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Addiction Prevalence And Treatment Among People With Disabilities

People with physical, sensory, or intellectual disabilities face challenges that often go unnoticed by people without these conditions.

For example, recent data from the government shows that disabled people are at a greater risk of developing a substance use disorder than their non-disabled peers. They are also less likely to receive addiction treatment.

Barriers to their healthcare may involve various inaccessibility factors, discrimination, and misunderstanding of their needs or behaviors.

Understanding these barriers and needs can help healthcare providers of addiction treatment services better serve people with disabilities.

Intellectual Disabilities And Addiction

Also called developmental or cognitive disabilities, intellectual disabilities involve mental limitations that slow a child’s ability to learn and grow.

This might impact their communication, social, or self-care skills, and they may have difficulty learning at school.

Factors that can contribute to the development of an intellectual disability include problems during pregnancy or birth, abnormal genes, or health issues like whooping cough.

ADHD And Substance Abuse

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a highly heritable disorder that often appears in childhood and is recognizable by symptoms of limited attention and hyperactivity.

ADHD and alcohol or drug addiction have a tendency to co-occur, but research isn’t conclusive on the reason why.

However, studies show that people with both disorders tend to have a high risk-taking personality profile, with more impulsive, sensation-seeking, or adventurous behaviors.

Autism And Addiction

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a condition that involves a broad range of communication, social, and other behavioral challenges.

According to Autism Speaks, the largest autism research organization in the U.S., approximately one in 44 children in the U.S. today have some form of ASD.

People with autism might use drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with high levels of anxiety and as a way to “fit in” with their peers, which can lead to addiction.

A recent study showed that as many as one in five young people being treated for a substance use disorder may have undiagnosed ASD.

Addiction And Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is the most severe form of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), which can develop in babies whose mothers use alcohol during pregnancy.

More than one-third (35%) of young people with FASD also experience addiction, according to a recent study.

Intellectual Disability And Substance Abuse

Intellectual disabilities typically affect a person’s ability to process and understand information. They are very common and can be mild, moderate, severe, or profound.

People with intellectual disabilities tend to use drugs and alcohol less than the general population, studies show, but they have a significant risk of developing an addiction if they do use substances.

Physical And Sensory Disabilities And Substance Abuse

Physical disabilities include a broad range of conditions that affect a person’s ability to walk, reach, lift, or perform other basic physical activities.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more women than men are physically disabled, across all age groups.

Sensory disabilities, most often associated with deafness and blindness, can also be very limiting due to the high amount of information typically received via hearing and seeing.

Chronic Pain And Addiction

When pain lasts longer than 12 weeks, despite the use of medication or other forms of treatment, it is considered chronic pain.

Approximately 11% of the U.S. population experienced pain every day during the three previous months, according to a recent National Health Review Survey.

Approximately 10% of people with chronic pain have an opioid use disorder. Prescription opioids are often used to treat pain conditions but are highly addictive.

Muscular/Orthopedic Disabilities And Addiction

Orthopedic disabilities affect the muscles, bones, or joints and are related to a wide variety of health conditions.

This includes cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, spinal cord injuries, and degenerative diseases.

In some cases, such as with cerebral palsy, there seems to be a protective factor against addiction as fewer people with cerebral palsy experience addiction than the general population.

More research into orthopedic disabilities and addiction is required to ensure that people in this population receive addiction recovery treatment when needed.

Sensory Disabilities And Substance Abuse

Sensory disabilities most often refer to those that affect hearing and seeing, although any of the five senses could be involved.

People who are deaf have a one in seven chance of developing a substance use disorder, compared to about one in 10 in the general population, recent estimates show.

Research also strongly indicates that people who are blind experience drug or alcohol addiction at a higher rate than the general population.

Substances Of Abuse Among Disabled Populations

People with disabilities might turn to substances to self-medicate symptoms directly or indirectly related to their conditions.

For example, some people with intellectual disabilities may try to hide their symptoms from their peers. This can lead to anxiety, which they might self-medicate with alcohol or another depressant drug.

People with chronic pain might be prescribed opioids for pain management. Opioids flood the brain with feel-good neurotransmitters and are highly addictive.

As tolerance to opioids happens over time for some people, more of the drug will be needed to achieve the same high, and opioid addiction may develop.

Stimulants speed up activity in the CNS and include prescription drugs like Adderall and illicit drugs such as methamphetamines.

Adderall can be effective in treating ADHD, but if people with this condition aren’t diagnosed, or run out of a prescription, they might turn to illicit stimulant use.

Barriers To Addiction Treatment For People With Disabilities

People with physical, sensory, or intellectual disabilities in many cases are more likely to experience addiction but are also less likely to receive treatment.

Barriers to care should be considered to improve access to treatment for these populations.


People with disabilities may experience direct or indirect discrimination because of their condition, which could create a barrier to receiving treatment.

Direct discrimination might involve infantilization, which is when a capable adult is treated like a child who is incapable of making their own decisions.

Examples of indirect discrimination include not providing a wheelchair-accessible office or not offering an easy-to-read informational brochure for people with a learning disability.

Financial Barriers

There are numerous financial barriers that often make addiction treatment inaccessible for people with disabilities.

Disabled people are twice as likely as the general population to live in poverty, according to The Century Foundation.

They also experience a wage gap compared to their nondisabled peers, and that gap is even greater for disabled people of color.

Disabled people who are unemployed or underemployed are less likely to be able to afford good health insurance or sufficient medical care.

Misunderstanding Of Needs

Intellectual, sensory, and physical disabilities can be “invisible,” in that they aren’t always evident to anyone except the person who has them.

Sometimes, the person themself might not be aware that they have a disability. This can lead to treatment that doesn’t address all of their needs.

A misunderstanding can also occur if behaviors related to a person’s disability are misconstrued as an unwillingness to participate in treatment or a lack of motivation.

Addiction Help For People With Disabilities

At Recovering Champions, we take a whole-person approach to addiction treatment, considering each individual’s physical, psychological, and spiritual needs.

We want to work with you or your loved one to remove barriers that may be blocking the path to recovery.

Call us today to speak with one of our addiction recovery specialists.

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Recovering Champions Is an accredited drug and alcohol rehabilitation program, that believes addiction treatment should not just address “how to stay sober” but needs to transform the life of the addict and empower him or her to create a more meaningful and positive life. We are dedicated to transforming the despair of addiction into a purposeful life of confidence, self-respect and happiness. We want to give recovering addicts the tools to return to the outside world completely substance-free and successful.

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