My brother has learning and behavioral disabilities, so I am very familiar with taking care of children with disabilities. A disability can range from a mental handicap, to a behavioral issue, to a physical impairment. Sometimes these disabilities overlap, depending on the child’s condition. My brother is pretty high-functioning, but his behavior can be unpredictable and he has a difficult time sitting still and focusing on tasks. Over the years I have met other children with disabilities that he is friends with or has gone to school with, and the severity of their disabilities vary tremendously. I have met children who are nonverbal, have extreme tempers and violent outbursts, have a deficiency in muscle functioning, and so on. “Children with disabilities” is a blanket term for an extremely broad category, so the following analysis relies on the point that each situation/child should be looked at independently.
Children with disabilities are at a greater risk of being abused in part because they have a lesser understanding of how to identify and report abuse. Depending on the severity of their disability, children with disabilities may have adults doing personal tasks for them, such as dressing them, bathing them, and helping them use the restroom. Children with disabilities can be taken advantage of in these situations, and may not know they have been abused. They may believe this behavior is part of being taken care of.
Another part of this situation is that there are typically more adults that care for children with disabilities. In my brother’s case there was my family: me, my mom, my dad, and my stepmom; teachers at his school (who often had additional aides); speech/physical therapists; and caretakers at his after school program. Children with disabilities often require additional hands-on attention and lots of patience from caretakers, and simply having more adults present heightens their risk for abuse.
Adults who care for children with disabilities have an extra duty to be an advocate for that child. A child with disabilities faces the same obstacles that any abused child faces, but they have additional hurdles of identifying and labeling abuse, communicating that they have been abused, and being believed by other caretakers. Children with disabilities are extremely vulnerable because they may have to wholly rely on caretakers to do everything for them, and sometimes caretakers do not have enough patience or the right intentions.
Adults who care for children with disabilities but are not the abusers, aren’t necessarily complicit if the child they care for is abused. I would say they are complicit if they are aware of the abuse and do nothing to stop or prevent it, like any adult is, regardless of if a child has a disability or not. If another adult knows the child is being abused and does nothing to intervene, then that adult is complicit in the abuse.
My brother has been lucky to have several advocates in his lifetime. He is extremely particular about how he dresses and what he eats so sometimes he wears the same clothes for a few days and doesn’t eat all of his lunch. These quirks are part of his behavioral disabilities, so my family has learned to accommodate them. Over the years, multiple teachers and counselors have contacted my mom to make sure my brother is not being neglected (which he is not). I am aware this is not the case for every child with disabilities, but I would encourage caretakers of children with disabilities to continue to advocate for them, and not remain complacent in their roles.