Music & Students with Special Needs (Special Learners in Music) Special Learners in Music
Bartlett - Established 1884 in New York City

Victims of Abuse

Recognizing and reacting to students who are abused

The National Coalition on Abuse and Disabilities estimates that 18,000 children per year are permanently disabled by abuse and neglect or suffer mental retardation or sensory and motor impairments. A 1993 national study sponsored by the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect indicates that children with disabilities are abused at a rate of 1.7 times that of children without disabilities. Children with disabilities are 1.6 times more likely to be physically abused, and 2.2 times more likely to be sexually abused than children without disabilities.

Beliefs and misconceptions about children with disabilities

Some researchers suggest that children with disabilities have increased vulnerability to abuse because of society’s response to the disability, rather than the disability itself. These social attitudes and misconceptions include:

  • A belief that children with disabilities are sheltered from harm and a denial that abuse or neglect is perpetrated.
  • A belief that children with disabilities are less valuable than other children.
  • A belief that children with disabilities are less credible than other children.
  • A devaluation of the impact of abuse and neglect when the victim is a person with a disability.
  • A professional reluctance to accept evidence that colleagues may be abusing the children they serve.

At-risk children with disabilities

  • Life-long dependency can render a child more trusting and less likely to question caregiver actions.
  • Due to dependency on caregivers and “learned compliance”, children with disabilities may be less likely to complain if someone hurts them.
  • Many children with disabilities have restricted circles of friends or acquaintances and may not report due to fears of jeopardizing their relationship with, or losing, the abuser. They may also fear retaliation.
  • Some children with disabilities may have less understanding of what constitutes “right” or “wrong” behavior.
  • Some children with disabilities exhibit self-injurious behavior, leading to difficulty in discerning the source of the abuse.
  • Many children with physical disabilities are less able to defend themselves, avoid, or escape the abuse.
  • Some children with disabilities cannot communicate clearly and thus cannot report what has happened to them.
  • Some children with disabilities lack knowledge about sexuality and abuse and, therefore, may not discern that sexual contact is abusive.
  • Dependency on caregivers for close personal care such as dressing, bathing, and toileting may lead to increased opportunity for intrusive touching.


Children with disabilities are often maltreated by persons they know and trust including parents, family members, and other caregivers. Since children with disabilities are routinely in contact with and dependent on service providers, the risk of maltreatment, especially sexual abuse by service providers, is increased.

  • Perpetrators who maltreat children with disabilities often share the following characteristics:
    • Perpetrators of sexual abuse are predominately male.
    • Perpetrators typically have a strong need for power and control.
    • Perpetrators often were victims of abuse as children or were exposed to other abusive environments.
    • Perpetrators may justify their behavior by claiming the victim “provoked” it.
    • Many perpetrators lack control over impulsive behavior which is sometimes associated with substance abuse or brain damage
Copyright 2005 Project Seven Development