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Abuse in institutions

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HealthWiki > A Health Handbook for Women with Disabilities > Chapter 14: Abuse, violence, and self-defense > Abuse in institutions


Sometimes when a family finds it hard to care for a disabled woman, they decide to place her in an institution or a residential home. They feel the institution will be able to care for their daughter or mother better than they themselves can. Many people who live in institutions or residential homes also get a feeling of belonging and have a community of people around them. Even though many people with disabilities have survived because of the care they get in residential schools, hospitals, and orphanages, they can also be abused there.

Because people who live in institutions are often isolated, lonely, and powerless, they are more vulnerable to being abused. Many times they are living far away from their families, or they have no families at home who can care for them.

4 sad looking older women sitting on a bench.

Disabled people in institutions often have little control over their own lives. They are usually told what to do, and cannot make many decisions on their own. Women who have learning difficulties may be particularly isolated in institutions because of their difficulties in understanding or making themselves understood.

Other problems for people in institutions result from the way the institution is managed. Many institutions have too many residents and not enough money. Often, the people who work there are overworked, frustrated, and exhausted. Sometimes the people who work in institutions are given too much power: they make rules, provide the care, and are expected to keep order.

In addition to the kinds of abuse mentioned earlier, women with disabilities can face other kinds of abuse and violence in institutions:

  • forced sex with workers, caretakers, or other residents
  • being beaten, slapped, or hurt
  • no activity for work or pleasure, and always being bored
  • forced sterilization or abortions
  • being locked in a room alone
  • ice baths or cold showers as punishment
  • forced medication (tranquilizers)
  • having to undress or be naked in front of other people
  • watching other people be abused or hurt
  • being tied down or put in restraints (unable to move)

Working to change institutions

If you know someone who has been sent to live in an institution, and you think the person is not being treated well, here are some ideas to work for change:

  • Form a parent’s or family group, and speak with the people in charge. They will be more likely to pay attention if you go as a group than if you go alone.
  • Build community involvement with the institution and residents by offering residents opportunities for meaningful activity and interaction with the community outside.
  • Campaign for visiting hours and conditions that allow residents to go out with a visitor, or spend time privately with people who come to visit.
  • Advocate for community programs and stay-at-home services, so that people do not have to go to institutions.