Pregnant Women With Disabilities at Higher Risk for Violence Pregnant Women With Disabilities at Higher Risk for Violence

Pregnant or postpartum women with disabilities are at relatively high risk of experiencing violence, often from the people closest to them, new research suggests.

The researchers set out to measure risk of interpersonal violence, which the World Health Organization defines as “the intentional use of physical force or power against an individual by an intimate partner, family member, or other community member.”

Hilary K. Brown, PhD, with the department of health & society, University of Toronto, led the study published online in Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Large, Population-Based Dataset

The population study included people 15-49 years old with births in Ontario from 2004 to 2019. They included 147,414 people with physical disabilities; 47,459 people with intellectual disabilities; 2,557 with developmental disabilities; and 9,598 with multiple disabilities.

The control group was 1,594,441 million people without disabilities.

The outcome measured was “any emergency department visit, hospital admission, or death related to physical, sexual, or psychological violence between fertilization and 365 days post partum.”

Researchers found that the adjusted relative risk of interpersonal violence for those with disabilities, compared with those with no disabilities was 1.40 (95% confidence interval, 1.31-1.50) in those with physical disabilities; 2.39 (95% CI, 1.98-2.88) in those with intellectual or developmental disabilities; and 1.96 (95% CI, 1.66-2.30) in those with multiple disabilities.

History of Violence Means Higher Risk

Those with a history of interpersonal violence and a disability were at particularly high risk for perinatal violence.

The authors note that pregnancy is a high-risk period for interpersonal violence for all women, particularly by an intimate partner.

“More than 30% of intimate partner violence begins during pregnancy, and preexisting violence tends to escalate perinatally,” they write.

The authors cite previous research that found women with disabilities experience higher rates of abuse overall and by an intimate partner – two to four times rates reported by those without disabilities.

Opportunities for Provider Intervention

Since the period surrounding pregnancy is a time of increased contact with medical providers and resources, there may be opportunities for identifying abuse and providing interventions.

Those might include better screening, access to violence-related information and services, and education of health care professionals to support people with disabilities. For example, “Tools used for violence screening perinatally do not include items about forms of violence that are unique to individuals with disabilities, such as refusal to assist with activities of daily living.”

The authors add: “[G]iven that the strongest risk factor for interpersonal violence in the perinatal period, particularly in those with disabilities, was a prepregnancy history of interpersonal violence, our findings suggest that more could be done before pregnancy to offer screening and support at the index encounter.”

Violence Can Lead to Adverse Outcomes

Implications are important as the violence can result in barriers to care and adverse perinatal outcomes.

Jeanne L. Alhusen, PhD, CRNP, RN, University of Virginia Medical Center professor of nursing and associate dean for research, was not part of this research but wrote a paper earlier this year on the subject and had similar conclusions.

She said before this study by Brown et al., “our understanding of the risk of violence by disability type throughout the perinatal period, on a population-based level, was quite limited.”

With the size of this dataset, she said, this paper provides critical information for health care providers. It extends physicians’ ability to examine risk of violence by disability type as well as these patients’ risk of experiencing different types of violence.

She pointed out that the Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System (PRAMS) recently incorporated a disability supplement that allows better understanding of pregnancy risks in people with disabilities.

“It will be critical that U.S. states continue to incorporate the disability questions into their PRAMS administration [because] without that information, persons with disabilities will continue to experience unconscionable inequities,” she said.

Barriers to Equitable Care

Alhusen added that people with disabilities experience significant barriers in accessing equitable care – both at the provider and the system level.

She said it is critical that we recognize and address the sexual and reproductive health needs of all persons with disability. “This includes screening every person for violence and [ensuring] the tools we utilize are accessible and include items specific to disability-related abuse. In our qualitative studies, we have heard from pregnant persons that they were never screened or that they were screened with their abusive partner sitting next to them.”

Screening Questions to Ask

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists provides examples of screening questions that are specific to people with disabilities such as asking if a partner has ever prevented the individual from using an assistive device (for example, a wheelchair, cane, or respirator) or refused to help with an important personal need, such as taking medication or getting out of bed.

“For many reasons, people with disabilities are less likely to disclose violence, and health care professionals are less likely to ask them about it,” said coauthor of the current study, Yona Lunsky, PhD, clinician-scientist, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Toronto, in a statement. Based on the findings, she said, she hopes clinicians will see the need to develop disability-informed screening tools to capture abuse and identify the appropriate resources for this population before, during, and after pregnancy.

Coauthor Natasha Saunders receives an honorarium from the BMJ Group (Archives of Diseases in Childhood). Coauthor Simone N. Vigod receives royalties from UpToDate for authorship of materials related to depression and pregnancy. The other authors did not report any potential conflicts of interest. Alhusen reported no relevant financial relationships.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.