Disabled people abused far more than others in New Zealand, disturbing new study finds

Two in every five disabled women reported abuse by an intimate partner.
Two in every five disabled women reported abuse by an intimate partner. Photo credit: Getty Images

A disturbing new study has exposed the scale of abuse faced by one of New Zealand's most vulnerable communities, showing violence toward disabled people is much more prevalent than among the rest of the population.

The research, presented in two papers published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine on Thursday, reveals one's own home is among the most common places of abuse for Kiwis with disabilities.

It also shows 40 percent of disabled women experience physical violence from an intimate partner over their lifetimes - significantly more than the 25 percent experienced by non-disabled women.

That's despite the Crimes Act recognising neglect or ill treatment of a child or vulnerable adult as a crime punishable by a prison term of up to 10 years.

"Despite this, it is apparent from this work that many disabled adults live in situations where they are subject to violence and abuse," says the University of Auckland's Dr Debbie Hager.

Disability Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero says the data "reinforces international statistics and what experienced practitioners in Aotearoa already know".

"While I am saddened by this confirmation, it provides vital evidence that we can't ignore the magnitude of harm towards disabled people."

The study showed women with a disability reported significantly higher rates of sexual intimate partner violence (17 percent) compared with disabled men (5 percent).

But disabled men suffered disproportionately too; the majority were more likely to experience physical violence by non-partners (56 percent), compared with 38 percent of their able-bodied counterparts.  

And more than a third (34 percent) of men with disabilities experienced five or more episodes of non-partner physical violence, compared with just 14 percent of non-disabled males.

The true scale of abuse of disabled Kiwis is likely even worse than the study suggests. That's because the results were gleaned from the 2019 New Zealand Family Violence Study, which interviewed close to 3000 people living in their own homes.

As no people living in residential services, retirement homes or who required support to communicate were interviewed, the findings are likely to "underestimate violence experienced by disabled people", a press release explains.

University of Auckland Associate Professor Dr Janet Fanslow says the study into the prevalence of violence and abuse provides data the disabled community has been seeking for years.

"This study highlights the need to develop and support violence prevention and response programmes that are accessible and appropriate for everyone," she said.

"Prevention and response services also need to be equipped with the knowledge and resources to respond to multiple circumstances that can increase the risk of violence occurring, particularly gender and disability."

The statistics in the latest research reflected those in the Ministry of Justice's crime and victims survey, released last month.

That survey found adults with a disability were at elevated risk of having experienced both sexual assault and intimate partner violence during their lifetime, especially when accounting for age.

It also found they were significantly more likely to experience crime.