Physical Disability and Addiction

Research by the United States Government Office on Disability cites that people with physical disabilities are statistically more likely to have a substance abuse problem than those people in the general population. In fact, 4.7 million people with physical disabilities will develop an addiction in each year. Depending upon the type of physical disability, the rates of addiction are two to four times higher than that of the general population.

Physical disability creates a dichotomy with one’s own body. The body inhabited by the person with the disability can become “other” in their mind. This is a common experience especially in those who are not born with the physicality disability but who develop it in adolescence or early adulthood. It is expected that one’s body will develop problems as one enters into middle and old age as that is seen all around us in our society. When one develops physical limitations at what is understood to be the prime of life, or when one’s body is changing from child to adulthood, the understanding and knowledge of one’s own body becomes distorted. A hatred of and separation from one’s body develops, and one’s body no longer exists as a part of oneself. The body and the person disassociate.


If the disability causes physical pain, the sufferer may choose to self-medicate. This is most likely to happen pre-diagnosis; sufferers of arthritic conditions are twice as likely to be addicts than the general population for example. Once a diagnosis is found a label is placed on the disability, which helps treatment but formalizes the “otherness” of the disabled person. The shock of diagnosis and separation from one’s body can cause mental health issues such as depression. This compounds distress and can lead to self-medication worsening. The path to addiction is formed.

Self-medication will affect any prescribed drug regime the person may receive, compounding both the symptoms and the addiction. If mental health issues are also present, recovery is made more difficult. The person becomes trapped in the addiction. Disassociation from one’s body also creates a disassociation from the addiction; negative effects of drugs are affecting the body, not the person.

Stigma of Physical Disability

Disability is stigmatised within society; those with physical disabilities are still excluded from much of mainstream society. Access to public areas is restricted, the normal stages of development in life such as sexuality and relationships are assumed not to have any relevance to the disabled person, and often the physically disabled person will be talked over or about and not directly to.

Disabilities are not always visible, but the stigma is still perceived by the disabled person. The limitations on life when living with physical restrictions vary according to specific restriction. Health insurance coverage may be denied, job prospects are limited, and educational opportunity suffers; these all affect self-image. A person living with a physical disability is invisible to their community and on the fringes of society. Addiction inhabits the same region, meaning there is a commonality of stigma. When one feels rejected by society and also rejects one’s body, the desire to escape both through narcotics is a strong temptation.

Treatment and Help

How the development of the disability is treated is vital in preventing the disassociation and enmity the sufferer may develop toward their body. Open dialogue and honesty from medical professionals about what to expect from the disability will help the sufferer to understand what is happening. Addressing the disability and discussing the topic when it arises with family, friends, and colleagues helps negate any feelings of shame or disgust a person may feel towards their body.

The disassociation must be addressed in order for any addiction recovery program to work. It may be that regular pain medication is necessary to address symptoms of the disability. Help is available to manage one’s particular condition and to address one’s addiction. Living with a physicality disability requires physical and mental fortitude and self-awareness. Physical disability is neither a fault nor a choice. The only responsibility one has is to building one’s future, and overcoming one’s addiction is an essential step.

Access to treatment to overcome addiction is available but is restricted according to the limits of the disabilities one is dealing with. Access to rehabilitation or community center programs may be restricted, as may be the transportation to get there. Leaflets and information may not always be translated into Braille or easily understood depending upon disability. Recovery programs are funding-dependent, often limited, and may not be able to accommodate particular disabilities.

However, this situation is changing. Treatment is increasingly disability-inclusive, so it is vital not to give up. The help one needs is available. Recognizing one’s problem and making that call is the first step to recovery.