Disability and Addiction

People with disabilities are actually at a much higher risk to develop substance use disorders. Experts estimate that they are two to four times as likely as people living without disabilities to develop an addiction.
Evidence Based
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Link Between Disabilities and Substance Abuse & Addiction

There is evidence supporting a strong connection between disability and addiction. It is a complicated matter, as there are many types of disabilities and different challenges that come with them. People who live with one or more disabilities face physical, mental, and emotional difficulties that often have a significant impact on their life.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (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.

The link between disability and addiction can be direct — when someone has to take potent opioids to treat chronic pain. It can also be indirect, such as when the limitation has a psychological impact that keeps them from doing certain things.

An individual may have disabilities that are short-term, long-term, or permanent. Some are born with disabilities, whereas others may suffer disabilities as a result of injury or drug use. 

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Types of Disabilities

Some significant 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 Disabilities
  • 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

Additionally, mental and emotional disabilities include:

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

Mental and emotional disabilities may be difficult to diagnose at times. In examples such as autism, a person may have a disability and not even know it themselves. Also, mental disabilities are far less visible, and many people take measures to hide or disclose their disability out of fear of being stigmatized. 

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Effects of Addiction and Disabilities

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


Americans from all situations and demographics are susceptible to addiction. However, people with physical disabilities are medically introduced to highly addictive opioids because of their disability. 

With chronic pain, pain management can become a lifelong journey as doctors prescribe opioids to manage the pain. Even if the patient strictly follows the directions, there is an inherent risk for addiction.

In cases of amputees, they are immediately placed on an opioid infusion to manage their intense pain issues post-surgery. Opioids such as Oxycodone, Morphine, Fentanyl, etc. are very potent and effective at eliminating pain, yet have a high risk of addiction. 

The opioid drip gives the patient control at the press of a button to release the opioid drug directly into their bloodstream via an IV. This makes the drug easily accessible, which enables a high potential for abuse and addiction.


There is 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 the mental health issues they are facing. Opioid drugs become readily available by prescription, and are often combined with other substances when addiction sets in, such as alcohol, which heightens the effect.

Addiction is more common among specific disabilities. For example, 50 percent of people with major spinal cord disabilities abuse substances. 1 in 4 of all deaf people do as well.

Alcohol is the most convenient; therefore, the most widely abused substance in the U.S.

It is human nature to fit in, and having a visible disability places additional pressure on a person, as they fall into a category outside of the norm. When a person is seen in a wheelchair, missing a limb, or has other physical limitations, it can make them feel uncomfortable in public settings. 

Otherwise, mental disabilities may cause a person to have discomfort or anxiety, as well as other obstacles when communicating with others. Additionally, substances can worsen particular mental and emotional disabilities.

Addiction can create a false sense of much-needed comfort. However, the cycle it creates 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 disability. Unfortunately, SUD can directly cause a disability. 

There are many physical dangers associated with substance abuse. When under the influence of a substance, people increase their likelihood of injury from events like car accidents or falling. Internally, people may also suffer brain damage, respiratory illness, kidney failure, sorosis of the liver, among others, as a result of substance abuse. 

The Social Security Administration (SSA) determines a person's disability status and provides compensation if a person fits the criteria. The primary criteria for their determination is a person's lack of ability to work as a result of their disability. 

The SSA acknowledges that SUD can prevent a person from working. However, a person will not be granted disability benefits unless the damage from drug usage is irreversible. In many cases, people who receive treatment can return to normal function. Only in cases where abstinence will not reverse their disability, will they be provided with financial support from the SSA. 

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Addiction Treatment Options

Comprehensive treatment is vital for anyone suffering from addiction. Treatment may include rehabilitation, counseling, peer-to-peer meetings, 12-Step programs, etc. to support a person's long-term success.

People with disabilities face varying obstacles to accessing such treatment. Some include:

  • Transportation — some limitations require individual accommodations 
  • Physical access — some physical buildings providing treatment require modification for access to the physically disabled
  • Communication barriers — in cases of a deafness disability, a person trained to communicate with the deaf must be on hand. Also, personnel must undergo training to interact with many people with mental disabilities successfully.

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 these opportunities.


Cdc. “Disability and Health Disability Barriers | CDC.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4 Sept. 2019, https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/disability-barriers.html.

“Addiction Treatment for People with Disabilities.” Abilities, 1 May 2020, https://www.abilities.com/community/addiction.html.


“Drug Addiction and Social Security Disability.” Better Business Bureau Logo, https://www.disability-benefits-help.org/disabling-conditions/drug-addiction-and-social-security-disability.

Authors and affiliations. “Disability and Addiction.” SpringerLink, 20 Aug. 2010, https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-4419-0338-9_73.

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Updated on: June 29, 2020
Addiction Group Staff
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Medically Reviewed: March 18, 2020
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Annamarie Coy,
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