Updated on August 9, 2022
4 min read

Disability and Addiction

Link Between Disabilities and Substance Abuse & Addiction

There's a strong connection between disability and addiction. People who live with one or more disabilities may face the following difficulties:

  • Physical
  • Mental
  • Emotional

These difficulties often have a significant impact on their life.

The (ADA) defines a person with a disability as someone who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.6

The link between disability and addiction can be direct. For example, when someone has to take opioids to treat chronic pain.

It can also be indirect. For example, when there's a psychological impact that keeps someone from doing certain things.

Someone may have disabilities that are short-term, long-term, or permanent. Some are born with disabilities. Others may suffer from injury or drug use. 

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Types of Disabilities

Some physical disabilities that limit one's capabilities include:

  • Chronic pain
  • Cancer
  • Cardiovascular conditions
  • Musculoskeletal conditions
  • Respiratory illness
  • Paralysis
  • Kidney disease
  • Skin disorders
  • Mental and Emotional disorders
  • Prader-Willi Syndrome
  • Down Syndrome
  • Autism
  • Amputation
  • Paralysis
  • Spina bifida
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Deafness
  • Blindness
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Developmental disorders
  • Arthritis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Dwarfism

Mental and emotional disabilities include:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Mental retardation
  • Down syndrome
  • Personality disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Severe depression
  • Substance addiction

Mental and emotional disorders may be difficult to diagnose. In examples like autism, a person may have the condition and not know it themselves.

Also, mental conditions are far less visible. Many people try to hide or disclose their disabilities.

Effects of Addiction and Disabilities

Substance abuse is two to four times higher amongst the disabled. The risk for substance abuse is due to the physical or psychological impact of a disability.


Americans from all situations and demographics can develop an addiction. However, people with physical disabilities often take opioids because of their disability.

Chronic pain management can become lifelong as doctors prescribe opioids to manage the condition. Even if someone strictly follows the directions, there's a risk for addiction.

Amputees are placed on an opioid infusion to manage pain post-surgery.

The following opioids are very potent and effective at eliminating pain:

However, they have a high risk of addiction. 

The opioid drip gives people control at the press of a button. They can release the opioid drug into their bloodstream via an IV. This makes the drug easily accessible, enabling the potential for abuse and addiction.


There's a psychological toll that comes with disability. Many people with disabilities are challenged by:

  • Unemployment and poverty
  • Increased risk of physical and sexual abuse
  • Increased risk of mental illness
  • Chronic medical problems and pain
  • Easier access to prescription medications
  • Social isolation
  • Lack of access to education
  • Enabling by caregivers

These become risks for addiction. Many people turn to substances to cope with mental health issues.

Opioid drugs become readily available by prescription. They're often combined with other substances like alcohol when addiction sets in.

Addiction is more common among specific disabilities. For example, 50 percent of people with major spinal cord disabilities abuse substances.7

Alcohol is the most convenient and widely abused substance in the U.S.

It's human nature to want to fit in. Having a visible disability places extra pressure on a person as they're different.

When a person has a visible disability, it can make them feel uncomfortable in public settings.

Mental disorders may cause discomfort or anxiety when interacting with others. Additionally, substances can worsen mental and emotional disabilities.

Addiction can create a false sense of much-needed comfort. However, the cycle it makes is damaging physically and mentally. 

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Is Addiction a Disability?

Substance use disorder (SUD) is a co-occurring disability when combined with another condition. SUD can directly cause a disability.

There are many physical dangers linked with substance abuse. When under the influence of a substance, people increase their likelihood of injury. For example, from events like car accidents or falling.

People may also suffer from the following as a result of substance abuse:

  • Brain damage
  • Respiratory illness
  • Kidney failure
  • Sorosis of the liver

The SSA determines a person's disability status. They also provide compensation if a person fits the criteria. The primary criteria is a person's lack of ability to work because of their disability.

The SSA acknowledges that SUD can prevent a person from working. However, a person won't receive benefits unless the damage from drug usage is irreversible.

In many cases, people who receive treatment can return to normal function. In instances where abstinence won't reverse their disability, they will receive financial support.

Addiction Treatment Options

Comprehensive treatment is vital for anyone suffering from addiction.

Treatment may include:

People with disabilities face obstacles to accessing treatment.

Some include:

  • Transportation — some limitations require personal housing 
  • Physical access — some buildings providing treatment require revision for access to the physically disabled
  • Communication barriers — for example, someone trained to communicate with the deaf must be available.

Many addiction treatment facilities are well-equipped to meet the needs of people with disabilities. Accessing information is a critical part of taking advantage of treatment.

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Updated on August 9, 2022

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