Teen Dating Violence and the Forgotten Teens With Disabilities

April 3rd, 2022, by Sari Latomaa

Greyscale image closeup silhouette of two young people holding hands.

Constant phone calls. Putting down in front of others. Calling names. Pushing and shoving. Going through social media or phone. Isolating from friends. Explosive outbursts. Breaking things. Crossing sexual boundaries. Threats. Physical harm. While many remember their teenage relationships fondly, thinking about movie nights and basketball games with their high school sweetheart, holding hands in the hallways or dancing the night away at the prom, for a disturbingly large number of youth, one of their first dating experiences is an abusive one.


What is Teen Dating Violence?

For a disturbingly large number of youth, one of their first dating experiences is an abusive one.

Teen dating violence is a form of intimate partner violence experienced by any person between the ages 12 and 19. TDV is a serious problem and unfortunately common. As many as 1 in 3 teens or young adults  experience some form of physical, emotional or sexual violence in their intimate relationships by a current or former partner. TDV can include physical harm, such as hitting, kicking or pulling hair, or sexual violence, such as coercing a partner to engage in sex acts they’re not comfortable with or consent to. Non-physical behavior can be equally abusive. Extreme jealousy, harassment in person or on social media, emotional manipulation, calling names, isolating from friends, humiliating in front of others or using threats of self harm to keep someone from leaving a relationship can also be forms of dating violence. While anyone can experience TDV, girls face violence at higher rates. Dating violence at a young age can have long lasting consequences, such as depression and anxiety, negative self image, poor academic or work performance, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts or problems in future relationships.

1 in 3 teens experience some form of dating violence by a current or former partner.

Violence Against People with Disabilities

Young people with disabilities between the ages of 12 and 19 face interpersonal violence at much higher rates than their abled counterparts, yet teens with disabilities are often left out of the TDV conversation. According to the U.S. Department of Justice Crime Against Persons with Disabilities report (2009-2019)

  • Youth with disabilities between the ages of 12 and 19 experience physical violence – including physical abuse, rape or sexual assault from a stranger or partner–  almost 6 times more likely than youth without a disability. Rate for violent victimization for youth with disabilities was 162.3 per 1000 people, while the same rate for those without disabilities was  27.1 per 1000 people.
  • People of all ages with disabilities are four times more likely to experience violence than their able counterparts. Although persons with disabilities accounted for 12% of the U.S. population, they were victims in 26% of violent crime incidents.
  • Women and girls with any type of disability face the highest rates of violence, the highest rates being teenagers and those with cognitive disabilities.*

Women and girls with any type of disability face the highest rates of violence”

Gaps in Knowledge Clear the Way for Abusers

Many factors contribute to teens with disabilities being disproportionately at risk for experiencing violence in their relationships. Firstly, youth with disabilities may be conditioned to a certain level of dependency if they need assistance with everyday tasks. Abuse can present itself in non-traditional ways, such as withholding necessary medication or assistive devices or using the disability to humiliate or invalidate the person, or threatening to disclose an invisible disability to others. Societal discrimination is also to blame. Society sometimes views people with disabilities as “innocent and childlike”, or even worse, as somehow lesser than their abled peers, and does not view youth with disabilities as having intimate relationships. This misguided thinking can lead to excluding youth with disabilities from education on sex or bodily autonomy, because – often well-meaning parents, teachers and authority figures –  don’t think youth with disabilities will understand or need such education. This is particularly true for those with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

The society sometimes views people with disabilities as childlike and innocent, and not as having intimate relationships.

Youth with disabilities have the right to safe and loving relationships just like any other teenager. However, gaps in education and not educating teens about personal safety, consent and what healthy romantic relationships look like make it easier for abusers to manipulate the narrative to their benefit and normalize violent behavior. It also makes it more difficult for youth with disabilities to disclose abuse. Same line of thinking can lead to unintentionally overlooking people with disabilities in programs and policies, as well as TDV programs failing to be inclusive to youth with disabilities simply because their services are not accessible. 


A Hidden Crime

Unhealthy behavior in teen relationships commonly goes underreported. In fact, only one third of youth having experienced TDV told about the abuse to their parents, friends or authority figures. For teens with disabilities, numbers of reporting are likely even lower. Reporting intimate partner violence is difficult even for adults, but for teenagers, the situation can be all the more conflicting. They may feel embarrassed to tell anyone about the unhealthy behavior in their relationship, worry about what their peers will think, or worry about repercussions from their parents who perhaps do not agree with them dating.

Identifying abusive behavior is not always that simple either, especially for teenagers who are inexperienced with dating and may be unsure if what they’re experiencing is a normal part of a relationship, or if something is off. These worries are true for all teenagers, but youth with disabilities face additional barriers to disclosing abuse and seeking support. In addition to social barriers and normalizing abuse, youth may have a history of feeling like they are not heard or believed because of their disability. Furthermore, communication differences can make it more challenging for teens with disabilities to seek assistance, or be believed even if they do.  

Teaching teens about respect, consent and healthy relationships is the key to preventing teen dating violence.”

Respect, Consent and Healthy Relationships, for All

Youth are only learning about dating, love, their own boundaries. Their brains are still developing and they are building the patience and communication skills intimate relationships take to work. In a teenage relationship where both parties are young, immature, feeling their emotions deeply, sometimes even the abuser may not comprehend the gravity of their actions – or that their behavior in fact constitutes abuse. Teaching teens about respect, consent and healthy relationships are key elements to preventing teen dating violence. Early intervention, and creating safe environments that do not tolerate abusive behavior is equally important. These efforts that must include teens with disabilities.

The issue of TDV is highlighted in February during Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, but the discussion should not end there. Everyone has the right to safe and healthy relationships. Moreover, everyone should have access to support, protection and services, should they need them. Teens with disabilities must be included in prevention efforts and teaching teenagers about healthy relationships. Furthermore, we must ensure that anti-violence initiatives and intimate partner violence programs are truly accessible for youth with disabilities. 


Teen Dating Violence and Human Trafficking

While this article discusses dating violence of teens with disabilities, it’s important to note the many similarities to human trafficking. Many of the societal factors and grooming techniques around teen dating violence apply to human trafficking as well. Similarly, same kind of vulnerabilities also make youth with disabilities more susceptible for trafficking and less likely to report abuse. Moreover, exploitation does not happen in a vacuum. Understanding the societal issues making people vulnerable for abuse in general also helps us understand and better combat human trafficking.

Visit our Knowledge Center to learn more about the intersection of human trafficking and disabilities.


About the Author:Picture of Sari Latomaa Sari Latomaa (she/her) is an anti-trafficking specialist and the current Coordinator of the NHTDWG. Through advocacy and research, Sari aims to highlight the various societal issues that keep communities in disadvantaged positions. She is passionate about advocating for mental health and social justice, as well as combatting human trafficking, systemic racism, gender-based violence and bullying. In addition to working for societal change, Sari enjoys music, writing and traveling, and will take any chance she can get to explore new places, hike to waterfalls or catch the sunset at the beach.   

The opinions presented in this blog are of the Author alone, and do not necessarily represent the views of the entire Working Group.


Rates of women and girls with any type of disability experiencing violence was 49.4 per 1000 people while the same rate for women and girls without disabilities was 11.3 per 1000 people and for men with disabilities 42.7 per 1000 people. Teenagers between the ages of 12 and 19 experienced highest rates of violence. Rates for 12-19 year olds were 162.3 per 1000 people. Violence rate for the next largest age group 20-24 year olds was 130.4 per 1000 people. These rates go down with age. Those with cognitive disabilities experienced the highest rates of violence, 83.3 per 1000 people. Violence rate for the next highest risk group, vision, was 47.6 per 1000 people.


Center for Disease Control And Prevention. Preventing Teen Dating Violence. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/intimatepartnerviolence/teendatingviolence/fastfact.html

Love is Respect. Disability Communities. https://www.loveisrespect.org/resources/disability-communities/

National Domestic Violence Hotline. Domestic Violence Statistics. https://www.thehotline.org/stakeholders/domestic-violence-statistics/

Trafficking of Youth With Disabilities, What Providers Serving Youth With Disabilities Need to Know. https://www.reachingvictims.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Transcript-for-Webinar-1-Trafficking-of-Youth-with-Disabilities-What-Providers-Serving-Youth-with-Disabilities-Need-to-Know-.pdf

U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Crime Against Persons with Disabilities, 2009–2019 – Statistical Tables. Retrieved from https://bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/capd0919st.pdf 

Youth.gov. Prevalence of Teen Dating Violence. https://youth.gov/youth-topics/prevalence-teen-dating-violence#:~:text=According%20to%20one%20study%2C%20only,about%20the%20abuse%20they%20experienced