Violence against people with disability

1 in 2

(47%) adults with disability have experienced violence since the age of 15

2 in 5

(43%) adults with disability have experienced physical violence since the age of 15

1 in 5

(20%) adults with disability have experienced abuse before the age of 15

Introduction

Acts of violence can affect anyone. But some people, such as those with disability, may be especially vulnerable to experiencing violence.

What is violence, abuse and intimate partner violence?

Violence

Violence can take many forms. Two main types are:

  • Sexual – behaviours of a sexual nature carried out against a person’s will, such as sexual assault (for example, rape, indecent assault and attempts to force a person into sexual activity) or threat of sexual assault.
  • Physical – incidents involving the use or threat of physical force with the intent to harm or frighten a person, such as physical assault or threat of physical assault.

Violence can be perpetrated by strangers or by someone the person knows.

In this section, violence is defined as any incident involving the occurrence, attempt or threat of physical or sexual assault. Sexual assault excludes unwanted sexual touching, which is defined as sexual harassment.

Abuse

Abuse can also take many forms. In this section, abuse refers to physical and sexual abuse of a child under the age of 15 by an adult. These are defined as:

  • Sexual – any act involving a child in sexual activity beyond their understanding or contrary to currently accepted community standards.
  • Physical – any deliberate physical injury (including bruises) (ABS 2017a).

In this section, abuse excludes discipline that accidentally resulted in injury; emotional abuse; and physical and sexual abuse by someone under the age of 18.

Intimate partner violence

In this section, intimate partner includes current partner (who the respondent lives with), previous partner (who the respondent lived with), boyfriend/girlfriend/date and ex-boyfriend/ex-girlfriend (who the respondent never lived with). Intimate partner violence includes sexual and/or physical violence by an intimate partner.


Past experiences of violence

Personal Safety Survey

Data in this section are sourced from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) 2016 Personal Safety Survey (PSS). This survey collects information from men and women aged 18 and over.

In the PSS, a person is considered to have disability if they had one or more conditions which have lasted, or are likely to last, for at least 6 months and restrict everyday activities.

The severity of disability is defined by whether a person needs help, has difficulty, or uses aids or equipment, with 3 core activities – self-care, mobility, and communication – and is reported for mild, moderate, severe, and profound limitation. People who always or sometimes need help with one or more core activities are referred to in this section as ‘people with severe or profound disability’.

Timeframes for analysis of experiences of violence by people with disability

The PSS collects information about disability at the time of the interview, whereas questions on violence relate to either the previous 12 months or since the age of 15. It is therefore not possible to determine whether a person had disability at the time of experiencing violence. As such, care should be taken when making inferences or comparisons between groups, especially when the incidents of violence or abuse had occurred more than 12 months ago (ABS 2017a).

This section reports mostly on proportions of people with disability who had experienced violence since the age of 15. This type of reporting may help understand how many people with disability may require access to support services for past experiences of violence, but should not be interpreted as disability being a risk factor for, or outcome of, experiencing violence (ABS 2021).

Other considerations relevant to interpreting estimates of experience of violence by people with disability

While the PSS is the best available source of data about the experience of violence and abuse, care should be taken when using it for estimates related to people with disability. In addition to the timeframes considerations above, other reasons are:

  • the PSS uses the ABS Short Disability Module to identify ‘disability or restrictive long-term health condition’. This module is not as effective in identifying disability as the questions used in the ABS Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC), and may overestimate the number of people with less severe forms of disability
  • the PSS does not collect information about experiences of violence in proxy interviews (where the selected respondent is incapable of answering for themselves; for instance, due to a communication disability). This results in a small underrepresentation of persons with a communication disability who are unable to communicate at all. However, ABS assess that this does not affect the overall national representativeness of people with disability in the PSS sample (ABS 2021)
  • the PSS collects only from private dwellings and does not collect data from people living in institutional care settings.

In Australia, it is estimated that:

  • more than one-third (37%) of adults who have experienced at least one incident of violence after the age of 15 have disability
  • close to half (46%) who have experienced abuse before the age of 15 have disability (ABS 2017b).

Adults with disability are more likely to have past experiences of violence than those without disability. Of adults with disability, an estimated:

  • 1 in 2 (47% or 2.7 million) have experienced violence after the age of 15, compared with 1 in 3 (36% or 4.5 million) without disability
  • 1 in 5 (20% or 1.1 million) have experienced abuse before the age of 15, compared with 1 in 10 (11% or 1.3 million)
  • 1 in 17 (5.8% or 332,000) have experienced violence sometime in the previous year, compared with 1 in 19 (5.2% or 656,000)
  • 3 in 4 (74% or 2.0 million) of those who experienced violence have experienced multiple incidents of violence, compared with 6 in 10 (62% or 2.8 million) (ABS 2017b).

Adults with disability, especially those with severe or profound disability, are more likely than adults without disability to have past experiences of violence regardless of type:

  • 16% (935,000) of adults with disability have experienced sexual violence after the age of 15, compared with 9.6% (or 1.2 million) without disability
  • 43% (2.5 million) have experienced physical violence, compared with 32% (4.1 million) without disability
  • 21% (1.2 million) have experienced intimate partner violence, compared with 13% (1.7 million) without disability (Table VIOLENCE.1 and Figure VIOLENCE.1).

Women with disability report higher rates of past sexual violence and intimate partner violence than their male counterparts. Men with disability report higher rates of past physical violence (Figure VIOLENCE.1). This is also the case for adults without disability, although the rates of past experiences of violence are generally higher for men and women with disability than without:

  • 1 in 4 (25% or 748,000) women with disability have experienced sexual violence after the age of 15, compared with 15% (or 978,000) without disability
  • 1 in 14 (6.6% or 187,000) men with disability have experienced sexual violence after the age of 15, compared with 3.9% (or 241,000) without disability
  • 2 in 5 (40% or 1.2 million) women with disability have experienced physical violence after the age of 15, compared with 26% (or 1.7 million) without disability
  • almost half of men (47% or 1.3 million) with disability have experienced physical violence after the age of 15, compared with 38% (or 2.4 million) without disability (ABS 2017b).

Table VIOLENCE.1: Proportion of adults(a) who experienced violence since age 15(b), by disability status(c) and type of violence, 2016 (%)

Type of violence

Severe or profound disability

Other disability status

All with disability

Without disability

Sexual violence(d)

24.0

15.2

16.3

9.6

Physical violence(e)

43.9

43.0

43.1

32.1

Intimate partner violence(f)

28.5

19.7

20.8

13.2

Total who experienced violence

48.8

46.7

47.0

35.9

(a) People aged 18 and over living in households.

(b) Experience of violence after age 15 (in last year or previously). Includes sexual violence and physical violence.

(c) Disability status is determined at the time of the survey. It does not indicate whether a person had disability at the time of an incident of violence.

(d) Includes sexual assault and sexual threat.

(e) Includes physical assault and physical threat.

(f) Includes sexual and/or physical violence perpetrated by a current partner (living with), previous partner (has lived with), boyfriend/girlfriend/date and ex-boyfriend/ex-girlfriend (never lived with).

Note: Components may not add to total as people may have experienced multiple types of violence. A person who experienced sexual and physical violence is counted separately for each type of violence they experienced but only once in the aggregated total.

Source: ABS 2017b; see also Table VIOL3.

Figure VIOLENCE.1: Experience of violence by adults since age 15, by violence type, disability status and sex, 2016

Column chart showing experience of violence since age 15 for men, women and all adults, with and without disability. The reader can select to display the chart by type of violence, including intimate partner, physical, sexual and all types of violence, and by disability status. The chart shows women with severe or profound disability are more likely (36%) to have past experiences of intimate partner violence than women without disability (20%).

Source data tables: Violence (XLSX, 197KB)

Disability group

Disability group is a broad categorisation of disability. It is based on underlying health conditions and on impairments, activity limitations and participation restrictions. It is not a diagnostic grouping, nor is there a one-to-one correspondence between a health condition and a disability group.

Some people with disability – such as those with psychological or intellectual disability – are more likely to have experienced violence (Figure VIOLENCE.2). Of adults with disability, those most likely to have experienced violence after the age of 15 have:

  • psychological disability (65% or 587,000 people)
  • intellectual disability (62% or 295,000 people)
  • head injury, stroke or brain damage (60% or 110,000 people).

This is almost double the rate of those without disability (36% or 4.5 million people).

Figure VIOLENCE.2: Experience of violence by adults since age 15, by violence type and disability group, 2016

Stacked column chart showing experience of violence by adults since age 15, with 5 groups of disability, including head injury, stroke, or brain damage; intellectual; physical; psychological; and sight, hearing or speech disability. The reader can select to display the chart by type of violence, including intimate partner, physical, sexual and all types of violence. The chart shows adults with psychological disability are more likely (35%) to have past experiences of sexual violence than adults with sight, hearing or speech disability (13%).

Source data tables: Violence (XLSX, 197KB)


Perpetrators of violence

Violence experienced by people with disability was most often perpetrated by someone they know. For adults with disability, who have experienced violence after age 15, the most common perpetrators of violence were:

  • an intimate partner – this was the case for more than 2 in 5 (44% or 1.1 million) adults with disability who have experienced violence after age 15, compared with 37% (or 1.7 million) of adults without disability
  • an acquaintance or neighbour – more than 1 in 5 (22% or 598,000) adults with disability who experienced violence, compared with 16% (or 718,000)
  • housemate or friend – 1 in 7 (14% or 365,000), compared with 12% (or 528,000)
  • a parent – 1 in 9 (11% or 301,000), compared with 8.4% (or 382,000) (Table VIOLENCE.2).
Table VIOLENCE.2: Relationship to perpetrator of violence for adults who experienced violence(a), by disability status(b), 2016 (%)

Relationship to perpetrator

With disability(b)

Without disability

Total

Known person

80.5

69.6

73.7

          Intimate partner(c)

44.2

36.7

39.5

          Parent

11.2

8.4

9.4

          Child

1.7

*0.4

0.9

          Sibling

5.3

3.0

3.8

          Other relative/in-law

5.7

4.2

4.7

          Friend or housemate

13.5

11.6

12.3

          Acquaintance or neighbour

22.1

15.8

18.2

          Other known person(d)

20.6

14.6

16.8

Stranger

43.1

47.9

46.1

* Estimate has a relative standard error of 25% to 50% and should be used with caution.

(a) People aged 18 and over who experienced violence after age 15. Includes sexual and physical violence.

(b) Disability status is determined at the time of the survey. It does not indicate whether a person had a disability at the time of an incident of violence.

(c) Includes current partner (living with), previous partner (has lived with), boyfriend/girlfriend/date and ex-boyfriend/ex-girlfriend (never lived with).

(d) Includes employer/manager/supervisor, co-worker, teacher/tutor, client/patient/customer, medical practitioner (for example, doctor, psychologist, nurse, counsellor), priest/minister/rabbi or other spiritual advisor, carer (includes non-family paid or unpaid helper), and other known person.

Note: Components may not add to totals as a person may experience violence by more than one perpetrator. A person who has experienced violence by more than one perpetrator is counted only once in the aggregate groups and totals.

Source: ABS 2017b; see also Table VIOL5.


Emotional abuse

An estimated 41% (or 1.5 million) of Australian adults who have experienced emotional abuse by a current or previous partner since the age of 15 have disability (ABS 2017b).

What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse refers to when a person is subjected to certain behaviours or actions aimed at preventing or controlling their behaviour, causing them emotional harm or fear.

These behaviours are intended to manipulate, control, isolate or intimidate the person they are aimed at. They are generally repeated behaviours and include psychological, social, economic and verbal abuse.

Examples include:

  • controlling or trying to control a person from contacting family, friends or community
  • constantly insulting a person to make them feel ashamed, belittled or humiliated
  • shouting, yelling or verbally abusing a person to intimidate them
  • lying to a person’s children with the intent of turning their children against them
  • threatening to take a person’s children away from them (ABS 2017a).

The PSS collected information about men’s and women’s experiences of emotional abuse by a current and/or previous partner since the age of 15.

Adults with disability are more likely than those without to have experienced emotional abuse from a current or previous partner (Figure VIOLENCE.3). After the age of 15, past experiences of emotional abuse by a current or previous partner were reported by an estimated:

  • 1 in 4 (26% or 1.5 million) adults with disability, compared with 1 in 6 (17% or 2.1 million) adults without disability
  • 1 in 3 (32% or 929,000) women with disability, compared with 19% (or 1.2 million)
  • 1 in 5 (20% or 556,000) men with disability, compared with 14% (or 876,000).

Figure VIOLENCE.3: Experience of emotional abuse by adults since age 15, by disability status and sex, 2016

Bar chart showing experience of emotional abuse since age 15 by a partner for men, women and all adults, with and without disability. The reader can select to display the chart by sex and by disability status. The chart shows women with severe or profound disability are more likely (39%) to have past experiences of emotional abuse by a current or previous partner than women with other disability (30%).

Source data tables: Violence (XLSX, 197KB)

Adults with disability who were emotionally abused after the age of 15, by their most recently emotionally abusive previous partner, are more likely than those without disability to report they experienced:

  • financial abuse – 50% (or 591,000) of adults with disability who experienced emotional abuse, compared with 37% (or 579,000) without disability
  • deprivation of basic needs such as food, shelter, sleep or assistive aids – 14% (or 172,000) with disability, compared with 8% (or 124,000)
  • insults intended to cause shame or humiliation – 56% (or 668,000) with disability, compared with 46% (or 707,000) (AIHW 2019).

Adults with disability who have experienced emotional abuse are more likely to experience emotional abuse from multiple previous partners. Almost 1 in 4 (24% or 282,000) adults with disability, who have experienced emotional abuse from a previous partner after the age of 15, experienced such abuse from more than one partner, compared with 16% (or 244,000) without disability (AIHW 2019).


Sexual harassment

About one-third (35% or 2.5 million) of Australian adults who have experienced sexual harassment have disability (ABS 2017b).

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment refers to behaviours a person finds improper or unwanted, makes them feel uncomfortable, and are offensive due to their sexual nature. It includes:

  1. indecent messages, such as electronic messages and posts on social media, and written messages
  2. indecent exposure
  3. unwanted touching
  4. sharing images/videos of the person that are sexual in nature and without consent
  5. exposing the person to images/videos of sexual nature that they do not wish to see (ABS 2017a).

Adults with disability, particularly those with severe or profound disability, are more likely to report past experiences of sexual harassment than other Australians. About 43% of adults with disability (or 2.5 million), and 50% (or 360,000) with severe or profound disability, experienced sexual harassment, compared with 37% (or 4.7 million) without disability (Figure VIOLENCE.4).

Figure VIOLENCE.4: Experience of sexual harassment by adults since age 15, by disability status, 2016

Bar chart showing experience of sexual harassment by adults since age 15, with and without disability. The reader can select to display the chart by disability status. The chart shows adults with severe or profound disability are more likely (33%) to have past experiences of unwanted touching, grabbing, kissing or fondling than adults without disability (20%).

Source data tables: Violence (XLSX, 197KB)

Women with disability are more likely to have past experiences of sexual harassment than women without disability or men with or without disability. An estimated 57% (or 1.7 million) of women with disability have experienced sexual harassment since age 15, compared with:

  • 51% (or 3.3 million) of women without disability
  • 28% (or 799,000) of men with disability
  • 23% (or 1.4 million) of men without disability.

Adults with psychological disability are more likely than adults with other types of disability to experience sexual harassment (62% or 557,000 compared with 43% or 2.5 million of adults with all types of disability).