Treating an Addiction

When a Disability is Present

Addiction and Disabilities

The term disability encompasses a wide range of diagnosis, but generally, a disability is considered a condition that limits participation in one or more major life activity. A disability can be physical, emotional or intellectual. You can become disabled after an accident, from a disease, or have a disability since birth. Regardless of how the disability occurred, treatment for addiction must address the limitations present because of the disability. When you can receive addiction treatment that puts all your needs first, you can heal from your addiction and live a sober life.

Categories of Disabilities

Categorizing disabilities can be challenging. As an example, hearing loss and how it affects each person who has a hearing loss can be different from person to person. The loss can be mild or complete. The individual may have an easy time coping, or they may struggle to manage from day to day. Each type of disability has a range of severity and people react differently to similar circumstances. Disabilities are generally organized into six categories.

Developmental disabilities 

These are disabilities that generally begin while in the womb, but can also manifest after an illness or injury. Cerebral palsy and hearing loss are considered developmental disabilities, although there are crossovers as learning disabilities can also be considered developmental. 

Mental illness 

Programs for dual diagnosis treatment are specific for individuals who need addiction treatment and who also have a mental health diagnosis to treat. 

Learning disabilities 

When the learning process is inhibited, a learning disability is generally identified. Children and adults with a learning disability can have a problem processing new information, reading or understanding complex information. 

Physical disabilities 

Limitations caused by a physical, mechanical inability to perform an activity are considered physical disabilities. Traumatic brain injuries, allergies, asthma, cancer, and many more physical ailments can all be considered a disability that changes your life. 

Sensory disabilities 

A sensory disability is when one of the senses of touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing doesn’t work correctly. The person uses the remaining senses to gather information. 

Intellectual disabilities 

Intellectual disabilities interfere with a person’s overall IQ, can inhibit speech, and can make taking care of yourself nearly impossible. Intellectual disabilities can occur at birth, or because of an accident, illness or injury. 

Dual Diagnosis

Programs designated as dual-diagnosis provide addiction treatment for individuals who have a mental health diagnosis along with addiction. Dual-diagnosis treatment allows the client to focus on both the addiction and underlying mental health needs at the same time. This is an effective treatment for individuals who need support for mental health needs and don’t want to ignore their mental health to focus on addiction treatment. 

Why People With Disabilities Use Substances 

There are many reasons why people with disabilities turn to drugs or alcohol. Similar to many others, they may use substances as a way to cope with the stress of everyday life. An inability to participate in normal activities can make a person with a disability feel left out. “As with a need to fit-in and a history of trauma, mental health problems are also implicated in increased risk for problematic substance use in the Intellectual disability (ID) population.”, according to a report by the National Library of Medicine. 1“People with ID have higher rates of mental health problems than the general population”. Cognitive issues can make it hard to learn effective pill management or about the dangerous effects of drugs or alcohol. Pain medication treatment and pill management after an accident can be challenging and, at times, can lead to an addiction, compounding the situation of living with a disability. 

When you take into consideration the wide variety of ailments that are considered a disability, many people have some type of disability as a diagnosis. While limitations created by the disability may be minimal, there are others where the limitations can be so significant that the individual struggles to get through each day. 

According to Disabled World, “For people who experience forms of disabilities, the process of recovering from addiction is complicated by barriers that simply do not exist for others. Attempts to recover from an addiction to a substance can be greatly hindered by issues associated with physical or mental disabilities.”

The Signs of Alcohol or Drug Abuse Among Those with Disabilities 

If you are concerned about a loved one who is disabled and believe they may need treatment for alcohol or drug abuse, it’s important to look for signs that they need help. Signs of addiction in anyone includes: 

A lack of interest 

Lack of interest in normal activities that the person usually enjoys is always a red flag. For a disabled person, it is important to rule out any physical or emotional reasons for the lack of interest that don’t include addiction first. 

Additional difficulty 

A difficulty with cognition, such as confusion, or trouble with regular tasks. 

Isolation and a change in attitude 

You might discover that a loved one wants to be alone all the time or is angry and hostile. 

For those with a disability, the signs of substance abuse can also indicate a flare-up in the condition that is causing pain, confusion, or other symptoms to manifest. It is necessary to rule out any medical issues first to determine if substance abuse is the real problem. People who have a disability struggle with addiction at higher rates than the general public, but it is still necessary to rule out any medical reason for the symptoms before trying to address an addiction problem. 

Addiction Treatment for People with a Disability 

Addiction treatment for those with a disability must be empathetic and address the needs associated with the disability to ensure that the addiction treatment is successful. There are often barriers to treatment for those that are disabled, and overcoming those barriers can mean receiving additional help before addiction treatment begins. Some individuals may not have the ability to understand that addiction treatment is necessary. Others with a disability may not be able to make the decision to go to treatment. Financial barriers often exist, and this generally means finding a treatment program that accepts the individual’s health insurance plan. 

Addiction treatment that is understanding, professional and compassionate is important for everyone, but especially for those who are also trying to overcome addiction with a disability. It’s hard enough living with a disability and managing the day to day life. When disability is compounded by an addiction, it’s time for a treatment program that will help the individual safely withdraw from substances. 

Safe Sobriety Begins with Supervised Detox 

Withdrawal symptoms from substances can manifest as symptoms of the disability. Withdrawal can cause anxiety, depression, shaking, nervousness, agitation and more. For a person with a disability, the withdrawal process can feel as though a disability is getting out of control. The symptoms of withdrawal must be managed with care or the client will not feel safe during the withdrawal process. Withdrawal at home is less successful because people frequently use the substance in order to stop the symptoms of withdrawal.  

Developing a Treatment Plan 

Once detox is complete, the individual with the disability, just like many others in recovery, will have to work for long-term success. While in detox, it’s important for recovery to work closely with a counselor to develop an individualized treatment plan. This can be hard for some individuals with disabilities, but it is a vital piece to treatment. A treatment plan is developed to create a clear picture of what is going on in the client’s life and how the addiction is going to be addressed. Goals are established and success towards completing the goals will be measured. For a person with a serious disability, the goals created by the counselor and individual should be easy to understand. 

Treatment after detox can include time spent in a residential treatment facility for further education and routine building. If an individual has a physical or emotional disability, accommodations can be made by the facility at varying levels. For those with a disability, it is necessary to be clear about any accommodations that are necessary. A reputable treatment facility can manage to accommodate people who need physical or additional emotional support while trying to work through an addiction. 

Aftercare Planning With a Disability 

Living with a disability can feel isolating and cause stress while trying to simply live day to day. For an individual with a disability, relapse prevention is all about learning how to live without substances and replacing substance abuse with healthier activities. To decrease isolation, 12-step meetings are an opportunity in the community to socialize and engage with others who are working on sobriety. In addition, weekly individual therapy is always recommended to have a neutral person out in the community as support. 

If learning is a barrier, breaking down the information about addiction may be necessary. If an individual with an intellectual disability doesn’t understand the harm they are causing to their body by using drugs or alcohol, it is necessary to try to reach the individual in a variety of different ways. For those who depend on care from others, careful monitoring may be necessary to keep the individual safe. 

It’s not easy to live with a disability, and drug or alcohol addiction can only make the disability worse. An individual with a disability is at a high risk of danger while using substances and getting treatment is vital to long-term health. Those with disabilities already need additional support in order to participate in society. When compounded by substance use, the need for treatment couldn’t be greater.   


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