The Relationship Between Disabilities And Alcohol

There is a tragically common link between disabilities and alcohol. Due to a number of factors including trying to overcome physical pain, coping with stress and frustration, and lacking alternative activities, individuals with disabilities are affected by high rates of alcohol abuse and addiction. Tragically, many with disabilities are also less likely to seek out and obtain the treatment they desperately need due to a number of financial and social barriers. Luckily, many treatment facilities are designed to handle the special needs some with disabilities require and help those in recovery deal with any special challenges they face.

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What Is A Disability?

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, (ADA), a disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that can substantially limit any major life activity. Probably the most common example would be someone in a wheelchair who is unable to get up a set of stairs without assistance. However, in the 21st century, this is actually a much more nuanced idea, and could include anything from someone who suffers from arthritis having difficulty opening a door to a person with ADHD having issues navigating a website. It is easy to think that someone who has a disability may have less access (although this is very often not the case). It is a concept that most able-people accept. However, disregarding people who do suffer from these handicaps is actually enabling a large population of people to be marginalized and become more likely to turn to addiction and, in particular, alcoholism.

Alcoholism As An Escape

For millions of Americans alcohol is treated as an escape. Whether it is from a tough day at the office, some kind of argument with a significant other, or some other stress in life, people claim that a drink can help them unwind at the end of the day. Unfortunately, it is these kinds of behaviors that can cause someone to become more dependent on alcohol on a daily basis. Now, imagine the stress that someone must feel when they are literally unable to do or accomplish certain tasks. Even things that may be taken for granted for a typical individual. Some people out there may not even realize if they do have an undiagnosed Intellectual Disability, (ID). This, on top of the stress that anyone can feel, can make many more prone to turn to alcohol as a means of coping.

Physical Disabilities And Alcohol

In most cases, it is easy to see a physical disability. This could make it seem like there is an easy solution. For example, someone in a wheelchair needs a ramp, someone missing an arm needs an automatic door, and et cetera. However, even these simple fixes are not always done and may still not help the problem if they are. The day-to-day difficulties that a disabled person needs to face can stack up and make them feel alienated, even if they are able to accomplish their goals. These negative feelings, as they do in anyone, can make them more likely to turn to alcohol as a means of relief.

There are six domains of functioning that can be impeded by having a physical disability:

  • Seeing
  • Hearing
  • Mobility
  • Communication
  • Cognition
  • Self-care

In 2016, 20.2 million adults reported having a “lot of difficulty” in at least one of these domains. This makes those 20.2 million people more likely to develop an alcohol addiction as a means of coping. These disabilities are not always something the person was born with, however. While some people could have been born blind or deaf, many people suffer from traumatic brain injury (TBI), a spinal cord injury (SCI), or a mental illness later in life. Suffering from one of these injuries increases the risk of turning to substance abuse by 5 times. This is especially true during the adjustment and mourning period that immediately follows the development of a disability that was not present before. As evident by the rates of substance abuse in this population increasing to 50% from 10% of the general population. Other conditions, like deafness and multiple sclerosis, make people twice as likely to suffer from substance abuse than the general population.


There were 39.5 million adults in 2016 that suffered from a physical functioning difficulty.


20.2 million adults reported a lot of difficulty or couldn’t do at least one domain function in 2016.


In 2006, an estimated 4.7 million people who suffered from addiction were also suffering from a pre-existing disability.

Intellectual Disabilities And Alcohol

Intellectually disabled may be a new term for many. In 2009, the term “mental retardation” was struck from legal and medical documents in the U.S. due to its negative connotation. “Intellectually disabled,” and other versions of that term, is the new vernacular and used among the medical community. Examples of intellectual disabilities, (IDs), can be caused by and aren’t limited to:

  • Learning disabilities
  • Developmental issues
  • Chromosomal disorders
  • Congenital disorders
  • Malnutrition
  • Complications from illness
  • Brain injury
  • Trauma

While adults who have an ID are less likely to use substances, typically due to the presence of a family member or caregiver, it was estimated in 2004 that 7% to 20% of people with an ID also develop a co-occurring substance use disorder. An especially shocking statistic when compared to the 7.6% of people without an ID that were estimated to develop a substance use disorder in 2008. Still, there is a myth that people with IDs do not drink alcohol or use other drugs. It is just that, a myth. People with IDs, whether they are born with it or develop it later in life, can and will drink. Alcoholism can affect anyone.

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People With Disabilities Seeking Treatment For Alcoholism

The barriers that people with physical and intellectual disabilities face don’t just make them more likely to fall victim to alcoholism, they often make it harder for them to seek treatment. There is a severe lack of resources for people who are held back by disabilities, such as people who are blind, deaf, or hard of hearing. The historical lack of cultural sensitivity among recovery and service providers may also inhibit individuals with certain disabilities from seeking treatment for their addiction, who feel that things have not changed. Luckily, there is much greater understanding and sensitivity in the treatment industry today, as well as much more accessible facilities.

If you or someone you love suffer from a disability and require treatment for alcoholism, do not hesitate. Yes, it may be hard, but certainly not impossible, for you to seek recovery. Contact a treatment provider today; they’re waiting to help you understand the next steps in your journey.

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