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Teens with Disabilities Have the Right to Healthy Relationships

February 29, 2016
Clare Barnett, J.D., Program Specialist, Administration for Community Living

This post appears on the Administration for Children and Families’ blog, The Family Room.

National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month is a time to encourage healthy relationships and, in the words of President Obama, “reaffirm the basic human right to be free from violence and abuse.”

For teens with disabilities, that basic right is no different.

Thanks to the work of advocates, youth activists, and community educators, the conversation around social norms that can fuel abuse are changing. However, youth with disabilities are too often left out of the movement to end dating violence and programs to support survivors.

Image of a woman in a wheelchairMore than 1 in 10 high school students surveyed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported experiencing physical or sexual violence from a dating partner. Data from the Department of Justice (PDF) suggests even greater risks for youth with disabilities:

  • More than one in five young people with disabilities between the ages of 12 and 19 reports experiencing violence (including physical abuse, rape or sexual assault from a stranger or partner)—more than twice the rate of youth without a disability.
  • People of all ages with disabilities are more likely to face violence from an intimate partner.
  • Women and girls with any type of disability, as well as people with a cognitive disability, face the highest rates of violence.

Domestic violence and sexual assault programs must be accessible for survivors with disabilities: not only because it is the basic right of all survivors to receive support, but because there is such a need for these services.

Including people with disabilities in programs for dating violence

Partnerships between advocates in the disability community and the domestic and sexual violence fields are essential. There are resources to help you make programs and services for dating and domestic violence survivors more inclusive.

The Access Initiative is a product of one such partnership, and offers a guide to help domestic violence agencies develop policies, practices, communication processes, and physical shelter environments that are accessible to survivors of all abilities. The initiative is a project of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence and is supported by the HHS Family Violence Prevention & Services Program, part of the Administration for Children and Families.

As the Washington State Coalition against Domestic Violence explains with its guide to safety planning for people with disabilities (PDF), advocates can promote the self-determination of survivors by keeping in mind environmental and social barriers and not making assumptions about survivors’ strengths, wishes and abilities.

The Safety and Sexual Violence Prevention Project, an initiative of Partners for Inclusive Communities  at the University of Arkansas, promotes the safety of students with disabilities and engages their leadership in working to prevent sexual assault. The project builds capacity, provides training and technical assistance, and develops a systems approach to dating violence experienced by students with disabilities. Their approach addresses all levels of the ecological model of interpersonal violence (PDF), including issues related to social norms. Partners for Inclusive Communities is one of 67 University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities funded by the HHS Administration for Community Living.

All of us—domestic and sexual violence advocates, survivors with and without disabilities, families and caregivers, and allies—must insist on a response to violence and abuse that recognizes the right of all survivors to services and resources for prevention and response. Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month reminds us of the tremendous benefits of teaching every teen about healthy relationships.



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Last modified on 02/17/2017


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