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The Pain of Verbal Abuse: Impact on People With Disabilities

In May 2016, two employees of an Alabama high school were arrested for the physical and verbal abuse of an 11-year-old student with autism, reports CBS News. While society would like to believe this is an isolated incident, the truth about physical and verbal abuse of those with disabilities is quite the opposite. Those with disabilities are more likely to become victims, and they may not be able to speak up for themselves.

Verbal abuse can be just as painful as physical abuse, and it is never an acceptable form of discipline. As a case manager, social worker or other significant figure in the lives of the people your serve with disabilities, you need to understand what constitutes verbal abuse, how it is more prevalent among those with disabilities, how it affects long-term health and what you can do to stop it.

Understanding verbal abuse

Verbal abuse is defined as behaviors, speech and actions of parents, caregivers or other important figures in a child or other individual’s life that negatively impact state of mind, reports Healthline.

This definition closely mirrors the definition of other forms of abuse, such as sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect, but with verbal abuse, the goal of the tormentor is to make a person feel as though he or she is mentally incapable of behaving or acting appropriately. Moreover, the signs of verbal abuse can appear similar to the signs of sexual abuse, which are listed in detail in the blog post, “How to Recognize the Signs of Sexual Abuse Among Those With Disabilties.”

For those with disabilities, the mental impact of verbal abuse can be severe. These people are already battling against intellectual and developmental disabilities, and the addition of being called names, yelled at and more will only further harm their mind. Although verbal abuse may be also known as emotional abuse, verbal abuse may include the following actions:

  • Name-calling
  • Insulting another person
  • Threatening to harm another person
  • Subjecting a person to the abuse of another individual; for example, a parent committing an act of domestic violence against his or her spouse can constitute emotional abuse
  • Giving illegal drugs, including non-prescribed medications, to children, adolescents and those with disabilities.

Prevalence of verbal abuse

Those with disabilities have a higher risk of becoming the victim of verbal abuse, explains the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In reality, abuse can take place anytime and anyplace, but abuse against those with disabilities most often takes place in hospitals and homes. Additional statistics on the prevalence of verbal abuse include the following:

  • Those with disabilities are up to 10 times more likely to become the victim of abuse than those without disabilities.
  • Children with disabilities are twice as likely to become the victims of abuse.
  • Women with disabilities are more likely to suffer from abusive episodes that last longer than similar episodes among other women and peers.

There are some incorrect assumptions about the incidence of verbal abuse among those with disabilities. For example, some may feel “the system” protects those with disabilities from becoming a victim. Unfortunately, there are people who can appear to be a person’s advocate, but in secrecy, the abuse occurs. As a result, it is important to learn to recognize how a caregiver’s, parent’s or another’s actions may be indicative of abuse, asserts the Mayo Clinic, which may include the following:

  • Concern for the child or person with disabilities is missing
  • Denying any problems in home or school
  • Describes the person with negative terms, such as “evil” or “lazy”
  • Using harsh discipline, which may include physical abuse
  • Limiting a person’s contact with others
  • Attempting to convince teachers, social workers, case mangers or direct service professionals how “telling him like it is” will help the child or person with disabilities

Effects of verbal abuse

Children, adolescents and adults with disabilities have a higher risk of regression of cognitive and social skills. Meanwhile, a recent study published by the Journals of Gerontology® found those who have been the victims of physical or verbal abuse are more likely to suffer from long-term cardiovascular problems, which may include high blood pressure, stroke and heart attack. In some cases, verbal and physical abuse can contribute to the risk of developing cancer later in life.

Additional long-term effects of verbal abuse may vary heavily from person to person, and the presence of other co-occurring disabilities can also significantly increase these risks. For example, some may develop severe emotional disabilities or mood disorders, and others may have an increased risk of anxiety and social phobias.

What can you do about verbal abuse?

As a social worker, case manager or direct support professional, it can be difficult to figure out the best way to proceed when you suspect abuse. Obviously, an accusation of verbal abuse can lead to serious consequences for caregivers, parents or others who are suspected of abusing a person with disabilities. To simplify the process, follow this acronym, L.O.A.D., which focuses on the critical considerations when addressing suspected abuse.

  • Listen. Those with disabilities may not know how to tell others about what is happening. For example, they may not realize that their parent’s, caregiver’s or partner’s behaviors are outside of healthy actions.
  • Observe. Do not rush to judgment, but do not be willing to look the other way. Abusers are often manipulative and will go to great lengths to keep the spotlight off their actions. Observing is also critical as some with disabilities may be incapable of telling others about verbal abuse.
  • Act to help those who may be suffering from verbal abuse, or any other form of abuse, get out of harmful situations. For those with disabilities, you may need to provide assistance with locating housing, food or medical care. This may include notifying supervisors in group homes of suspected incidents or the ombudsman for your area.
  • Deliver on your promises. Those with disabilities who have also been the victims of verbal abuse may be highly skeptical of your promise to help. It is important that you follow up on any and all incidents in which you suspect any form of abuse. Moreover, you may be called upon to appear on behalf of those you serve in the event of verbal abuse.

Verbal abuse is not fictional, and the pain of verbal abuse can sting just as much as the unwarranted beating of an innocent person with disabilities. However, you can be the difference and help the people you serve break free from their perpetrators if you learn how to recognize verbal abuse, know what to look for in potential abusers and learn how to respond.

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