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Disabilities and addiction can tragically be a common pair. People with disabilities are substantially more likely to suffer from substance use disorders (SUDs) than the general population, and they are also less likely to receive treatment for them. The inverse can also be true. People with an addiction are also more likely to become disabled, either through accidental injury or through long-term side effects of substance abuse.
People with physical disabilities experience SUDs at 2 to 4 times the rate of the general population. A disability and lack of support can easily discourage someone’s happiness and sense of purpose in life, creating depressing states. Co-occurring disorders, like depression, anxiety, and unhealed trauma, are especially common among disabled Americans, leading many to seek a false sense of comfort with harmful substances.
Individuals with mental and physical disabilities battle unique stressors, such as social perspectives that see them as outsiders, an inability to qualify for certain careers, access to certain benefits, and an inability to participate in a number of activities to the extent that they would like. Individuals with disabilities are more likely to be unemployed; disabled adults 25 and older are less likely to have completed high school and more likely to live in poverty. They are more likely to be victims of violent crimes and struggle with health conditions like obesity and smoking. All of these factors contribute to the high rates of substance use seen in the disabled community.
Disabilities are perceived impairments of an individual’s body, emotions, and mind. Disabilities are defined as “conditions that affect a person’s physical or mental capacity or mobility.” A disability can be either short-term or long-term, and in many cases lifelong. Disabilities can be physical, mental, developmental, emotional, behavioral, or social and can occur at birth or develop later in life. Common disabilities include:
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 16.1% of adults have difficulties physically functioning while 39.5 million adults struggle with physical disabilities. Individuals with disabilities often develop SUDs to offset emotional and mental disorders, anxiety, low moods, and physical pain accompanying physical disabilities. In the United States, 54 million people experience some form of disability. Of that number, roughly 9% (a total of 4.7 million adults) have both an SUD and a co-existing disability.
Those afflicted with intellectual disabilities in particular suffer from staggering rates of addiction. Anywhere from 7% to 26% of individuals with intellectual disabilities have addiction-related issues, depending on the exact condition. These rates are heavily influenced by the effects of some mental conditions combined with the frustrations of dealing with them and the need to cope.
Patients with disabilities often use prescription medications to battle painful conditions, many of which have high potential for addiction. Prescription Opioids in particular are effective Painkillers, yet are highly addictive and can easily be abused. People with disabilities are more likely to abuse Opioids but less likely to receive treatment. Opioids are so highly addictive that even individuals that closely follow short-term prescriptions can quickly get hooked, a risk that only goes up the longer the prescription is for.
Once a disabled individual develops an addiction to prescription Opioids, they will often end up switching over to cheaper and more readily available drugs — such as Heroin — when their prescription runs out. This risk is heightened among the disabled, who are often under greater mobility and financial restrictions than the general population. These factors, combined with the fact that Opioid addiction is by far the most likely form of addiction to end in overdose and death, make disability and addiction to Opioids a growing cause for concern.
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Numbers of individuals with physical disabilities and alcoholism remain high. The combination of emotional and physical frustrations can greatly contribute to lowered moods and a tendency to self-medicate with alcohol. Studies found that up to 50% of individuals with spinal injuries, orthopedic injuries, and traumatic brain injuries indulged in heavy drinking. The ease with which alcohol can be legally obtained greatly contributes to this problem.
Addiction is a major contributing factor in the development of many disabilities. Individuals under the influence are substantially more likely to suffer serious injury that can cause disability, such as from a fall or a car accident. Substance abuse also worsens the symptoms of many mental and intellectual disorders, leading to more severe episodes and greater disability. Intravenous drug use is a major avenue through which a number of diseases that cause disability (like HIV) spread, as are high-risk sexual practices that are more likely due to substance abuse. Additionally, the long-term abuse of many substances can cause both disabilities and conditions that cause disability. Examples include:
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Individuals with SUDs may struggle with underlying disorders that they are unaware of. They may have several questions about treatments, medications, and disability services. Contact a treatment provider today to inquire about various treatment plans. Examine your options for faith-based treatments, holistic-based treatments, and peer groups today. Explore the many ways rehab can help you restore your life to one of health and happiness.
Krystina Murray has received a B.A. in English at Georgia State University, has over 5 years of professional writing and editing experience, and over 15 years of overall writing experience. She enjoys traveling, fitness, crafting, and spreading awareness of addiction recovery to help people transform their lives.
Reviewed by Certified Addiction Professional
A survivor of addiction himself, David Hampton is a Certified Professional Recovery Coach (CPRC) and a member of the National Association of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselors (NAADAC).
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