Treatment Resources for the Handicapped

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Handicapped-friendly addiction treatment facilities supply clientele with a quality rehab experience carried out in an environment that meets their needs. Many offer physical therapy on site to assist ongoing rehabilitation.

Around 19 percent of Americans were living with a disability in 2010, many of them with comorbid substance abuse problems.[1]

U.S. Congress has pushed requirements for handicapped-accessible features at treatment institutions. Some of these implementations include:

  • Wheelchair-accessible ramps
  • Elevators
  • Safety grab bars in showers
  • Height-appropriate toilets
  • Widened hallways and paths of entry
  • Accessible drinking fountains, telephones, alarms, etc.
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For those suffering from a different kind of disability — a mental handicap — the options for treatment are growing every day. Therapy and medicating measures abound today for the treatment of mental illness, something a reported 53 percent of drug addicts and 37 percent of alcoholics suffer from.[2]

Hurdles to Overcome

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Treatment for substance abuse while coping with a disability can be trying, but it isn’t impossible to overcome. The biggest hurdles the disabled population must deal with are the very side effects they suffer due to their disability. Someone who has suffered a traumatic brain injury is less likely to fully comprehend the risks of substance abuse and often won’t even recognize that they have a problem. The mentally ill frequently self-medicate to numb themselves from the uncomfortable symptoms of a mental health disorder.

Friends and family members of the disabled typically view their loved one as fragile, and addiction is the last thing on their minds. When the disabled party is in pain, they want to help them feel better; if medication is the route to that then so be it. After all, the doctor wouldn’t prescribe a drug if it weren’t safe, right? Even when being abused, one in six parents report feeling that the high received from prescription drugs is safer than that delivered from street drugs.[3]

Accessible Treatment for Those with Disabilities

Difficulties in treating the disabled do not only apply to the addicts themselves; treatment facilities are also expanding their way of thinking to include the disabled population. Individuals with visual disabilities need access to auditory information or treatment data in braille. The deaf population isn’t exempt from addiction either, and they might need sign language interpreters to fully participate in a standard treatment program. As of 2009, five facilities in America were offering residential treatment to substance abusers who are deaf.[4]

deaf woman and rehab

Who Is Considered Handicapped?

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Individuals with developmental disabilities are often diagnosed at birth, but these disabilities can form or be diagnosed up to the age of 22 years old. Around one-third of all people who have a developmental disability also have at least one mental health disorder, frequently depression.[8] There is actually evidence that some persons with these disabilities may be at increased risk of developing a substance abuse problem rooted in poor self-esteem, lack of control over self-regulatory behaviors, and a strong desire to fit in with peers.[9]

One study noted 6.2 percent of the treatment population in two facilities as having a developmental disability.[10] Other sources profess an approximate rate of 15 percent.[11] With such varying data, this points to a lack of research in the realm of addiction among the disabled. Some professionals actually consider both mental illness and substance abuse to be developmental disorders themselves.

It is important to differentiate developmental disability from mental illness. Both are often referenced in the cognitive sense, but they are not the same. Developmental disabilities refer to limitations on mental and/or physical abilities, such as autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Mental illness encompasses a wider group of disorders ranging from depression and anxiety — of which 20 percent of people with either also have a substance abuse problem[12] — to more severe illnesses like schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder. The latter are considered more serious mental health disorders, a genre of mental illness in which 50 percent of those diagnosed are substance abusers.[13]

Physical handicaps are those ailments that most immediately come to mind when most hear of a disability. These addicts often come to be dependent on drugs or alcohol after an accident or event that caused their disability, but not always. Many are born with these handicaps and struggle to cope with them in adulthood, even after living their entire lives with them. Often, the stigma of society plays a tremendous role in the weakened self-esteem and confidence involved in these cases.

Substance Abuse and Disabilities

Substance abuse is common among all three of groups of disabilities, and it’s entirely possible for the addiction to form as a separate issue or as a result of medicated therapy for the disability itself. Case in point, where an individual with cerebral palsy is concerned, they may be placed on medications for treatment which can become habit-forming. The same is true for mentally ill patients, many of which are given prescriptions every year for addictive substances like benzodiazepines. Around 50 million prescriptions for Xanax or its generic form are written to patients in America each year — that’s more than one every second.[14]

For those with physical handicaps, any form of substance abuse is possible, but the most frequently seen in study populations appear to be abuse of alcohol and prescription opioid pain relievers. Among individuals living with orthopedic disabilities, damage to spinal cords, visual disabilities, or amputations, 40 to 50 percent are termed as being heavy drinkers.[15]

Many addicts end up in treatment following accidents that have left them disabled. Others might have grown dependent on their medications following such an event, when the disability actually came first.

Often, the disability itself is a source of resentment for addicts. They blame the disability for their addiction problems. While it is true that disabilities are often a precursor to substance abuse, this is more so correlation than causation. Helping the addict to understand this is all part of the treatment process.

The Treatment Experience

Finding a treatment center that is not just willing to treat an addict with a cognitive disability, but capable of it, too, can be difficult. Once upon a time, disabled addicts were actually turned away by treatment facilities on a pretty routine basis. The Americans with Disabilities Act came along in 1990 and hoped to change this, but it had little effect for years to come as treatment facilities jumped through loopholes that allowed them to neglect any responsibility for the care of disabled addicts. As of 2003, fewer than 12 were equipped for this in the United States.[16] Fortunately, the demand for this form of special care has been high enough to warrant and produce change.


Addicts with co-occurring mental health disorders face twice the challenge in the treatment process. Left untreated, mental illness festers and grows; it plays tricks on the mind’s rational capabilities and can practically push a substance abuser into a life of addiction. Both the addiction and the mental health problems must be treated in tandem. Neglecting to treat a mental health disorder will set most addicts up for relapse, generally very soon after treatment. Among the average substance abuse treatment population, 40 to 60 percent of addicts relapse within the first year following rehab.[17] This number may very well be even higher among mentally ill substance abusers.

Those with persistent anxiety or depression may benefit most from residential treatment, but understandably, this isn’t always possible. In those cases, therapists may make house calls to accommodate their particular needs or meet with them for therapy sessions via a webcam. This trend is picking up speed in the addiction treatment field, especially among outpatients who need to schedule treatment around their already-busy lives and those who are less inclined to leave home, such as individuals with panic disorder or agoraphobia.


Individuals who are on long-term treatment plans involving prescription narcotics may have to utilize alternative forms of therapy and pain relief in the future to avoid relapse into drug abuse. This can be trying for the disabled addict who is in chronic or debilitating pain. Other options for pain relief include massage, chiropractic care and acupuncture. In a study of the efficacy of acupuncture for chronic pain relief, participants reported a 50 percent reduction in their pain following acupuncture treatments, in comparison to only slightly more than 28 percent drop in pain following standard pain treatment measures.[18]  

The aftercare process is of high importance for any addict, but especially the disabled one. A strong support network is something many disabled individuals lack in their private lives that a quality rehab facility can provide to them. Regardless of what kind of disability you’re living with, treatment options that can help you find lasting recovery are available.

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Citations

[1]Nearly 1 in 5 People Have a Disability in the U.S., Census Bureau Reports.” (25 July 2012). United States Census Bureau. Accessed April 27, 2015.

[2]Substance Abuse and Co-occurring Disorders.” (n.d.). National Alliance on Mental Illness. Accessed April 27, 2015.

[3]Survey Finds Teen Misuse and Abuse of Prescription Drugs Up 33 Percent Since 2008.” (8 May 2013). Mercola. Accessed April 27, 2015.

[4]Substance Use Disorder in People with Physical and Sensory Disabilities.” (August 2011). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Accessed April 27, 2015.

[5]Substance Abuse and Persons with Disabilities.” (n.d.). Disabled World. Accessed April 27, 2015.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8]The Intersection of Developmental Disabilities, Substance Abuse and Parenthood: Challenge and Response.” (2005). The National Abandoned Infants Assistance Resource Center. Accessed April 27, 2015.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Crawford, L. (1 April 2000). “In the News: Substance Abuse Treatment for the Developmentally Disabled.” Gotham Gazette. Accessed April 27, 2015.

[12]Substance Abuse.” (n.d.). Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Accessed April 27, 2015.

[13]Substance Abuse and Co-occurring Disorders.” (n.d.). National Alliance on Mental Illness. Accessed April 27, 2015.

[14] Herper, M. (17 September 2010). “America’s Most Popular Mind Medicines.” Forbes. Accessed April 27, 2015.

[15]Substance Abuse and Persons with Disabilities.” (n.d.). Disabled World. Accessed April 27, 2015.

[16]The Intersection of Developmental Disabilities, Substance Abuse and Parenthood: Challenge and Response.” (2005). The National Abandoned Infants Assistance Resource Center. Accessed April 27, 2015.

[17]My daughter just entered rehab. What are the chances 28 days can change her life?” (19 April 2012). New York Daily News. Accessed April 27, 2015.

[18]Acupuncture Confirmed Helpful for Chronic Pain.” (29 September 2012). Mercola. Accessed April 27, 2015.

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