The Links Between Disability & Domestic Violence

Disability and abuse impact a sizable percentage of the population, but the links between them are too often ignored. 

In honor of Disability Pride Month, we’d like to bring awareness to how domestic violence impacts the disabled community. 

In the U.S., abuse and disability impact a sizable percentage of the population— 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men are subjected to domestic violence throughout their lifetime, and roughly a quarter of all adults have a range of physical, cognitive, and emotional disabilities.

Unfortunately, the ways in which abuse and disability intersect are too often ignored.

People with disabilities experience higher rates of domestic violence and sexual assault than non-disabled people. 70% of disabled people experience some form of abuse and are three times more likely to be sexually assaulted. 

Simultaneously bearing the brunt of misogyny and ableism, disabled women are especially vulnerable. 80% of women with disabilities have been sexually assaulted, and they experience intimate partner violence at a rate 40% higher than non-disabled women. Not only is the likelihood of violence high, but the acts of violence themselves are also more frequent and severe

Sexual assault and intimate partner violence are just two of many forms of abuse that disabled people face— disabled women are more likely than their non-disabled counterparts to experience physical abuse and reproductive coercion, and both women and men with disabilities are more likely to experience stalking and psychological abuse

Unsurprisingly, children with disabilities are disproportionately affected by various types of violence— they are more than twice as likely to be physically abused and almost twice as likely to be sexually abused

Evidently, abuse in the disabled community runs rampant— but why? 

In many cases, the abuser will take advantage of an individual’s particular disability and use it against them to maintain power within that relationship. For instance, if a disabled person needs assistance when eating, the abuser may refuse to feed them as a way to manipulate and control the victim. 

This is only one of the unique forms of abuse that disabled people face — other examples include:

  • Invalidating or minimizing a disability
  • Refusing to help with necessary daily tasks (e.g., using the bathroom, dispensing medication)
  • Over-medicating, tampering with, and/or withholding medication
  • Denying access to healthcare appointments or disability resources
  • Sexual assault when a disability inhibits a person’s ability to consent
  • Stealing or withholding finances (e.g., social disability checks)
  • Destroying or denying access to mobility devices (e.g., wheelchairs, walkers, etc.)
  • Harming or threatening to harm a service animal
  • Using the disability to cause shame, humiliation and justify the abuse
  • Threats of abandonment
  • Intentionally ignoring personal care and hygiene

Because people with disabilities are often isolated and dependent on a small support circle, in nearly 100% of cases, survivors with disabilities experience abuse at the hands of someone they trust— usually a family member, intimate partner, or caregiver, including health aides and living facility attendants. A small circle of people also means fewer points of contact, and thus fewer opportunities to escape the cycle of abuse. 

Despite its prevalence, domestic abuse against disabled people is often overlooked, with 70% to 85% of cases of abuse going unreported. That number is even higher for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities— a whopping 97% of cases are not reported, even though they are the most vulnerable to abuse.

Moreover, because so many cases of abuse against disabled people go unreported, very few cases are prosecuted. Only 5% of reported crimes against people with disabilities go to trial, compared to 70% of severe crimes against people without disabilities.

There are various reasons for such a low help-seeking rate in the disabled community. Survivors with disabilities face unique barriers to seeking help — they can be heavily dependent on their abusive caretaker and risk losing their assistance if they report the abuse. Lack of communication devices, interpretation, transportation, and sensitive services can also prevent disabled survivors from finding safety. Other reasons for not reporting abuse include fear of losing autonomy, custody of a child, or being institutionalized. 

Even if a disabled person does leave their abuser, the struggle doesn’t end there — many domestic violence shelters do not accommodate mobility aids, and service providers often lack the training necessary to support the particular needs of survivors with disabilities. Only 35% of facilities have disability awareness training for their staff, and only 16% have a dedicated staff person to deliver services to women with disabilities. 

It must be noted that LGBTQ+ and BIPOC survivors with disabilities face additional challenges within the disabled community. Disabled LGBTQ+ survivors may feel like outsiders within both communities— LGBTQ+ services and facilities may not be accessible for disabled people, and disability services may not be sensitive to LGBTQ+ issues. 

What’s more, disabled BIPOCs are at a higher risk for police brutality. In the U.S., half of those killed by law enforcement are disabled, and over half of Black people with disabilities have been arrested by the time they turn 28 — compared to less than a third of their disabled white counterparts.

We must put disabled survivors at the forefront of the conversation to end domestic violence. Understanding the unique struggles faced by the disabled community and other minorities is essential to providing comprehensive and sensitive care, developing appropriate preventative measures, and breaking stigmas and harmful social attitudes. There is no freedom from violence until we are all free.


Sanctuary’s services are free and available to all survivors living in New York City, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, marital or immigration status. If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, please do not hesitate to reach out to us for help.

Here are some additional disability-specific resources:

Barrier Free Living NYC 

Barrier Free Living is nationally recognized as the first fully accessible emergency shelter for survivors of domestic violence with disabilities.

Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services

ADWAS empowers Deaf and DeafBlind survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and harassment to transform their lives while striving to change the beliefs and behaviors that foster and perpetuate violence. They provide comprehensive services to individuals and families, community education, and advocacy on systems and policy issues.

National Deaf Domestic Violence Hotline 

The NDDVH is available to Deaf callers across the nation, answering videophone calls and emails 24/7. Deaf advocates, because of their experience working in the field of Domestic Violence for Deaf survivors and their extensive training, are uniquely able to provide crisis intervention, education, information, and referrals for Deaf callers.

The Arc

The Arc promotes and protects the human rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and actively supports their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetimes.

End Abuse of People With Disabilities

End Abuse of People With Disabilities activates people and organizations across movements to end violence against people with disabilities and Deaf people through a shared, intersectional framework.

Sanctuary Spotlight: Mary Ann Mailman

Mary Ann’s leadership and vision have been instrumental in Sanctuary’s growth and ability to serve the thousands and thousands of families who turn to us for assistance each year.

We were thrilled to be able to chat with Mary Ann Mailman, one of the early members of Sanctuary’s Board of Directors, who served four 3-year terms, culminating in the position of Board President. Mary Ann’s leadership and vision have been instrumental in Sanctuary’s growth, and in the agency’s ability to serve the thousands and thousands of families who turn to us for assistance each year.

You have been involved with Sanctuary for Families since the beginning. Can you tell us how it all started?

Founding members of Sanctuary, Sarah Burke and Alisa Del Tufo, were in social work school together and came to realize that survivors of gender violence had no options to get help. There were no city or state services, and the only option for a survivor of domestic violence was to go into one of the city’s homeless shelters. They said, “this cannot be; we have to change this,” and they decided to form an organization.

Their first idea was that other families would take in survivors, and Sarah and her husband Gil took in the first family: a mom with three children. That family lived with them for three weeks, and during that time, they came to realize that this was not going to be a long-term solution.

Alisa and Sarah began to look for a more permanent option. Alisa, who became Sanctuary’s first Executive Director, had been in theological school, so the first shelters were in convents and churches. Sanctuary’s first office was in the attic of one of the churches.

Sanctuary was three or four years old when I came on the Board to help with fundraising. I didn’t know much about domestic violence, but I knew how to raise money from initiatives at my sons’ school. There was very little structure, and the budget was only about $100,000 per year, but even that amount, was difficult for us to raise.

One of the things you were very involved in was the purchase of our transitional shelter, now named Sarah Burke House in honor of Sarah Burke, in 1988. Can you tell us how that happened?

It was during a time when landlords all over the city had abandoned buildings and were not paying their taxes. The city took those buildings back, and they had to figure out what to do with them. They had the brilliant idea of making them available to not-for-profits. Alisa came to a Board meeting; I’ll never forget it — she walked in and said, “We can have a building for a shelter, and it will only cost us a dollar.”

So, we became the owners of Sarah Burke House for one dollar. It was a totally bombed-out building at the time. We had to climb ladders up from the first floor to the fifth floor because there were no staircases. There was nothing – it was an empty shell.

Now that we owned the building, we had to figure out how to turn it into a shelter. Our initial idea was that it would be an emergency shelter, but the state was concerned that an emergency shelter for domestic violence victims would present too many security issues. So Sarah Burke House instead became the first transitional shelter in New York State, where families could stay for six months.

It took every Board member and every volunteer we could find to get it open. When the construction finally finished, it was the Board and volunteers who were there painting apartments, assembling furniture, and trying to make the building habitable. We wanted it to be a wonderful refuge for families who were coming out of emergency shelter.

At Sarah Burke House, each family has its own apartment. Those first residents were over the moon that they had their own residences. We also tried to make it a shared space – with common areas on each floor and a beautiful playground in the back.

What have been the most gratifying changes to you in the agency since the early days?

“We now have at Sanctuary all the tools that can really help people rebuild and move on to new lives — to be safe and to have hope for a future.”

The most satisfying thing in terms of Sanctuary’s growth for me was the evolution to a holistic model in serving our clients. Just providing a bed was not going to be enough. So first, we developed a clinical program so that we could provide counseling to help families move beyond their trauma. We also began to recognize that we had an obligation to the entire family – not just to the person who was being abused.

When Dorchen Leidholdt came on as the Director of the Legal Center, we began to provide legal representation to every client who needed it. There were so many different types of legal needs — orders of protection, child custody, immigration — but we didn’t have the budget or the staff to care for them all. That was when we began to get the attention of the legal community, and developed what is now an incredible team of pro bono lawyers.

We also knew we had to help with housing, and that became another piece of the Sanctuary wheel. And finally, the Economic Empowerment Program — our workforce training program — to me, completes the picture. We now have at Sanctuary all the tools that can really help people rebuild and move on to new lives — to be safe and to have hope for a future.

I’m so proud to have been part of the creation of the Career Advancement Network or “CAN” which allows volunteers to serve as a network for EEP graduates. CAN members provide and facilitate job and internship opportunities as our clients enter or reenter the workforce. It’s a wonderful collaboration between staff and volunteers that enriches the client experience.

Over the years, you were instrumental in growing our end-of-year fundraising campaign, the Annual Appeal. How did that initiative start?

Today we have a wonderful base of donors, and we have support from thousands of people. But in the beginning, there wasn’t any of that. I remember the day the Annual Appeal started — Sarah Burke came over to my apartment with a pack of index cards, and that was going to be our first database of fundraising solicitations!

We asked every Board member to give us a list of any name that would give us a dollar. Of course, we didn’t have a computer at the time, and used a typewriter to create and then mail each letter out. When someone made a contribution, I would write it down in a notebook, and a volunteer would send a personal note to thank them.

One of the many ways you’ve supported our work is by including Sanctuary in your will. Why do you think it’s important to do this?

If you believe in what Sanctuary is doing, and you want to do your part to make sure the organization lasts, why wouldn’t you include them in your will? Why wouldn’t you invest in its future, even after you’re no longer there?

Nobody knows what the future will hold after we’re gone, but sometimes new programs need to be started. Even if I can’t underwrite a program, I can do something that will help ensure Sanctuary’s good future.

Why does Sanctuary’s mission still motivate you to stay so involved?

“We are giving adults and children who have been victims of abuse hope for the future.”

It’s because of the client service. To me, that is the essential thing that Sanctuary must continue to do. It’s something that we should be really proud of. When I think of the number of lives that have been changed over the years, and I think about other things in life that we can’t control, I know that we have been able to do something really important at Sanctuary. We are giving adults and children who have been victims of abuse hope for the future.

In the beginning, we used to say that we were going to get rid of domestic violence. All these many years later, we haven’t been able to get rid of partner abuse. But we have been able to help people escape from abusive relationships, and I think that the children in those families realize there is another way to deal with interpersonal relationships, not violence.

For now, it’s enough that we can help a family to rebuild their life.

Is there anything you wish people knew about domestic violence?

Domestic violence affects everyone in our society. When I first joined the Board, I said, “I used to think, ‘it’s not part of my world,’ but the truth is that it’s a part of everybody’s world.”

I had not been exposed to abuse in my personal life growing up, but I came to know many people who had been. I think we have a responsibility to recognize that it’s happening because, in a lot of cases, people have no support system to turn to.

Anything else you want to add?

“I am so proud of what has been done, and how many lives have been changed.”

I just love the organization that Sanctuary is today. One of the reasons that Sanctuary is so vibrant has to do with its beginnings. I know that organizations change as they grow, but I think that Sanctuary has continued to be a community that is effective because of its partnership with staff, volunteers, and supporters.

People laugh at me, but I always think of being involved with Sanctuary as a calling. I am so proud of what has been done, and how many lives have been changed. I think that’s a gift that Sanctuary gives to me. I am just lucky to be involved.

Join Mary Ann in standing with our clients. Your gift supports Sanctuary’s life-saving work with survivors of gender violence.

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Depp v. Heard Trial: Media Coverage

A collection of powerful articles that elevate survivors’ voices and discuss the severity and long-term implications of the Depp v. Heard trial and its verdict.

Watching the Depp v. Heard trial turn into a spectacle of misogyny has been demoralizing and triggering for many of us, especially for survivors of gender violence.

Whatever the facts, we know that there was a concerted effort to use this trial as a means to discredit the #MeToo movement, minimize the severity of violence against women and girls, and force survivors back into silence.

To counter the aggressive levels of misinformation that have, sadly, shaped public discourse, we wanted to share a collection of powerful articles that elevate survivors’ voices and discuss the severity and long-term implications of the trial and its verdict.

The New Yorker | The Johnny Depp-Amber Heard Verdict Is Chilling

Many victims of domestic violence who watched this trial will likely conclude that, if they share their experiences, they will be disbelieved, shamed, and ostracized. [READ MORE]

The Cut | How Did Johnny Depp Become the Good Guy?

Depp v. Heard put the actor’s misogyny on full display. For his fans, he still walked away the hero. [READ MORE]

VICE | The Daily Wire Spent Thousands of Dollars Promoting Anti-Amber Heard Propaganda

The conservative media outlet ran Facebook and Instagram ads for stories backing Johnny Depp, an investigation by media non-profit the Citizens for VICE World News found. [READ MORE]

The Cut | The Inescapable Horror of Depp v. Heard

The Depp v. Heard trial has revealed a collective lack of empathy for survivors and an ignorance of the very real effects that public discussion of abuse has on some people who’ve lived through it. [READ MORE]

TIME | Depp v. Heard Reminds Us That the Legal System Is Still Stacked Against Survivors

Online, Depp’s supporters are rejoicing, insisting that his victory serves as proof that the #MeToo movement went too far. But the verdict is actually proof the #MeToo movement hasn’t gone far enough. [READ MORE]

TIME | The Depp-Heard Trial Perpetuates the Myth of the Perfect Victim

Perpetuating the “perfect victim” myth will have long-term consequences. Already, women are expressing trepidation about coming forward with allegations of abuse following the Heard-Depp trial. [READ MORE]

NBC News | Johnny Depp’s Amber Heard trial verdict will have a devastating chilling effect

As a Black woman, survivor of domestic abuse and writer who has penned work detailing my abuse, I will be haunted by this verdict and its implications for years to come. [READ MORE]

19th News | Johnny Depp trial unlocks new way for abusers to exert power over survivors, experts worry

Experts say that the amount of attention on this trial is offering abusers a look at a whole new way of potentially exerting power over a survivor. [READ MORE]

USA Today | What the Amber Heard, Johnny Depp trial didn’t cover: The violence bisexual women face

Heard’s sexuality was not an explicit part of the trial, and while experts say they were glad to see that her bisexuality wasn’t used against her, they wished coverage could have done more to address the ways in which a person’s sexual identity can contribute to vulnerability. [READ MORE]

The New York Times | Amber Heard: I ‘Stand by Every Word’ of Testimony in Defamation Trial

In her first public interview since losing a defamation case brought against her by Johnny Depp, her ex-husband, Ms. Heard said she had told the truth when she accused him of abuse. [READ MORE]


Amber Heard photo modified from author gdcgraphics. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Johnny Depp photo modified from author Harald Krichel. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. 

Our Statement on the Supreme Court’s Abortion Decision

The Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade ignores 50 years of precedent and is a blatant attack on human rights.

Hon. Judy Harris Kluger, Executive Director of Sanctuary for Families, issued the following statement in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization:

“Today’s Supreme Court’s decision, decided largely on ideological lines, to overturn Roe v. Wade and Casey ignores 50 years of precedent and is a blatant attack on human rights. Many states are now free to impose bans on abortion with no exceptions, even for rape and incest. The three judges in the minority eloquently wrote that they dissent ‘with sorrow — for this Court, but more for the many million American women who today have lost a fundamental constitutional protection.’

Like domestic violence, abortion bans are about power and control. In allowing states to restrict women from accessing abortion, the Court is stripping away their bodily autonomy — leveraging its power to force women to carry unwanted, unsafe, or unviable pregnancies to term with utter disregard for what that means to their rights as equal citizens of this nation. 

Bans on abortion can mean a death sentence — for women with high-risk pregnancies whose doctors deny them life-saving medical care; for women resorting to unsafe methods out of fear of prosecution or due to a lack of alternatives; and for women in abusive relationships living in a country where homicide is the leading cause of death for pregnant women. 

This devastating decision comes right after the Court’s irresponsible ruling striking down a century-old New York law that limited the carrying of concealed firearms outside the home. This, despite the evidence that access to a gun makes it five times more likely that an abuser will kill their victim. 

As one of New York’s leading service providers for survivors of gender violence, we know how detrimental both rulings are to the safety and wellbeing of our clients and victims across the country. 

Today’s ruling grants more power to abusers who use sexual violence and reproductive coercion to control their victims. It also adds yet another barrier for survivors to whom abortion represents a lifeline and a path towards freedom from abuse. The Court’s ruling and the impending state bans will disproportionately affect women of color, trans and nonbinary people, women with disabilities, and those living in poverty who lack the resources to travel to states where abortion is legal. 

As horrifying as they are, these attacks on our rights will not deter us from our mission to build a world free from violence. Sanctuary stands more committed than ever to the Movement for Reproductive Justice and will prioritize access to abortion and gun control in our advocacy efforts.”


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