Different forms of ‘violence’ used against people with disabilities

The adaptation of Galtung’s Triangle of Violence, below, highlights some of the ways in which people with disabilities have historically been ‘victims’ of various kinds of violence around the world (See figure 1). For the purposes of this post violence is defined by the World Health Organisation as:

“the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.” 

(World Health Organisation website, 2010)

Direct Violence

Extermination of people with disabilities has occurred throughout history from ancient times for a variety of reasons including some religious beliefs that held that people with disabilities were evil, to modern genetic engineers who put a modern spin on the need to exterminate anything that might interfere with ideal or ‘normal’ development of the human body, for example Nazi Germany.

In earlier societies, particularly in the medieval period where many of the court jesters were individuals with different appearances or mental functions (e.g. dwarfs, hunchbacks), those who held power were prone to ridicule and taunt those who were disabled in some way. (So called ‘Freak Shows’ would be a more modern day example of this) Even today individuals with disabilities frequently have to endure rude, ignorant and offensive comments. Our language is full of expressions that have a tendency to poke fun at those with disabilities (for example cripple, retard).

Although the more extreme forms of visible direct violence such as extermination may not be anywhere near as prevalent today (although this is not say that it does not still happen in more isolated areas or individual cases) other forms of visible violence such as abortion and even euthanasia still occur, often legally within society even though both practices come under heavy criticism from a number of different sources.

Structural Violence

In addition to the usually reported issues of poverty and an inaccessible built environment there are a number of other issues that come under the heading of structural violence. Up to the early 1900s, it was very common to institutionalise any individual who somehow deviated significantly from the norm. Although this was viewed as the humane thing to do, many acknowledge that institutions were created to protect the non-disabled from those with disabilities.

The hiding away by families of family members who are disabled can occur as a result of a variety of cultural and/ or religious reasons. The central precept of Buddhism revolves around ‘Karma’ whereby actions in this life dictate the level of existence in the next. At a conceptual level, this often means that disability is seen as a punishment for bad actions committed in previous lives. Persons with a disability, especially in rural areas are, therefore, often hidden by their families who are afraid for their reputations in the wider community – specifically the very Asian idea of ‘losing face’. In Kenya, in the 1980s, 50% of Kenyans with disabilities had no children, compared to the average Kenyan family of six or more children (Crawford, 2005; p.13). Crawford attributes this fact to myths surrounding passing on ‘bad blood’ combined with perceptions that people with disabilities are ‘asexual, unable to care for children, or are medically incapable’ (Crawford, 2005; p.13). This concept of ‘bad blood’, similar to the idea of karma described above, plays a key part in impacting the way many people with disabilities are treated in Kenya compared to the non-disabled. However, non-disabled family members of people with disabilities may also be deemed to be tainted by the same curse, meaning whole families may be treated differently or even shunned.

Unequal access to services can result from many different situations and not just in relation to what those in the non-disabled section of society receive. For many years disabled war veterans in Israel have benefited from a system of benefits that means that they receive far better care and financial benefits than Israeli individuals injured as a result of birth defects or traumatic injuries or illness later in life. Indeed Dr Yaniv Poria, author of a study on the disabled in Israel stated that ‘it is common among disabled people in Israel to say that it is better to become disabled during your army service than as a result of birth or an accident’ (Brinn, 2004). Gal and Bar (2005) claim that disabled war veterans are more highly regarded within Israeli society than other disabled due to the fact that they received their disabilities in fighting in the name of Israel. Gal and Bar differentiate between the ‘needed’ and the ‘needy’ disabled individuals with the ‘needed’ disabled individuals having much higher status and far better care and remuneration than the ‘needy’ individuals, due to the sacrifices they made ‘in the name of an array of social values’(Gal & Bar, 2005; p.592).

Cultural Violence

Emotional responses to disability such as fear, hatred, dismissiveness or pity can have major impacts upon the way people within non-disabled society interact with people with disabilities. Even the reaction of close friends to a sudden acquired disability can cause problems in a previously close friendship as Danny (in Brittain, 2002; p.138) pointed out following the loss of his right arm at the shoulder during a car accident:

“a lot of them found it very difficult, obviously, to come to terms with it. More so than me. And they found it hard to be around me, friends that I’d had for years.”


The fact that many of Danny’s long term friends found it hard to be around him following his accident appears to be in line with Hogan’s (1999) contention that an acquired disability signifies a massive change in social status in the eyes of those around them. It is likely that a general lack of understanding of disability and the issues surrounding it were to blame for the difficulty of Danny’s friends in accepting his disability, for as Chris (in Brittain, 2002; p.138) so concisely put it:

“They have very little knowledge of people with a disability and instead the attitude is basically if I leave it alone and don’t touch them and don’t get involved then it’s not my problem kind of thing.”


The reaction of Danny’s friends to his acquired impairment clearly demonstrates the effect that a lack of understanding and a fear of the difference of anyone who does not conform to societal norms of able-bodiedness can have. Danny is still fully ambulatory with all his visual and intellectual faculties intact. He simply has one arm less than the majority of people.

It might be assumed that negative perceptions with regard to disability are only relevant to non-disabled individuals when dealing with or discussing people with disabilities. However, the power and reach of the perceptions of disability embedded in the medical model discourse are such that they can inform people with disabilities’ discourses regarding people with different or more severe impairments in much the same way as they do for the non-disabled community. The following quote from Ina (in Brittain, 2002; p.147) comes from a discussion regarding the type and severity of disability and people’s perceptions:

            “I think it gives a bad impression when you see these people that, like the ones doing boccia. I think that’s just such an embarrassment and you know when we went out there and came back then people were saying oh we’re not on the same plane as the boccia lot……..it’s people like that that give the rest of us a bad name and impression and they seem to class us all together and they only see the really bad ones generally.”


It appears then that Ina is displaying a discriminatory or disablist viewpoint of a group of people more severely disabled than herself. Arguably there is a tendency within society to label all people with disabilities as ‘disabled’ and attribute the same ‘meaning’ (usually that of the person with greatest level of impairment) to people with all types of impairment. This then could be why Ina fears being associated with this group. However, in reality the quote from Ina clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding of what it means to have cerebral palsy and also a discriminatory attitude towards their right to be taking part in their chosen sporting activity and being part of the same team as Ina and the others she refers to. This kind of occurrence has also been reported by Hunt (1966 cited in Sherrill, 1986; p. 23-24) who stated that ‘people with less stigmatized disabilities are often quite prejudiced against individuals who are more stigmatized.’ This then plays a part in reinforcing and recreating negative perceptions of disability and their continued use within society.

Most of the forms of violence arise out of the application of the medical model of disability. The social model of disability can help us understand the manner in which sport can help change perceptions within non-disabled society regarding people with disabilities and, thus, negate or at least lessen some of the ‘violence’ directed consciously or sub-consciously against people with disabilities, which will be the subject of my next post.

Brinn, D., 2004, Israeli athletes strike gold at World Paralympic Games, (http://www.israel21c.org/culture/israeli-athletes-strike-gold-at-world-paralympic-games) accessed 13-04-10.

Brittain, I., 2002, Elite Athletes with Disabilities: Problems and Possibilities. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis. Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College, UK.

Crawford, J, 2005, Constraints of Elite Athletes with Disabilities in Kenya, Unpublished Masters Thesis, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA.

Gal, J. & Bar, M., 2000, The Needed and the Needy: The Policy Legacies of Benefits for Disabled War Veterans in Israel, Journal of Social Policy, Vol. 29(4), p. 577-598.

Galtung, J., 1990, Cultural Violence in Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 27(3), p. 291-302.

Hogan, A., 1999, Carving out a space to act: acquired impairment and contested identity, in Corker, M, & French, S.(Eds.), 1999, Disability Discourse, Open University Press, Buckingham, UK, p. 79-91.

Hunt, P. (Ed.), 1966, Stigma: the experience of disability, Chapman, London.

Sherrill, C., 1986, Social and Psychological Dimensions of Sports for Disabled Athletes, in Sherrill, C. (Ed.), 1986, Sport and Disabled Athletes, Champaign, Il., Human Kinetics, p. 21-33.

World Health Organisation website, 2010, Definition and typology of violence(http://www.who.int/violenceprevention/approach/definition/en/index.html) accessed 29-3-10.


One response to “Different forms of ‘violence’ used against people with disabilities

  1. Pingback: Disability - a medical fact or social construction?

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