Individuals with Disabilities & Substance Use: Let’s Talk About It

Written by: Davi Stanley. Stanley is a BSW student who is currently interning at the WVU Center for Excellence in Disabilities.  

Did you know that individuals with disabilities frequently develop substance use disorders to offset physical pain, emotional and mental disorders, low moods, and anxiety? According to data from the National Rehabilitation Information Center, nearly five million individuals with disabilities suffer from a co-occurring substance use disorder (SUD). This accounts for nearly a fifth of the overall population of folks who suffer from a substance use disorder in the United States.  

It is not uncommon for disability and addiction to switch roles between cause and effect. Some individuals struggling with a substance use disorder end up developing a disability or disabilities as a result of their alcohol or drug abuse, whereas other individuals begin using alcohol or drugs as a means to cope with their disability. Whether you are a professional or just someone interested in the topic at hand, it is necessary and important to understand how and why substance use and disabilities co-occur. In doing so, we can work together to ensure that a proper response is given, and accurate services are offered that meet their needs.  

What Is a Disability? 

Disabilities are defined as “conditions that affect a person’s physical or mental capacity or mobility.” There are different levels of disability. Some are short-term, some are long-term, and others are lifelong. Some individuals are born with their disability, whereas others develop a disability later in life. Some common disabilities are: 

  • Hearing and Visual Impairment (Blindness or Deafness) 
  • Developmental Disorders 
  • Intellectual Impairment  
  • Spinal or Muscular Impairment  
  • Amputation  
  • Dwarfism  
  • Chronic Neurological Conditions  
  • Behavioral Disorders 
  • Mental Disorders 

Reasons People with Disabilities are Susceptible to Substance Use  

There are a multitude of reasons why an individual with a disability might start using drugs or alcohol. Some of the most common reasons include: 

  • Poor support from loved ones surrounding their disability 
  • Isolation  
  • A traumatic brain injury (TBI) leading to a change in decision making 
  • New reality of recent disability  
  • Questioning their worth after the loss of a job 

Substance Use Treatment for Individuals with Disabilities 

Although there are barriers to treatment for individuals with and without a disability, those with a disability do face additional barriers that can make it very challenging to access and receive treatment. Finding treatment centers that are fully accessible and provide additional support needed for those with mental or physical disabilities can be difficult.  

For individuals with physical disabilities, look for treatment centers and programs that provide  

  • Accessibility  
  • Integrated substance abuse treatment and vocational rehabilitation 
  • Specialized understanding of specific disabilities and substance use outcomes 
  • Physical therapy and exercise 

For individuals with mental disabilities, look for treatment centers and programs that provide 

  • Specialized staff 
  • Variety  
  • Simplification of presentations and resource materials 
  • Teaching rather than sharing  
  • Comprehension checks and repetition  

Keep in Mind  

Finding the right treatment center can be a tough job and persistence is key. Please, do not give up! Once the right treatment center has been found, specialized services can help an individual by teaching them information that will lead to learning new skills and coping mechanisms. Once these skills and mechanisms are learned, a future managing the substance use disorder and disability is created. The key here is to use what was learned to maintain a life of recovery far into the future.  

For those who are reading this, and the information applies to you, we believe in you. Again, do not give up. Recovery is possible! 

For professionals reading this blog, I want you to reflect on your agency. Do you think your place of work could efficiently and effectively provide treatment or resources to individuals with a disability? Looking deeper, what about an individual with a disability and a substance use disorder?  


Addiction treatment for people with disabilities. (n.d.). Retrieved April 15, 2021, from  

Drug treatment centers for the physically and mentally disabled. (2019, October 31). Retrieved April 19, 2021, from  

Murray, K. (2021, March 24). Disability and addiction. Retrieved April 15, 2021, from