Disability and Addiction
It is not unusual to see the words ‘disability’ and ‘addiction’ discussed in the same breath. Due to a number of risk factors people living with disabilities are statistically more likely to develop an addiction than the general population, while conversely, people who are struggling with addiction are at greater risk of becoming disabled due to the natural consequences of substance use.
It is important to recognise the strong link between disability and addiction and take steps to ensure that those with conditions that limit their functioning are supported and properly managed while also raising awareness of the very real dangers of addiction.
What is a disability?
A disability is a permanent or temporary condition that can impact the body, mind and emotions, impairing functioning and making certain tasks or skills more difficult to master. 
Some people are born with a disability while others develop this condition later in life due to a traumatic event, major injury or simply during the formation of their brain and body.
It can restrict them from participating in certain activities and make it more difficult for them to interact with the world, although having a disability does not always make it impossible to do these things.
What are the different types of disability?
There are a number of different types of disability, some more severe and noticeable than others. In many cases, it can be difficult to recognise that someone has a disability as they may have no external symptoms.
As well as being physical, disabilities can also be emotional, intellectual, developmental and social, with some of the more common conditions detailed below.
1. Physical disabilities
If someone has a physical disability, their physical mobility, functioning, dexterity and/or stamina is impaired due to a temporary or permanent condition. This can make certain tasks and activities more challenging and can have an impact on their daily life.
Common physical disabilities include:
- Spina bifida
- Cerebral palsy
- Acquired brain injury
- Spinal cord injury
- Multiple sclerosis (MS)
2. Emotional disabilities
Some people have difficulty recognising emotions both in themselves and other people. They may also find it hard to interpret how other people are feeling and respond appropriately, and have trouble expressing their own emotions.
This is known as an emotional disability or emotional disturbance and can make it difficult to build relationships and communicate effectively.
Common emotional disabilities include:
- Anxiety disorder
- Conduct disorder
- Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Personality disorder
- Oppositional defiant disorder
- Asperger’s syndrome
3. Intellectual disabilities
A person with an intellectual disability may have difficulty in two key areas: intellectual functioning (including problem-solving, learning and communication) and adaptive behaviour (including social skills, personal hygiene and routines).
Some people require a large amount of care, while others are able to live fairly independent lives.
Common intellectual disabilities include:
- Down syndrome
- Prader-Willi syndrome
- Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder
- Developmental delay
- Fragile X syndrome
It’s important to note that the above is not an exhaustive list. There are many more disabilities that have not been mentioned, and each of them has the potential to increase the chances of developing an addiction.
What are the risk factors involved in disability and addiction?
Individuals living with a disability often face greater struggles and difficulties than the general population, particularly if they have not been effectively diagnosed.
They are often more vulnerable due to their physical or mental limitations and are therefore at greater risk of developing an addiction or dependency.
There are a number of factors that contribute to the increased risk for this population, from access to highly addictive pain medications to a greater chance of developing a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression.
Some common risk factors involved in disability and addiction include:
- They live with chronic pain and other medical conditions that are managed with prescription medications, which are often highly addictive
- They are more likely to develop a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression
- They are at greater risk of experiencing physical and sexual abuse
- They often have difficulty accessing education
- They may be under the care of caretakers who could potentially enable their addiction
- They are more likely to be unemployed and/or living in poverty
Of course, not every person living with a disability is guaranteed to develop an addiction or dependency, but it’s important to be aware of the increased risks for this population and take steps to mitigate these potential factors.
When prescribing pain medication, for example, medical professionals should ensure that a safe and effective withdrawal plan is put into place and that the patient receives the help and support that they require during this time while caretakers should also be educated on the potential warning signs of addiction to ensure that they are aware of the increased risks to their patients.
Who is more likely to become addicted to specific substances?
As many physical disabilities cause chronic pain, people with these conditions are at greater risk of developing an addiction to prescription pain medication as well as other substances such as heroin and cannabis.
While effective at relieving pain, a large number of prescription opioids are highly addictive and can result in a number of health problems when used long-term.
If someone develops a disability due to a traumatic injury or major surgery they will be given strong pain medication to assist them throughout their recovery which can be very difficult to stop taking without professional support, particularly if the pain becomes chronic and ongoing.
Similarly, someone with arthritis may initially rely on opioid medication in order to manage their symptoms but may become dependent on these drugs due to their highly addictive nature.
Studies have shown that people with disabilities have a higher prediction of substance use disorders than the general population, with the rate of addiction doubling for people living with deafness, arthritis and multiple sclerosis. 
Many people dealing with a disability may find it difficult to seek help and often experience higher rates of depression, potentially leading them to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.
One study revealed that individuals with spinal cord injuries and traumatic brain injuries tend to have significantly higher rates of substance use disorders, which may be related to their lack of mobility and prescription pain medication use. 
Can addiction cause disability?
Unfortunately, it is fairly common for the consequences of substance use and addiction to develop into a form of disability.
Accidents can frequently occur when individuals are under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and a serious head injury or bodily trauma due to a fall or car accident has the potential to cause disability.
As well as physical disabilities, addiction can worsen the symptoms of a number of mental health conditions such as anxiety and schizophrenia. In some cases, individuals may require long-term medical care after a, particularly severe episode.
Repeated substance use can also result in a number of physical health repercussions that can cause disability.
When needles are shared between heroin users, for example, the risk of contracting a blood-borne disease such as hepatitis or HIV/AIDS is increased, while smoking cannabis has the potential to cause lung cancer and alcohol addiction can result in liver and kidney failure.
Disability is a very real consequence of addiction and substance use, with many people experiencing life-changing repercussions across the world every year.
What are the effects of disability and addiction?
Addiction can impact every aspect of our lives, from our physical health to our emotional wellbeing and even our relationships with friends and family.
Although there is no one person who is safe from the effects of addiction, people living with disabilities are at even greater risk of negative effects such as an increased chance of overdose, difficulty accessing necessary medical treatment and a greater chance of developing adverse health problems. 
Some of the most common effects of addiction on people with disabilities include:
1. Increased risk of overdose
Many people living with a disability have been prescribed some form of medication, often an opioid pain medication or another form of prescription for anxiety or depression.
It can be extremely dangerous to mix these medications with alcohol or other substances and can increase the chances of overdose which can potentially be fatal.
2. Increased risk of health problems
If someone has a form of physical disability they are usually more likely to experience health problems such as inflammation and infection. When combined with regular ingestion of alcohol or illicit substances these health problems can be exacerbated and potentially worsened as well as the increased risk of injury due to intoxication.
2. Difficulty accessing medical treatment
Many types of disability require regular medical treatment and checkups, and a physical disability, in particular, can make it more difficult to access these treatments as getting to the hospital or doctor’s surgery can be a huge undertaking.
Combined with substance use, which statistically decreases a patient’s chances of attending treatments and following medical instructions, this can lead to a lack of medical supervision and potentially increased health problems.