More MS news articles for April 2001

Disabled Most Likely to be Victims of Serious Crime

Tash Newsletter
March 2000
Title: The Invisible Victims
Author: Dan Sorensen
Faculty evaluator: Julie Allen, Ph.D.
Student researchers: Jennifer Swift, Natalie Guilbault

Research consistently finds that people with substantial disabilities suffer from violent and other major crime at rates four to ten times higher than that of the general population. Estimates are that around 5 million disabled people are victims of serious crime annually in the United States.

People with substantial disabilities represent at least 10 percent of the population of our country (including, among others, 1.8 percent with developmental disabilities, 5 percent with adult onset brain impairment, and 2.8 percent with severe major mental disorders). An estimated 40 percent of all American families have loved ones or close friends with substantial disabilities. Being disabled is not just being a person with a physical handicap. It also includes people with developmental disabilities (such as mental retardation, epilepsy, etc.), traumatic brain injury, severe major mental disorders, degenerate brain diseases (such as Alzheimer, Parkinson, and Huntington), permanent damage from a stroke, organic brain damage, and other substantial disabilities. Disabilities often make people easy targets for crime and abuse.

Dan Sorensen estimated that in California only 4.5 percent of these crimes are actually reported to authorities, compared to an average 44 percent report rate for the general population. Several studies suggest that 80 to 85 percent of criminal abuse of residents in institutions is never reported to authorities. Evidence also shows that when these crimes are reported, there are lower rates of police follow-up, prosecution, and convictions. Reasons include the difficulty in investigating cases, the lack of special skills and special training required for these cases among law enforcement, the isolation of and communication difficulties for some victims, and the negative stereotypes and prejudices that continue to contribute to discrimination against these victims.

Sexual abuse rates of disabled men and women are also significantly higher than in the general population. Research shows, through structured interviews of 27 women and men with mild mental retardation in four San Francisco Bay Area counties, that just under 80 percent of the women and 54 percent of the men had been sexually abused at least one time. These rates compare to 13 percent of women in the general population who have been victims of at least one rape in their lifetimes.

A more recent study of 40,000 children in Omaha schools from 1995 to 1996 found that children with disabilities suffered a rate of abuse 3.44 times greater than children without disabilities, and children with behavior disorders suffered a relative rate of physical abuse 7.3 times that of non-disabled children. The relative rates for sexual assault was 5.5 times greater, for neglect 6.7 times higher, and for emotional abuse 7 times higher. These findings are consistent with other studies that uncover that children and adults with psychiatric disabilities suffer some of the highest rates of crime and criminal abuse among people with disabilities.

High crime rate against the disabled is significant when compared to the 8,000 hate crimes, one million elder abuse victims, and one million spousal assault victims each year. This means that crimes against the disabled make them proportionately one of the highest victim populations in the country.

Update by Dan Sorensen

The epidemic of crime and violence against people with disabilities will not be adequately addressed if it remains largely unknown. The media must educate the public about this problem as it has done about child abuse, elder abuse, and domestic violence. Crime and violence against people with disabilities is most likely the largest, measured by the number of violent crimes, among these islands of violence in our society.
Additional evidence continues to be uncovered since the publication of "The Invisible Victims." A major epidemiological study of more than 40,000 school children found that the rate of violence against children with disabilities was 3.44 times greater than against children without disabilities and 5 to 7 times higher for some categories of children with disabilities. Dick Sobsey is studying homicides against people with developmental disabilities and is finding a pattern of sentencing discrimination with these murderers getting substantially lesser sentences. Several studies report very high rates (8.5 to over 20 times higher) of violent crime against people with psychiatric disabilities.

The Governor of California has established the first permanent comprehensive program that addresses crime and violence against people with disabilities, The Crime Victims with Disabilities Initiative. The Attorney General of California is committed to developing a training package on how to investigate and prosecute crimes against people with disabilities, how to interview the victims, and how to prepare for the related trials. Important work in this area is going on in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, and many other states.

The press and media continue to largely ignore this issue. I know of only three significant stories on this issue over the last ten years. Most reports describe isolated crimes with no hint that there is a large, serious, and persistent pattern of violence directed against people with disabilities.

Interested persons can contact Dan Sorensen at (916) 651-9906 or Another excellent source of information is from ICAD at Cavet also has good information at

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