Disability support practitioners: the first line of defence against abuse
It’s a painful and confronting subject, but for anyone who works in disability support, abuse is a crucial issue that requires constant attention and vigilance.
Abuse rates for people with disability are substantially higher than across the general population, so it’s essential that support practitioners are fully informed and equipped to act as a first line of defense for their vulnerable clients.
A shocking story for the disability sector
Abuse and neglect is one of Australia’s biggest and most misunderstood social problems. The statistics are highly alarming, particularly for the disability sector.
A 2015 report by The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) found that 40,844 children were confirmed as having being abused or neglected in one year alone. Thousands more cases go unreported.
That means that at least one child every thirteen minutes experiences physical, sexual, emotional abuse or neglect right here in Australia, often by someone they know and should be able to trust.
Meanwhile, research has repeatedly found that people with disability experience abuse, assault and neglect at much higher rates than their peers1, and that people within an institutional setting are between two and four times more likely to experience abuse than those living in a community setting2.
A recent study by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) of police data from Victoria showed that just over a quarter of all sexual assault victims identified as having a disability, and that people with disability are more than twice as likely to become victims of sexual assault (53%, compared to 20% in the overall study).
According to national disability rights and advocacy organisation People with Disability Australia (PWDA), “up to 70 per cent of women with psychosocial disability in Australia have experienced past sexual abuse including child sexual assault.”
Victims without a voice
AIFS states that people with disability “can face particular barriers to disclosure of sexual assault and the responses to those who disclose are often inadequate”. PWDA agrees that the problem of abuse within the disability community is exacerbated because:
“Police and lawyers frequently do not investigate and prosecute incidents of abuse as crime. This can be due to attitudinal barriers including a lack of disability awareness and a failure to recognise people with disability as reliable witnesses.”
Not only does this mean that a person with disability who has suffered abuse has no means of getting justice – it also creates an increased culture of risk, where abusers can continue to exploit their victims knowing there are unlikely to be consequences if they’re caught.
The outcome? People with disability are often subjected to ongoing or multiple occasions of abuse, and have no way to bring their torment to an end.
Becoming part of the solution
Given the scale, complexity and devastating impact of this problem, it’s clear that it’s up to everyone in our community to help protect vulnerable people from abuse – and for disability support providers that means constant awareness. As PWDA says:
“Disability support providers, the police, the justice system, domestic violence and mainstream services must work in harmony to ensure that the response to abuse is quick, adequate and that there are clear pathways to address prevention, protection and prosecution of abuse.”
A key pillar of this solution, says PWDA, is the provision of “education programs targeted at providers of disability and domestic violence supports and services” to ensure that anyone who is in a position to identify and help victims is able to recognise and respond to all kinds of abuse.
There are so many types of potential abuse, each with a range of physical or behavioural signs may be subtle, or even deliberately hidden by the victim out of fear or shame – which can make abuse extremely difficult to spot without comprehensive training.
That means it’s crucial that everyone involved in the care of people with disability receives regular training that equips them to:
- understand risk factors
- recognise the signs of different types of abuse
- understand and carry out their duties to protect their clients.
At Training Alliance we provide high quality online learning, developed by disability professionals for disability professionals. Learn more about our new specialised training course Respond to suspected abuseor check out our recent articles on the cost of not training and the benefits of online and blended training.
Our comprehensive courses and consultancy options are continually being updated – please contact us to discuss your training needs or check our website
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1Furey EM, Niesen JJ. Sexual abuse of adults with mental retardation by other consumers. 1994
2Sobsey D, editor. Violence and abuse in the lives of people with disabilities. Baltimore: Paul H Brookes. 1994