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You Can’t Fight Child Abuse Without Fighting Ableism

The Internet was abuzz last week with the Hillary Adams case; a young woman bravely videotaped her father beating her as a teen, and uploaded the video to YouTube several years later, sparking an international discussion about child abuse. It’s a horrible video to watch, made more chilling when you realise the level of planning and thought that must have gone into it.

Fighting child abuse is challenging on so many levels because it can be hard to identify the victims, especially when they are too terrified to speak. It’s telling that Adams didn’t come out about her abuse until she was in a safe environment, outside her home, many years later. Clearly she lives with the memories not just of what she experienced, but the systems that failed her and allowed that abuse to continue, because people thought her dad was a good guy, a stand-up kind of fellow, reputable, because he was a judge.

In the ample analysis of the video and discussions about how Adams’ father should be punished, one element of the case has been minimally examined: Hillary is disabled. She has cerebral palsy. This is a key aspect of the story that shouldn’t be left out, because it’s central to a larger discussion. You cannot talk about child abuse without addressing, specifically, the abuse of children with disabilities. A UNICEF report in 2005 stressed that any action on child abuse needs to fully integrate children with disabilities. Disability-specific interventions are critical because of the disability-specific issues children experience globally, and 10% of the world’s children are disabled or will become disabled by age 19, which makes them a nontrivial population. 

A child born with a disability or a child who becomes disabled may be directly subject to physical violence, or sexual, emotional or verbal abuse in the home, the community, institutional settings or in the workplace. A disabled child is more likely to face violence and abuse at birth and this increased risk for violence reappears throughout the life span. This violence compounds already existing social, educational and economic marginalization that limits the lives and opportunities of these children. For example, disabled children are far less likely than their non-disabled peers to be included in the social, economic and cultural life of their communities; only a small percentage of these children will ever attend school; a third of all street children are disabled children. Disabled children living in remote and rural areas may be at increased risk.

Disability radically increases the chance that you will experience violence, sexual assault, and physical abuse in your home. A study in 2000 indicated that disabled children experience physical abuse in the home at a rate 3.8 times higher than that of their nondisabled peers. It’s actually extremely hard to get accurate statistics because so few regions collect data, or collect incomplete data that is difficult to extrapolate. This lack of interest in even determining the extent of the problem illustrates, starkly, how little interest there is in addressing the issue. When abuse of disabled children is reported, it’s often ignored.

This is the result of social attitudes about people with disabilities, particularly disabled children. Disability becomes a value judgment, and people with disabilities are found lacking. Less valuable. Less important. Casual abuse of disabled children isn’t just rampant, it’s socially acceptable. ‘Caregivers’ argue that they need to be able to discipline their children, that raising a disabled child is inherently harder. In abuse and neglect cases, the media often portrays the abuser sympathetically. Parents who murder their disabled children get the kid glove treatment because having a disabled child is viewed as a tragedy, and it’s sometimes suggested that killing disabled children is a ‘mercy.’

People in a position to act may be slow to intervene in cases of child abuse involving children with disabilities, and the cost of that slowness can be devastating. When disabled children are taken from abusive environments, they may be placed in newly abusive environments, either in foster care or institutions. The number of disabled children living in institutions is alarmingly high, and institutional environments are not necessarily safe for children. The same abuses people experience in the home; rape, physical abuse, emotional abuse, may transfer into ‘care homes.’ And yet, there is a collective silence on these topics.

Cases of neglect and abuse of disabled children are in the news every week. Children are starved to death, exposed in the woods to die, beaten to death, kept in filthy conditions, repeatedly abused, or simply neglected to death. These stories are heartbreaking not just because they involve real people and real lives, but because they illustrate how little society cares about disabled children. Opportunities for intervention slip past, and often, when cases finally do attract attention, sympathy rests with the parents. They must have been driven to it. It was too hard for them. They had no choice. There were ‘extenuating circumstances.’

Ableism kills. It kills children who live brief, violent, miserable lives and it kills adults subject to many of the same kinds of abuses. And yes, ableism contributes to the lack of social support for parents of children with disabilities, many of whom struggle to meet the needs of their children in a society that’s busy slashing social services. All parents need respite care, but parents of disabled children have a much harder time getting it, and may be balancing expensive medical conditions and other factors on top of the stresses of parenting. Parenting is stressful and it’s hard regardless of disability status. It’s difficult to go it alone, without social support. It’s hard when you and your children are being bullied because of disability and your pleas for help go unaddressed because you’re not considered a full  member of society.

But that doesn’t mean that the abuses endured by disabled children are justified, or that society as a whole is doing the right thing by standing by while children die. Hillary Adams got lucky; she escaped her father and built a new life for herself. She boldly spoke out about the case to raise awareness of the issue. And it’s excellent to see people talking about child abuse and what happens when people in positions of authority, like judges, are allowed to get away with abusive behaviour. But it’s also disappointing to see that few people are specifically tying this case in with disability, and talking about the disability implications here, because they are important, and they should be centred in conversations about the case.

Hillary Adams defies social narratives about disability, which is often perceived as a state of helplessness and inability to act with autonomy. She demonstrated ingenuity and enterprising behaviour, two things people with disabilities are not supposed to do, when she taped her father abusing her. She communicated on her own terms, another thing we are not supposed to do, when she posted the video and started talking about it. This makes it easier to ignore the disability aspect of the case, to treat Adams as exceptional and focus just on the abuse.

But abuse doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and the fact that Hillary has CP matters. Which means that it should be part of the discussion. Because any conversation about ending child abuse must include disabled children. Not just because they are children too and thus are part of the picture, but because they are particularly vulnerable to abuse and because there are disability-specific issues that must be addressed at the same time we fight child abuse as a whole.

Fighting ableism fights child abuse, because fighting ableism gets at the core of the attitudes that treat disabled children as disposable objects rather than human beings, as legitimate targets of abuse rather than victims. This is why ‘intersectionality’ sometimes feels like an inadequate word; it’s not just that disability intersects with child abuse, but that it’s a core intertwined issue that cannot be ignored without leaving children out in the cold.


  1. Jane wrote:

    This is great. I find it striking that not only is the disability aspect missing from so much of the discussion around this, but that in William Adams’ statement released last week he explicitly rejects his daughter’s identification as a person with a disability, saying that she is ‘bright’ and ‘capable of functioning as a productive adult,’ as if people with REAL disabilities are none of those things. He also accuses her of using her cerebral palsy to get sympathy. So in my mind, if we leave the disability aspect out, we are complicit with the abuser.

    Monday, November 7, 2011 at 1:00 pm | Permalink
  2. elburto wrote:

    As a person with disabilities, who was also subject to parental abuse, none of this surprises me.

    The sad fact is that unless they’re directly affected, people don’t care about disability. They’re just not bothered. The media won’t cover stories where disability is the main focus (see the recent ‘Hardest Hit’ marches in the UK) so in order to get coverage at all the disability aspect has to be played down or ignored, because disability isn’t ‘sexy’, it doesn’t sell.

    Monday, November 7, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Permalink
  3. Sadie wrote:

    Thank you; this is without doubt the most in-depth discussion of the disablism involved in this case I have seen. I know someone who was abused in respite care. You’ve given me a lot to think about–the need for increased resources to disability services, accountability from those who are supposed to be caring for disabled children, and, overall, how disablism in society somehow allows this stuff to go unnoticed, even when it seems impossible to ignore.

    Tuesday, November 8, 2011 at 12:15 am | Permalink
  4. Dawn. wrote:

    Wow. What a passionate, enlightening essay, S.E.

    This is why ‘intersectionality’ sometimes feels like an inadequate word; it’s not just that disability intersects with child abuse, but that it’s a core intertwined issue that cannot be ignored without leaving children out in the cold.

    Love this especially. Thank you for sharing.

    Tuesday, November 8, 2011 at 1:03 am | Permalink
  5. Budiman wrote:

    This is a great article.

    (TW for abuse) My cousin has autism and had been physically abused by her parents for several years, and during that time my larger(?) family didn’t do enough to help her. I’m a middle schooler at that time (her too) and did nothing to help even though I saw her bruises. My parents would intervene occasionally, but it was not enough. Only after a horrifying incident my larger family intervened by reporting the abuse to the police. She now lives with one of our relatives. But her parents were not punished. The issue’s awareness here is very limited– disabled children, like you said, are viewed as a heavy burden to the parents and do not receive proper support..

    Tuesday, November 8, 2011 at 11:20 am | Permalink
  6. isabel wrote:

    Another thing that might be tying into it is a lack of education about what having a child with a disability means. When I was completing a child abuse prevention workshop having a disability was listed as a factor that increased the chances of abuse, but so was a parent having age-inappropriate expectations of the child. I suspect these two might work in conjunction as a parent might have what would not necessarily be age-inappropriate expectations of a child who didn’t have a disability but are for one who does. And this goes for schools too — it is in my experience very common for teachers to demand that children look them in the eye when talking to them, which IMO is obnoxious and frequently counterproductive for neurotypical children but from what I understand is really emotionally difficult for autistic kids, which parents and teachers may not understand or like you say may consider solely a discipline problem. And this isn’t even getting into kids who are not recognized as having disabilities (in NYC at least I know to be officially considered to have a disability your parent needs to consent to the investigation process and I knew one girl I would have bet money was autistic whose mom refused to let her be evaluated and in her interactions with her that I saw treated it, again, as a discipline issue. (And of course this isn’t even getting into the issue that the special ed classes are frequently worse than the other classes.)

    anyway this isn’t to excuse it at all, just to say that this is another thing to keep in mind as a preventative measure.

    Tuesday, November 8, 2011 at 11:35 am | Permalink
  7. Jess Banks wrote:

    This is so important to point out; thanks for doing so.

    I’ll take your intersectionality up a notch, and tie this to the unfolding Penn State scandal: disabled kids and disadvantaged kids are BOTH easier to abuse, because they’re “harder to fix” and lack many of the protections that able-bodied, well-supported kids have. And when a child is both disabled and lacks financial/family/legal/emotional support…well, that’s when bodies start surfacing, sadly.

    Tuesday, November 8, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Permalink
  8. Alison wrote:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. I’ve shared it with my Disability, Power, and Privilege class and my Gender and Violence class. Topics in those two classes overlap far more often than I’d like.

    Wednesday, November 9, 2011 at 5:59 am | Permalink
  9. Lindsay wrote:

    Thank you so much, s.e. This really needed to be said, and I’m glad you said it so well on such a widely-read blog.

    (It’s really bothered me, too, how many news stories leave out Hillary’s cerebral palsy).

    Wednesday, November 9, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Permalink
  10. Brian wrote:

    Brilliant piece.

    To descend from the general to the particular, I wanted to throw in an issue I used to work on.

    Abuse is also an issue for many adults with disabilities who are taken for targets. People who have personal care attendants and people with cognitive disabilities are at risk for abuse and have big obstacles to making their situation known — this puts them in the same situation as kids and as many seniors.

    Every state in the US has a child protective services department, and (I think) every state has a protective agency to investigate abuse of the elderly. Most, but not all states, have adult protective services agencies that can investigate abuse of vulnerable people with disabilities between 18 and 65.

    I used to work with people campaigning to get an adult protective services agency in Pennsylvania, which is where I learned about this issue. They’ve since gotten an APS law passed in PA, although the state hasn’t allocated funding to actually start the program.

    Thursday, November 10, 2011 at 10:23 am | Permalink
  11. Thank you for this post. I hadn’t seen the video until now and it will stay with me. You are so right to point out how vital it is to see the intersections and act.

    Thursday, November 10, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Permalink
  12. Ali wrote:

    s.e., always good to read you. It’s times like this I really miss fwd.

    I need to mull over your last paragraphs about intersectionality, but wanted to say right away that I really appreciated this piece.

    Friday, November 11, 2011 at 3:02 am | Permalink
  13. Thank you for this post. As a woman with Autism, i am surprised that even the Radical Feminist community leaves out the disability aspect in the Hillary Adams case. It saddens me that even the most radical group seem to consider that ableism is another component of the patriarchy because guess who else is disabled besides men. Women

    Friday, November 11, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Permalink
  14. The Bad Angie wrote:

    Many thanks for speaking out. Sis and I had the Hillary Experience from a heroin-addicted stepmother. Sis, grown to normal adulthood, is now left alone. I have a huge vascular birthmark and the abuser has made me scapegoat and target for her entire extended hillbilly family.
    Disabled/disfigured/different, sexually or otherwise, should not redefine a child as prey for the bloodthirsty.

    Monday, November 14, 2011 at 8:48 am | Permalink