What is the relationship between having a disability and vulnerability to human trafficking?

By Shima Rostami, Ed.D.; Executive Director, Gateway Human Trafficking AND Robert Fisher

Human trafficking is an egregious violation of the inherent rights and dignity of a person, and individuals with certain disabilities may be more susceptible to exploitation by traffickers. Individuals who have a physical, cognitive, or emotional disability strive daily to live more inclusive and independent lives. On the other hand, victims may have a need for medical care to address disabilities resulting from the abuse and/or harsh labor conditions under which the person was forced to work (Bales, 2004; Caliber Associates, 2007).

Data shows that having a disability increases a person’s vulnerability to becoming a human trafficking victim. One of the first human trafficking cases in the United States involved 55 people who were deaf. Trafficking of persons with disabilities can include work in sectors not usually associated with trafficking. For example, in the case of Henry’s Turkey Service dozens of men with intellectual disabilities were transported to Iowa in the 1970s and ‘80s to eviscerate turkeys. They lived in a dilapidated bunk house until 2009. Labor trafficking is under-explored and under identified in Missouri (St. Louis Bar Journal, Winter 2018).

Furthermore, several sex trafficking cases involve individuals with cognitive or mental health disabilities. In recent years human trafficking convictions have occurred in various states for the horrific sexual abuse of victims with disabilities. In a case in Missouri, a trafficker forced a woman with a mental health disability to engage in commercial sex to pay off a drug debt.

Some of the risk factors that lead traffickers to prey on individuals who have special needs are social powerless, the reduced ability to know who it is safe to be around, communication skill deficiencies, and the lack of instruction or resources to protect themselves. This vulnerable population may seek friendship and a human connection because they live isolated and sheltered lives. Sadly, many of the victims know their abusers. Traffickers also target these individuals to steal their disability checks and other public benefits. Some victims fear that they might not be believed when they report violence or abuse. Additional awareness and educational strategies supported by evidence-based practices are critical in examining the relationship between disabilities and human trafficking.

Why human traffickers may target individuals with disabilities?

Gain access: Traffickers may target people with disabilities to access their Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits.

Dependence: Individuals with disabilities may require a caregiver to meet their basic needs that causes a learned response to comply with caregivers’ wishes due to their dependence on them. This situation makes them vulnerable by normalizing an unequal power dynamic in their relationships, which could carry over into their relationship with a trafficker or abuser. Additionally, the caregiver can take advantage of this dependency and force individuals with disabilities into prostitution or labor.

Communication difficulties: Communication and/or speech may affect some individuals with ability to get help and report the abuse they are suffering. It makes this population more vulnerable especially if they depend on their trafficker for interpretation.

Desensitized to touch: The isolation and lack of sex education and communication skills make consent theory to sexual relationship more complicated among individuals with disabilities; it means they often do not understand the concept of consent. As a result, they may be desensitized to touch. These circumstance makes them more vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation.

Isolation: Disability can be an isolating experience that can affect individuals with disabilities at some stage of their lives. This isolation and loneliness that cause individuals with disability to crave relationships or friendship make them more vulnerable to be targeted by traffickers.

Social discrimination: The social discrimination and prejudice that individuals with disabilities face is another factor that makes them more vulnerable to trafficking situations. People with disabilities may be less likely to be taken seriously when they make a report of sexual assault or abuse. They may also face challenges in accessing services to make a report in the first place.



Call: 1 (888) 373-7888

SMS: 233733 (Text "HELP" or "INFO")

Hours: 24 hours, 7 days a week

Languages: English, Spanish and 200 more languages


Call: 314-615-8618

Email: humantrafficking@stlouisco.com

Sources: Trafficking in Persons Report. (2020). U.S. Department of States. https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/2020-TIP-Report-Complete-062420-FINAL.pdf

Tammy J. Toney-Butler; Olivia Mittel. (2019). “Human Trafficking”. StatPearls [Internet]. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430910/

Polaris. (2018). “Individuals with Disabilities May Face Increased Risk of Human Trafficking.”

St. Louis Bar Journal. Winter 2018.

United Nations (UN). (2017). “Evidential Issues in Trafficking in Persons Cases”, CASE DIGEST, Vienna.

National Disabilities Network. (2017). “Trafficking of Persons with Disabilities.”

Amy Pollard. (2017). “Mental health, loneliness and disability.” Mental Health Foundation. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/blog/mental-health-loneliness-and-disability

California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA). (2010). “Supporting Sexual Assault Survivors with Disabilities.” http://www.evawintl.org/library/DocumentLibraryHandler.ashx?id=500

United Nations (UN). (2008). “An Introduction to Human Trafficking: Vulnerability, Impact and Action.” New York. https://www.unodc.org/documents/human-trafficking/An_Introduction_to_Human_Trafficking_-_Background_Paper.pdf

Caliber. (2007), “Evaluation of Comprehensive Services for Victims of Human Trafficking: Key Findings and Lessons Learned”, https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/218777.pdf.

Kevin Bales. (2005). Understanding Global Slavery: a Reader (Berkeley, California, University of California Press.

Consider supporting Gateway Human Trafficking by sharing this article, giving a donation, or visiting our website. Follow us on Facebookor Twitter.

Become a Member

Join the base of annual givers and support our work by making a recurring or one-time contribution.

173 views0 comments