Substance Use and Disabilities, How Are They Related?  [BLOG]

Aisha Hashmi. Hashmi is a Master of Social Work student at WVU, who is currently a graduate assistant with the IMPACT program at the WVU CED.   

How are substance use and disabilities related? This is a common question for so many. Yet the link between substance use and disabilities is not talked about often in society. The truth is that the link between the two is very common.  However, treatment rates are very low. We know a few things but rarely connect the two. 

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  1. Individuals with disabilities are at a higher risk of having a substance use disorder.  
  1. Those with long-term substance use runs a greater risk for becoming disabled.  

We find many reasons when we look at the two together. Access to treatment and resources is limited. Sometimes choices for treatment are not available.  The number of trained providers is low. Money issues, stigma and access to care exist. Long-term substance use can affect generations. Babies of moms that use substances while pregnant may have long-term developmental effects. These could result in children having developmental delays and disabilities. Substance use later in life could also occur. This blog’s goal is to start a conversation about the relationship between substances and disabilities. We hope the blog will inform, and bring attention to an issue that impacts families in West Virginia.   

Substance use and disability have a difficult link to one another. Both are major issues that affect families all over the country. So, what is the link between substance use and disabilities? Individuals with disabilities are often prescribed many meds. Some of these are at high dosages, to manage pain, immobility, and mental health concerns. This results in a greater risk of facing substance use.   


In the United States almost 16 in every 100 people with a disability, also abuse some sort of substance. Individuals with disabilities, even those without a substance use disorder, are more likely to face unemployment. Without a job, many have a difficult time finding healthcare. This healthcare could include treatment programs and doctors who help in a person’s recovery.  

What is the role of pain medication and/or alcohol in disability and addiction?  

One of the most common meds prescribed to people with disabilities is opioids. Opioids are drugs that release a “feel-good” result that helps with the pain while giving a brief boost. These work in the brain to produce pain relief, but also have highly addictive qualities. Opioids are meant to treat strong pain, like that after surgery. They are often used as painkillers like OxyContin. This often leads to the use of other street drugs such as heroin and fentanyl.   

Alcohol is also a common substance used by some individuals with disabilities. Alcohol can be used to help numb some of the hard feelings and emotions that come with having a disability. It is also very common because it is legal and easy to locate.   

How can substance use lead to disability?  

 Many people turn to substances like alcohol to help cope with disabilities. This is mainly the case for people who have problems going out.  In turn, they face being alone. Substances can also be the reason that people become disabled. This is due to increased chances of becoming injured while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Addiction can also be an aiding factor in developmental disabilities. The main cause of this is if a woman while pregnant uses substances. This can have life-long effects on the infant. These effects could later result in physical, mental and social disabilities. Substances can also worsen mental health and thinking disorders. Coping with physical disabilities then becomes more difficult.   

So, why should we care?  Whenever care is needed, it should be helpful. We should not be providing care that may lead to further pain. Make sure that family members, providers, caregivers, and community members are well-informed.  Info about disabilities can help lessen the need to use substances to cope. It is important to have positive support systems for families, providers and communities. It is also very important to hear and see and individuals with disabilities.  The support can then be provided. Our effort is to spread awareness about the link between substance use and disabilities.  We hope to shed light on an issue that is not often talked about.   


SAMHSA-Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration   

SAMHSA-Substance Use Disorder Treatment for People with Physical and Cognitive Disabilities   

The ADA, Addiction, and Recovery   


American Addiction Center. (2021, June 22). Addiction among physically disabled individuals. Sunrise House. Retrieved December 15, 2021, from   

Butanis, B. (2018, April 30). What are opioids? Johns Hopkins Medicine, based in Baltimore, Maryland. Retrieved December 15, 2021, from   


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