Substance Abuse and Addiction in People With Disability - ARISE

Understanding Substance Abuse and Addiction in People With Disabilities

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 61 million adults, or every 1 in 4 adults in the United States, struggle with some type of disability. At some point in everyone’s life, they either face a disability themselves or know someone who has one. Disabilities can greatly affect the way a person functions on a day-to-day basis, and they can stop people from doing many of the activities that their non-disabled counterparts carry out with ease.

People with disabilities face a wide range of challenges in their daily lives, and they are 2-4 times more likely to abuse substances than the general population.

What are Disabilities?

A disability can be anything that impairs a person’s mind or body in such a way that they cannot carry out one or more essential, major activities in their lives that other people can accomplish easily.

Some people are born with a disability, but others develop a disability later in life as a result of disease or injury. Some disabilities remain unchanged over a period of time or go away with treatment, while others get progressively severe–it all depends on the nature of the disability.

There are several different types of disabilities, including:

  • Physical disabilities – affect someone’s movement, stamina, or physical function. Examples include spinal cord injury, amputation, arthritis, multiple sclerosis (MS), and cerebral palsy.
  • Intellectual disabilities – affect a person’s reasoning, learning, adaptive behaviors, and problem-solving skills.
  • Developmental disabilities – affect a person’s physical, behavioral, or learning capabilities that are normal for other children in the same developmental stage. Examples include autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), down syndrome, and fetal alcohol syndrome.
  • Learning disabilities – affect the ability to process or recall new information. Examples include language processing disorder, dyslexia, and dyscalculia.
  • Sensory disabilities – affect one or more senses (hearing, vision, taste, touch, smell). Examples include deafness, hearing loss, blindness, and sensory processing disorder.

Some disabilities are very apparent to the people around the affected individual, while others are more discrete. Even if a person does not appear to be disabled on the outside, they could still be struggling on the inside.

disabled person

The Relationship Between Disabilities and Substance Abuse

Disabilities, substance abuse, and addiction have an unfortunate but close relationship. Not only are people with disabilities at an increased risk for addiction, but they are also less likely to seek the treatment they need.

Disabilities can result in immense physical and mental distress, so some people may turn to drugs or alcohol for temporary relief, only to find that they become hooked on the substances they abuse. Other people start using substances first, then they experience a life-altering physical or mental health injury that leads to the development of a disability. The latter can happen either through accidental injury or as a result of long-term drug and alcohol abuse.

People with disabilities are also more likely to struggle with mental illness than the general population, which is another reason why this community is at an increased risk for substance abuse. An estimated 17.4 million (nearly 33%) adults with disabilities experience mental distress or mental illness. Nearly 50% of people who seek treatment for substance abuse have a mental health condition, and mental illness is thought to be a common contributor to substance abuse and addiction.

Other risk factors for drug abuse and addiction that people with disabilities experience include:

  • Higher levels of poverty and unemployment
  • Increased risk of physical and sexual abuse
  • Chronic medical problems such as chronic pain
  • Easy access to a variety of prescription medications
  • Social isolation
  • Less education than able-bodied individuals

Addiction and Physical Disabilities

People who face physical disabilities, such as those resulting from an accident or injury, are often prescribed opioid painkillers to cope with their pain. If they aren’t prescribed opioids, they may abuse alcohol for pain relief.

Physical pain or disability is also mentally and emotionally exhausting, causing some people to cope by self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. Although substances may provide temporary relief from physical or emotional pain, they are not a long-term solution and may cause people to develop an addiction.

Addiction and Cognitive and Learning Disabilities

While physical disabilities affect the physical person, cognitive and learning disabilities affect the mind. This can lead to poor decision-making, lack of impulse control, or a decline in mental health–all of which can increase the risk of substance abuse and addiction.

Unfortunately, substance abuse will only worsen any existing cognitive and learning disabilities, so it’s important to get help as soon as possible.

Can Addiction Cause Disability?

While addiction itself is not a disability, and you cannot get disability benefits if you are struggling with an active addiction, substance abuse is a major contributing factor to many disabilities.

People who are under the influence of substances are more likely to get into a serious accident or suffer a life-altering injury. They are also more likely to engage in risky behaviors that may result in them getting hurt. At the same time, substance abuse increases the risk of a variety of different health ailments that, without treatment, can turn into a disability.

For example, alcohol abuse can cause hepatitis or blindness, both of which can be considered a disability. IV drug use can lead to abscesses and skin infections which may result in limb amputation if the infection gets too out of control. Finally, drugs like inhalants may cause nerve damage or paralysis, and smoking can cause lung damage or cancers.

Barriers to Treatment for People With Disabilities

People with disabilities have higher rates of addiction than the general population, but they are less likely to seek treatment. One of the top reasons for this is the ability to access care. For instance, if mobility is the issue, a person may be unable to find a local rehab center that is wheelchair accessible. Or, a person with chronic health issues may be unable to find a local rehab center that is close enough to their primary care physician or specialists, so they fear that attending rehab will put their health and well-being at risk.

Sadly, many substance abuse treatment facilities are simply ill-equipped to handle physical and cognitive disabilities. Even hidden disabilities require specialized care.

Other barriers people with disabilities face that prevents them from getting treatment include:

  • Social stigma
  • Enabling by caregivers
  • Lack of education about disabilities among healthcare professionals
  • Lack of one-on-one services for the intellectually disabled
  • Lack of interpretation services for the deaf or blind
  • Little motivation to get sober due to poor quality of life
  • Fear of new doctors
  • Fear of judgment or exclusion from peers

addiction treatment for people with disabilities

Specialized Addiction Treatment for the Disabled Community

Disabled persons who seek treatment for addiction typically engage in the same talk therapies and holistic healing methods that able-bodied individuals do unless their disability prevents them from doing so. First, patients will go through medical detox, where they remain under close supervision as they detox their bodies from drugs and alcohol. Detox can be particularly risky for people struggling with disabilities or those who are taking prescription medication, so it is critical that patients seek inpatient detoxification with 24-hour medical supervision.

After detox, treatment aims to help patients uncover and overcome the root causes of their substance abuse. If the disability is the root cause, treatment must address the physical, emotional, and psychiatric effects of the disability. Depending on the nature of the disability, different therapeutic approaches may be used. Most importantly, all therapies and services should be individually-tailored to meet each patient’s unique needs.

Treatment usually lasts 30, 60, or 90 days, but recovery doesn’t end there. Patients are encouraged to participate in 12-Step groups or 12-Step alternatives, engage with their alumni group, and continue treatment in outpatient care or counseling. Any caregivers should be informed of the patient’s requirements and schedule so they can help the person stay on the right track.

Find Help Today

Addiction can affect everyone no matter their background or life circumstances. Even the most vulnerable individuals can battle substance use disorder.

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction and ready to take the first step toward recovery, please contact us today. A dedicated admissions counselor is available now to assess your needs, verify your insurance, and help you find the right treatment program for you.


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