them that their version of reality is false) by saying they imagined or hallucinated the abuse. Caregivers might also tell their victims that their feelings are not valid because of their disability. It is important to remember that abuse is never justifiable for any reason.

Caregiver Abuse and Elder Abuse often intersect. To learn more about the prevalence of abuse in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, read the Elder Abuse section below.

This is a Power and Control Wheel for People with Disabilities and Their Caregivers. A lot of the aspects in this wheel can be applied to any other type of abuse as well.


What is Elder Abuse?

Elder abuse is any form of mistreatment that results in harm or loss to an elder person. The tactics of power and control in cases of elder abuse are similar to other abusive relationships, and include physical, psychological, sexual, and financial abuse. Elder abuse can be committed by caregivers, intimate partners, and family members. It’s estimated that about 4-6% of the elderly population experience abuse.

What Does Elder Abuse Look Like?

There are several components to elder abuse that make it unique. For one, while financial abuse is a common tactic in many abusive relationships, elders are specifically targeted for financial abuse because of the wealth and assets they have accrued over their lifetime. Abusers in a position of power over the elder can forge their signatures, steal money or property, trick an elder into signing a deed or will that benefits the abuser, or threaten to withhold necessary care in order to make an elder comply with financial demands. Abusers might also gain power of attorney, where the elder (or elder’s family members) grants them the ability to legally act on their behalf. Power of attorney abuse is often not discovered until after the elder’s death.

Another issue that makes elder abuse unique is that many elders live in long-term care facilities or nursing homes. About 85% of those who live in long-term care facilities are over the age of 65. This is significant because the prevalence of abuse in nursing homes is stunning. Between 1999 and 2001, nearly 1 in 3 nursing homes were cited for violations of federal standards that had the potential to cause harm or that had caused actual harm to a resident. In a 2009-2010 study, over 50% of nursing home staff admitted to mistreating older patients. And in a study of 2,000 interviews of nursing home residents, 44% said they had been abused and 95% said they had been neglected or had seen another patient be neglected. While there are obviously many wonderful nursing homes and long-term care facilities, the prevalence of neglect and abuse in these institutions is a huge concern when discussing elder abuse.

One of the barriers elders face to escaping abusive situations is the stereotypes of elderly people. Similarly to how an abuser might use ableist language to deny that the abuse is happening, abusers of elders can call on stereotypes of “an aging mind” to brush off allegations of abuse: in other words, the victim can’t be trusted because their age makes them unreliable.

Did You Know?

In a study of 2,000 interviews of nursing home residents, 44% said they had been abused.

95% said they had been neglected or had seen another patient be neglected.

What is Stalking?

Stalking is a criminal activity that consists of the repeated and persistent following and/or harassing of another person with an intent to instill fear or injury. Stalking can take many forms: a stalker may follow someone around in their car or show up at their place of work or at their home. However, stalking can also take less obvious forms. It can happen online through repeated and harassing messages or texts, and it can happen through a third party working under the primary stalker.

Stalking, like the other forms of abuse listed on this page, is a form of power and control. It’s a form of intimidation that makes the victim/survivor feel powerless, and it’s all about sending a message. For one, the stalker is sending the message that they have control over the victim’s very physical space and environment and that no matter where they go the abuser will be watching. But it’s also a direct, calculated threat to the individual’s safety and well-being, either through verbal threats or simply their physical presence conveying that they could choose to be violent if they wanted to; they hold all of the power and control.

Stalking also deeply impacts a victim’s relationships. Stalkers will often target family members, especially children. They may also threaten the victim’s job security by showing up at their place of work and harassing other employees or the victim’s boss.

Stalking and Disability

For people with disabilities, stalking may be more dangerous because of various barriers that people with disabilities might face. For example, someone who uses a wheelchair may not be able to avoid stalking as easily as someone who does not. An individual with anxiety, PTSD, or other mental health conditions may be severely triggered by stalking, impacting their ability to work, socialize, parent, and go about their daily life. Somebody who is Blind or Low Vision might also have a more difficult time recognizing that they are being stalked, and may face barriers to reporting and identifying the suspect to police. 

Did You Know?

1 in 6 American women and 1 in 19 American men have experienced stalking.
The average duration of stalking is 1.8 years

What is Human Trafficking?

Human trafficking is the use of force, fraud, or coercion to control an individual for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex acts or labor services against their will. Contrary to popular belief, trafficking does not always include physical transportation, and in many cases, the victim/survivor does not even know they are being trafficked. It can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, race, socio-economic background, sexual orientation, and location.

Sex trafficking involves the recruitment, harboring, transportation, or soliciting or a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act, in which that act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion. Sex trafficking can take place in venues such as brothels and escort services, but it can also be carried out via the internet or interpersonally.

Labor trafficking also involves the recruitment, harboring, transportation, or soliciting of a person using force, fraud, and coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, debt bondage, or slavery. Labor trafficking can take place in many settings from domestic work and small businesses to factories and large farms.

While the common perception of trafficking involves dramatic kidnappings and keeping individuals locked up against their will, this is not always the case. Trafficking, like abuse, is complicated and heavily rooted in power and control. Oftentimes the person being trafficked might feel that they are in a loving relationship, and believe that they have to do what the trafficker is saying for the sake of the relationship. For example, the trafficker might say that they, as a couple, need more money to be able to stay together, and the only way to make that money is through trafficking. In other words, the road that leads an individual into being trafficked can be insidious and can start with what seems like a healthy, loving relationship.

Human Trafficking and Disability

People with disabilities are more vulnerable to trafficking, in part because some individuals with disabilities rely on caregivers who can exploit their vulnerability. For example, a caregiver may take advantage of an individual’s inability to consent, either through the misuse of medications, assistive technologies, or other strategies of power and control. The tactics of power and control discussed in the Domestic Violence section of this page are also utilized by traffickers to force or coerce victims into trafficking.

Did You Know?

Contrary to popular belief, trafficking does not always include physical transportation, and in many cases, the victim/survivor does not even know they are being trafficked.