Mental Retardation and Domestic Violence: An Ecological Approach to Intervention

By Carlson, Bonnie E. | Social Work, January 1997 | Go to article overview
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Mental Retardation and Domestic Violence: An Ecological Approach to Intervention


Carlson, Bonnie E., Social Work


Current trends toward inclusion have meant that most people with mild and moderate mental retardation now live in community settings and lead normal lives. Intimate relationships, including marriage and parenthood, are now commonplace. However, because of the combination of increased vulnerability of these people and prevailing myths and culturally transmitted stereotypes, their adjustment to community living has not always been smooth (Begab, 1983). Sobsey (1995) stated that "some of the attitudes that are commonly expressed toward people with disabilities include depersonalization, dehumanization, objectification, devaluation, blame, distancing, asexualization, disenfranchisement, imposed hopelessness, and emphasized vulnerabilities" (p. 173). Unfortunately, even professionals can hold these negative stereotypes. Many adults with mental retardation currently living in community settings have spent portions of their childhoods in institutions or in compromised family situations and were poorly prepared for community life. Thus, they may have "limited capacity to cope with the pressures and demands of day-to-day life" (Gualtieri, 1988, p. 174) and may have limited communication, problem-solving, and decision-making skills (Mansell, Sobsey, & Calder, 1992).

It is not surprising that women with developmental disabilities, like women without such disabilities, are experiencing domestic violence in their intimate relationships. This article presents an analysis of domestic violence among women with developmental disabilities, framed within an ecological model, and discusses intervention with this special group of domestic violence victims.

Although there is no published research in the professional literature on physical violence among people with developmental disabilities, some literature exists that describes sexual abuse and assault of women with developmental disabilities. The emerging consensus is that women with developmental disabilities are at particularly high risk of sexual abuse as both children and adults (Furey, 1994; Muccigrosso, 1991; Sobsey & Doe, 1991). Their increased vulnerability stems from a combination of factors. An unpublished Canadian study of people with disabilities found that 37 percent of respondents experienced sexual abuse, 29 percent experienced physical violence or abuse, and 34 percent experienced psychological abuse and other offenses (Brooks & Gower, cited in Sobsey, 1995).

Findings from a qualitative study of domestic violence among people with mental retardation are congruent with findings from the research on sexual abuse of women with mental retardation (Carlson, 1996). Key informants from the developmental disabilities and domestic violence fields perceive physical violence and emotional abuse, such as threats of harm, destruction of possessions, humiliation, and over-control of the person's lift, to be widespread. In addition, they believe that the impact of this abuse is similar to the effects of abuse on victims without mental retardation but more severe. The effects reported include lowered self-esteem, guilt and self-blame, physical injury, increased health problems, depression, anxiety, and violence toward children and others. Furthermore, these key informants are convinced that women with developmental disabilities have even more difficulty than women without developmental disabilities both in extricating themselves from abusive relationships and in obtaining appropriate services (Carlson, 1996).

Ecological Model of Domestic Violence and Developmental Disabilities

An ecological framework for understanding factors that contribute to or maintain domestic violence directed toward people with intellectual impairments is especially appropriate in that "modern definitions of mental retardation . . . underscore the reciprocal relationship between the individual and [the] social environment" (Horejsi, 1983, p. 16). In addition, Freedman (1995) noted that "recent definitions of mental retardation and developmental disabilities and trends in programming in the disability field stress the reciprocal relationship between the individual and his or her environmental context and supports" (p.

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