In her presentation, Sullivan noted several significant challenges facing researchers who attempt to study victimization of children and adults with disabilities. First, crime victimization and child maltreatment may be both risks and consequences of disability status. Second, risk factors and consequences appear to vary as a function of the type of crime, the type of maltreatment, and the type of disability. Third, many levels of information exist regarding crimes against people with disabilities, but prevalence estimates are only as good as the information in the estimate source. Fourth, at this time, it is impossible to link data from disability sources to criminal justice and health-related databases. Further discussion of the difficulties of gathering victimization data from people with disabilities is covered in Chapter 4 on measuring victimization.
Available data on abuse among people with disabilities are problematic because of the differing operational definitions of maltreatment, poorly defined heterogeneous populations with disabilities, and questionable validation procedures for determining disabilities (Ammerman et al., 1988; Knutson, 1988; Knutson and Schartz, 1997). For children, merely using central registries of child abuse and neglect to establish a link between abuse and disabilities will not alleviate the problem. Abuse records of children are not systematically entered among states, and extrafamilial abuse is not included in virtually any central registry (Flango, 1988). Furthermore, many incidents of maltreatment known to professionals and lay persons are not reported to appropriate agencies, which leads to underestimates of true levels of maltreatment (Knutson, 1988).
Another problem is that disabling conditions can be conceptualized as chronic stressors for care providers, as well as disrupters of the attachment process, because disabilities can cause people to be difficult to manage, to evidence significant cognitive impairments, to be communicatively limited, or to be limited in mobility. Unfortunately, virtually all disabling conditions or their behavioral manifestations can also be occasioned by physical abuse or neglect. As a result, it is often impossible to determine whether the disability contributes to abuse or whether it is a consequence of abuse. Thus, there is controversy regarding disabilities as a risk factor in abuse.