National Study of Women with Physical Disabilities
Final Report 1992-1996
Margaret A. Nosek, Ph.D., Principal Investigator
Center for Research on Women with DisabilitiesDepartment of Physical Medicine and RehabilitationBaylor College of Medicine
1. Women with disabilities have limited opportunities to establish romantic relationships.
Compared to women without disabilities, women with disabilities were less satisfied with how often they date and perceived more constraints on attracting dating partners.
Even when women with disabilities were outgoing with strong social skills and many friends, their friendships were less likely to evolve into romantic relationships than for able-bodied women.
The large majority (87 percent) of the women with disabilities had had at least one serious romantic relationship or marriage. Fifty-two percent were involved in a serious relationship at the time of the study versus 64 percent of the women without disabilities.
Among the women with disabilities who were not married or in a serious relationship at the time of the study, 42 percent said it was because no one had asked them. Only 27 percent of women without disabilities listed that as a reason for not being in a relationship.
More than half of the women with disabilities believed that disability was not a major cause of the ending of a marriage or other serious relationship.
Only 38 percent of the women with disabilities in this sample had borne children compared to 51percent of women without disabilities.
Women with disabilities were significantly more likely than those without disabilities to stay in a bad marriage for fear of losing custody of their children.
2. Self-esteem in women with physical disabilities is more strongly influenced by social and environmental factors than by the fact of having a disability.
More than three-quarters of the women with disabilities had high self-esteem and a positive body image. Whether the woman had a severe disability or a mild disability, incurred disability earlier or later in life, or had ever been in special education didn't make much difference in self-esteem.
Women who were working, who were in a serious romantic relationship, or who had never experienced physical or sexual abuse reported high self-esteem, whether or not they had a disability. Among women who were not working, not in a serious romantic relationship, or who had experienced physical or sexual abuse, the women with disabilities had much lower self-esteem than the women without disabilities.
3. Abuse is a very serious problem for women with disabilities. They have even fewer options for escaping or resolving the abuse than women in general.
The same percentage (62 percent) of women with and without disabilities had experienced emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, but women with disabilities experienced abuse for longer periods of time.
In addition to the types of abuse experienced by all women, women with disabilities were sometimes abused by withholding needed orthotic equipment (wheelchairs, braces), medications, transportation, or essential assistance with personal tasks, such as dressing or getting out of bed. Women with disabilities face serious barriers to accessing existing programs to help women remove violence from their lives.
4. Women with physical disabilities have as much sexual desire as women in general; however, they do not have as much opportunity for sexual activity.
Ninety-four percent of the women with disabilities had had sexual activity with a partner in their lifetime. Forty-nine percent were sexually active at the time of the study, compared to 61 percent of women without disabilities.
Forty-one percent of the women with disabilities believed that they did not have adequate information about how their disability affects their sexual functioning.
Women with disabilities reported significantly lower levels of sexual activity, sexual response, and satisfaction with their sex lives.
Level of sexual activity was not significantly related to severity of disability.
5. Women with physical disabilities encounter serious barriers to receiving general and reproductive health care.
Thirty-one percent of the women with physical disabilities who participated in this study were refused care by a physician because of their disability.
Women with physical disabilities reported considerable difficulty locating physicians who were knowledgeable about their disability to help them manage their pregnancy.
More women with physical disabilities reported chronic urinary tract infections, heart disease, depression, and osteoporosis at younger ages than the comparison group of women without disabilities.
There was a much higher rate of use of public health clinics, specialists, and emergency departments among women with disabilities compared to women without disabilities.
Description of the Sample
A total of 946 surveys were returned to us; however, some were not completely filled out. Also, some were completed by women who did not meet all the eligibility criteria for the study, that is, they were not between the ages of 18 and 65, or they had a disability that was not mobility-related, such as blindness or deafness. One survey had to be eliminated because it was completed by a man! Analyses were conducted on 881 questionnaires received from 475 women with disabilities and 406 able-bodied women who made up the comparison group.
The women who participated in this study represent every part of the United States and a wide variety of personal, social, and demographic characteristics. The women with and without disabilities in this sample were of similar racial background and socioeconomic status. The women without disabilities, however, were slightly younger, with an average age of 39 years compared to 42 years for the sample of women with disabilities.
Women with disabilities in this sample had the following characteristics. The most common primary disability type was spinal cord injury (26 percent), followed by polio (18 percent), neuromuscular disorders (12 percent), cerebral palsy (10 percent), multiple sclerosis (10 percent), joint and connective tissue disease (8 percent), and skeletal abnormalies (5 percent). Nearly half of the sample (49 percent) had disabilities since childhood (0-11 years old), 10 percent since adolescence (12-17 years old), and 41 percent since adulthood (18 years and over). Twenty-two percent had severe functional limitations, 52 percent had moderate disabilities, and 26 percent had mild disabilities.
Eighty-two percent were white, 9 percent African-American, 4 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Native American, and 2 percent Asian. Those living in urban or suburban areas comprised 89 percent of the sample, with 11% living in small towns or rural areas.
The sample was well educated, with 53 percent of the women with disabilities and 42 percent of the women without disabilities having college degrees. Fifty-nine percent were working for a salary part time or full time, compared to 86 percent of women without disabilities. The median annual personal income of the sample of women with disabilities was $15,000, with a household income of $25,000, compared to personal income for women without disabilities of $18,500 and household income of $32,000.
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