Addiction Among the Disabled: a Growing Challenge

April 1, 2016

Most of us understand that addiction is a serious issue, however many aren’t aware of the fact that addiction among the disabled has become a major problem in the United States that continues to grow. The Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire reports that 19 percent of Americans endure a disability. If people with disabilities were formally considered a minority group they would prevail as the largest in this country.  

The US Office of Disability found that in the general population 10 percent of adults have problems with alcohol and 5 percent are adversely affected by drugs. The office goes on to report that individuals with a disability struggle with addiction two to four times more than the general populace. 

Individuals with hearing impairments and those disabled by arthritis or multiple sclerosis are twice as likely as the general population to develop a dependency on drugs or alcohol. Of the people with orthopedic disabilities or impaired vision that use alcohol, 40 to 50 percent can be considered heavy drinkers.  

At least 50 percent of individuals with spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries or mental illness battle an addiction to drugs or alcohol. The US Department of Health and Human Services reminds caregivers that numerous factors can render a disabled individual susceptible to addiction. 

Individuals with disabilities are at greater risk for misusing and ultimately abusing prescription drugs. Doctors often prescribe narcotic medications for pain, or addictive medications to reduce anxiety. Ready availability and regular use of these prescribed medications can result in dependence. 

People in pain with compromised mobility, or who are suffering from depression due to a disability, frequently turn to drugs or alcohol for relief. Sometimes family members, caregivers and the community at large unwittingly enable a disabled person’s addiction. Doctors can over-prescribe medicines; as with all of us, social drinking with family members and the greater community can passively allow a disabled person’s addiction to take hold.  Complicating matters, the use of drugs or alcohol may interact negatively with other necessary medications resulting in adverse reactions or a decline in physical health.     

Not only are disabled people more susceptible to addiction, they confront unique hurdles and barriers when seeking treatment. Inaccessible buildings, undependable transportation, unusable learning materials or an unstable support system all can lead to frustration and the abandonment of treatment before it starts. 

Counselor magazine suggests that addiction professionals familiarize themselves with the challenges faced by disabled individuals seeking treatment, and strive to design programs that better assimilate them. 

People with cognitive issues might do well as members of smaller groups participating in shorter treatment sessions. People with mobility issues who depend on specialized transportation might require a more flexible away-from-home meeting schedule or assistance accessing transportation options. Addiction professionals should also address other potentially unstable areas as general health care, housing and personal finances. 

Treatment for addiction should not be approached as a “one-size fits all” solution aimed solely at the general populace, but individualized and adapted for people with unique needs, removing the barriers to treatment and maximizing opportunity for success. In addition, it’s almost impossible for even the strongest of us to do this alone.  The development of dependable support networks and advocates for those struggling with disabilities and addiction will help provide a foundation in their effort for recovery.     


About the Author

Doug Breuer is co-founder of and has worked in senior care for the last 9 years for the State of Oregon. From investigating cases of elder abuse to managing the delivery of long term care to residents of Central Oregon, Doug has been involved in all aspects of senior care.

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