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Often, when one thinks of a young person with a disability, being part of a relationship may not be the first image that pops to mind.  With the advent of the community inclusion meta-policy dictate as well as, for example, the many disability-specific dating websites that have cropped up around the country, finding an intimate partner is perhaps more accessible than ever for people with disabilities.

Although women with disabilities as a whole are thought to be at increased risk of intimate partner violence (IPV), little is known about how this phenomenon impacts transitional-aged young women with disabilities between the ages of 18-21 (Doe, 2000).  As a result of methodological differences in existing research, there are widely varying estimates of the rate of abuse of women with disabilities, which range from women with disabilities being two to eleven times more likely to experience abuse.  While the precise prevalence of IPV among adult women with disabilities is unknown, most estimates of IPV among adult women with disabilities overall are roughly in the range of 50% to 60% (Coker, Smith and Fadden, 2005; Coker, Davis, Arias, Desai, Sanderson and Brandt, 2002; Carlson, 1998;  Curry, Powers and Oschwald, 2003; Slayter, 2009).  How this phenomenon impacts transitional-aged women with disabilities, however, is unknown and uncounted.  As adult women with disabilities are generally at a higher risk for IPV, there is a concern that transitional-aged women with disabilities will also be at a higher risk.

What is important to realize is that IPV has also been identified as a major concern for transitional aged youth who are still trying to master the developmental challenges of adolescence into their twenties.  As youth transition to adulthood, they face a number of challenges to their emotional and social development regardless of their disability status, and are at risk for dating or relationship violence (Makepeace, 1981; Lewis & Fremouw, 2001, Straus, 2004). Transitional age young women with disabilities are of particular interest as they have the potential to fall through the cracks’ of disability service systems as they age out of education or youth-focused systems of care, while also experiencing the same challenges to emotional and social development of all young adults their age.

New research conducted by the author (and her colleagues Liz Lightfoot at the University of Minnesota and Monical Leisey at Salem State University), suggests that indeed, transitional-aged young women with disabilities are at increased risk of IPV – and experience higher rates of IPV than do transitional-aged women without disabilities.

Risk factors for IPV pronounced:  The examination of risk factors for IPV between the sample and comparison group suggest that overall, risk factors for IPV were more prevalent among the transitional-aged women with disabilities than the transitional-aged women without disabilities.  Transitional-aged women with disabilities were 3.5 times more likely to report experiencing abuse as a child or to have observed IPV between their parents as a child.  Additionally, partner-related risk factors for IPV that were more prevalent among women with disabilities included being 1.5 times more likely to have a partner that abuses alcohol and3.4 times more likely to have a partner that is unemployed.

Increased prevalence of experiencing IPV:  In regards to self-reported past year experience of IPV, framed as a partner pushing, grabbing or shoving them; throwing something at them; slapping or hitting them in the past year,  transitional-aged women with disabilities were almost four times more likely to report this level of IPV than were their counterparts without disabilities.

This study’s findings support existing knowledge about increased prevalence of IPV amongst women with disabilities – but also extend the existing knowledge in two important ways.  First, this study draws on a nationally-representative, population-based dataset that purposefully oversampled women of color.  Given existing calls for IPV research that is more inclusive of women of color, this study assists in beginning to fill this gap in the literature.  Further, given the strength of the data source used, estimates presented herein are likely robust in terms of generalizing to the experience of many women with disabilities.

Second, this study highlights the experience of a particularly vulnerable population of women with disabilities – those in the transitional-aged category between ages 18-21.   These findings suggest that special attention is needed to these young women with disabilities regarding both prevention of IPV and interventions related to IPV. Given the bifurcated nature of disability service systems for youth and adults, there can be bridging issues related to service accessibility across a range of domains. In addition, there are questions about the developmentally-appropriate or inappropriate targeting of services for populations in between childhood and adulthood.  While these challenges have started to command attention in, for example, the world of homeless services for youth, discussion has not yet extended as extensively to the IPV community of service providers.  Therefore, the present study has important implications for practice both in IPV settings and disability settings.

Building awareness:  As the study findings document increased risk for IPV amongst transitional-aged women with disabilities as compared to their counterparts without disabilities, there is a need for an understanding of this prevalence among front-line social service system workers who work both with youth and adults.   By gaining an understanding of this increased prevalence, front-line social service system workers will be better prepared to consider the potential for IPV among their clients.  Given that transitional-aged women with disabilities may be more likely to receive government-funded supports (e.g. Ticket to Work, SSI, SSDI, etc.), the potentially increased exposure to social welfare system agents – including social workers – suggests a built-in solution vis-à-vis access to a population at risk for prevention, screening, assessment and intervention.  Workers in disability service settings (e.g. vocational rehabilitation centers, Offices for Students with Disabilities in College and University settings, local offices of the Social Security Administrator for SSI and SSDI) may be in a prime position to both screen for IPV, engage in health promotion activities aimed at reducing risk for IPV and intervening as a bridging agent with IPV service providers with this population of young women.

Accessible and population-appropriate screening, assessment and intervention approaches:  Within the field of IPV research related to people with disabilities, significant attention has been drawn to the need for screening and assessment tools that are both accessible and population-appropriate (e.g. challenges of translating English into ASL, regional variations in sign language, medical vs. social constructions of disability).  While the use of developmentally-appropriate screening and assessment tools will be important for the provision of good supports to all transitional-aged young women, this may be an especially important issue for transitional-aged women with developmental delays.   As approaches to intervention are developed for specific applications to this population of youth, an intermediate step that could be of use to social workers engaged in practice with this population could derive from cross-system collaboration.  While billing realities and casework demands often inhibit such collaborative efforts, the emergent framework of systems-of-care approaches to care coordination in youth settings around the country could be a model.  If IPV service system professionals can explain both their treatment paradigm and system navigation approaches to disability professionals – and vice-versa, dialogue can begin that can lead to accessible and population-appropriate interventions on individual and group bases.

Planting the seeds of prevention in high school settings:  While transitional-aged women with disabilities will be “served” in adult systems, this does not supplant the need for the seeds of IPV prevention to be sown in high school educational settings.   In fact, these findings suggest that youth with disabilities are in great need of formal interventions during their high school years regarding dating violence and efforts should be made to ensure that programs focusing on preventing teen dating violence be inclusive of youth with disabilities. Further, given that many young people with disabilities in high school settings will be likely to have increased exposure to school-based professionals as a result of their Individual Education Plans under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), this presents an opportunity point for the fostering of more informal discussions around healthy relationships, dating violence and the like.  

This blog post is part of an ongoing series by Dr. Elspeth Slayter, a researcher affiliated with the Center for Childhood and Youth Studies, exploring current national social welfare services conversations about “transitional-aged youth” given the changing nature of how we understand adolescence and early adulthood as well as the policies, programs, and systems that support this population.  Dr. Slayter is a health and disability services researcher who studies children and youth in social welfare systems.