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Substance abuse is a chronic condition that has no goal in mind, except to feed. Unfortunately, the number of cases involving alcoholism and disability have become alarming. Consistent reports have suggested that individuals with a disability are more likely to develop a substance use disorder. More research is required to determine the precise numbers on people with disabilities and substance use disorder.

The global burden of the pandemic has been reported to have increased substance use among the disabled population. Rates of stress and suicidal ideation became more apparent during this difficult period. 

The disabled population in America is small, however, these individuals tend to be prescribed various forms of medications. Mental health screenings could be a crucial tool to single out those struggling with these conditions.

Why Do People with Disabilities Abuse Substances?

People with disabilities abuse substances to calm the side effects of mental health symptoms or physical pain. In the U.S., 54 million people experience some form of disability. Prescription medication is commonly attributed to people with disabilities. 

Individuals with disabilities often use high quantities of medication compared to others. If prescription medications are not available, these individuals might resort to more potent substances such as heroin or fentanyl.

People with disabilities may fall back on substances to self-medicate. Alcoholism and disability are consistent factors in addiction. For people with disabilities, there could be a lack of education on how to treat a substance use disorder.

Fitting in with peers may be another reason behind substance use among disabled people. Feeling “different” might influence them to try a beer or marijuana. Disabilities and chronic pain can lead to a decline in quality of life. 

This stress and emotional turmoil might cause someone to withdraw. Depression and anxiety are common in those with disabilities. Substance abuse treatment for those with disabilities is crucial to understanding the nuances of their experiences. This further demonstrates how impactful addiction can be and how it grips anyone.

What is a Disability?

A disability can be characterized as a condition of the body or mind that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities and engage with the world. 

Disability comes in three variations:

  • Impairment – within a person’s body structure or functioning (I.E.Mental)
  • Activity Limitation – such as difficulty seeing, hearing, walking or problem-solving
  • Participation restrictions – in daily activities such as working, engaging in social and recreational activities, obtaining health and preventative services.

An impairment is an absence or significant difference in a person’s body structure or function. Structural impairments are an issue in the internal/external components of the body. Functional impairments include the complete or partial loss of function of a body part.

Disability can form from genetics, present at birth. These disorders can affect the genes, chromosomes, or even result from infections in pregnant mothers. Disability can be associated with developmental conditions such as autism. Commonly, disability can occur from an injury or long-standing condition. Progressive disabilities can be introduced, such as muscular dystrophy.

Various types of disabilities affect different areas of people’s lives. Disabilities can affect the following parts of a person’s being and life:

  • Vision
  • Memory
  • Hearing
  • Learning
  • Communication
  • Thinking and cognition
  • Social relationships
  • Physical movement
  • Mental health

Is Substance Abuse a Disability?

Substance abuse, including an addiction to opioids, alcohol, and other substances is a disability under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act when substance use substantially limits a major life activity. 

Addiction can develop as a result of genetics, environmental factors, stress, and even mental health disorders. Individuals who currently use illicit substances are excluded. 

Federal disability rights protect individuals who:

  • Are actively in a rehabilitation program, without using substances
  • Have completed a program, without using substances
  • Mistakenly been classified as using substances

Addiction is a chronic disease of the brain. Addiction can be classified as an inability to stop the use of a substance or behavior, despite efforts to get help. Dependence can form if a person’s tolerance to the substance increases. Withdrawal symptoms typically form if use has abruptly stopped but depended on the substance, frequency, amount of the substance, and even gender.

Addiction is treatable, through therapies and medications. Addiction functions through the reward centers of the brain. Chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters are responsible for the communication between neurons in the brain. They work with the central nervous system to help regulate the hormones and functions you forget about daily.

How Drug and Alcohol Abuse Affect People with Disabilities

Research has suggested that 4 out of 10 people with disabilities struggle with substance abuse. The availability of alcohol can directly impact the frequency of use. Some individuals with a disability may not be able to access substance abuse treatment.

Alcohol is popular in polydrug use. Alcoholism and disability can be influenced by the mixture of alcohol and other prescribed medications. This can increase the risk of accidents and even overdose.

Additionally, substance use can lead to disability. The accidents that happen from substance use can introduce life-changing impacts on a person. A recent study indicated that roughly 36-51% of people under the influence of alcohol resulted in a traumatic brain injury. 

Among adults with a diagnosis of mental health or substance use conditions, adults with disabilities more frequently (43% versus 35%) reported pandemic-related difficulty accessing related care and medications.

Long-term drug use can have lasting impacts on your health, especially if you have a struggle with alcoholism and disability. Intravenous drugs could open the floodgates for disease. Certain forms of alcohol can cause blindness. Heavy alcohol use can cause certain cancers and liver disease

What Are Substance Abuse Treatment Options for People with Disabilities?

The continuum of care is the outline for quality, evidence-based care. Many facilities boast about their reputation, with mixed results. The continuum of care is designed to treat behavioral disorders such as substance abuse at every stage. Each case is different and the form of treatment you enter will determine your chances of sobriety.

An intervention is typically the first step into this process. An intervention for substance abuse can be performed with the help of a professional interventionist. Set up a neutral environment with close friends and family to address the subject.

Have a plan of action and use the “I” statement to direct how their substance abuse has affected you. For example, stating how their alcoholism and disability affect your chances to connect with them.

Sobriety is a lifelong marathon. Relapse is a common fear among the addiction recovery community. In fact, relapse occurs in 40-60% of recovering addicts. This may seem uninspiring, however, the commitment to the continuum of care has shown that individuals remain sober for longer periods. 

Relapse can be a sign that you need to reevaluate your plan for recovery, not a failure. Be compassionate towards yourself as you take the next steps. A relapse prevention plan can be useful when you feel lost or stuck in between cravings. There are plentiful options for recovery. Discussing this with your family or counselor can help you hone in on what you need.


Drug detox will be the first step in the addiction recovery process. A patient can expect to spend 7-10 days in detox, with the care of a medical professional. Detox is vital to remove the toxic substances from your body as you begin a new path. Detox can be administered with the help of medication to ease your withdrawal symptoms. Those struggling with severe alcoholism and disability would benefit from a detox.

Inpatient Treatment

Inpatient treatment is the most comprehensive form of addiction treatment. You can anticipate spending 30-90+ days (preferable) in a residence. There, you’ll receive treatment through a mixture of psychotherapy and medication to get you back on track. 

Inpatient treatment can be carried out through a hospital, private facility, or residence. 24/7 care is provided at inpatient treatment programs, along with other amenities. The cost of inpatient treatment will reflect this down the line.

Outpatient Treatment

Entering addiction treatment can bring many obstacles, especially if you can’t commit the time to an inpatient treatment program. Outpatient treatment programs offer a flexible and discreet option for recovering individuals. Outpatient treatment programs offer psychotherapy such as CBT and family therapy, along with other amenities such as music therapy. 

One of the benefits of outpatient treatment is the length of treatment (typically 30 days). A patient can expect to spend 5 days a week at an outpatient treatment residence. Outpatient treatment programs are often less expensive than inpatient treatment programs.

If you have a moderate to severe case of addiction, yet can’t remain in a residence, IOPs could be a great option. IOPs (intensive outpatient treatment programs) offer the best of both worlds from inpatient and outpatient treatment. At an IOP, a patient should expect to attend 6-8 hour sessions, 5 days a week.

Medication-Assisted Treatment

If you have a pre-existing condition, medication-assisted treatment could be a viable way to receive treatment. Depending on the severity of your addiction, medication may be required to help you transition into the next phase of treatment.

Those with disabilities might have medication prescribed to manage their symptoms. Medication-assisted treatment is provided through trained staff, making sure the medication you receive doesn’t interfere with your regimen. Medications such as Suboxone can help alleviate the withdrawal symptoms of heroin.

Partial Care Program

Partial care programs are also known as day programs. These treatment programs are a form of inpatient treatment where you attend treatment sessions at a hospital. Medications can be provided as well. 

These addiction rehab programs are common for treating mental health conditions. Partial care programs typically offer 6-8 hour sessions throughout most of the week. Psychotherapy and group therapy are added features of partial hospitalization. The scope of the amenities might vary per hospital, so check ahead to see what is offered.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment

Co-occurring disorders are prevalent in the addiction recovery community. A co-occurring disorder can be described as a combination of mental health and substance use disorder. Individuals with a disability could benefit from this form of treatment.

Dual-diagnosis treatment is designed to treat both disorders, rather than separately. Dual diagnosis treatment is a promising approach, considering that until recently, treating these behavioral disorders together was not practiced. Mental health symptoms often influence substance use and vice versa.

To ensure a thorough treatment process, a patient must address the underlying causes of their addiction. This can help prevent chronic relapse through adequate attention.

Sober Living

Sober living homes are an opportunity to work and receive treatment. A health support system can go a long way in the fight against addiction. Sober living homes are also recognized as “halfway houses”. A sober living home can be a transitional home for those who were treated at an inpatient facility. Getting back into the “real world” can inspire anxiety, however, sober living homes aim to be a supportive backbone.

Support groups come in different shapes and sizes. These groups are typically moderated by a host, along with your peers. Support groups can be a window into the lives of others who wish to connect. Learning new insights from those around you can impact your addiction recovery. For example, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous have been leaders in the addiction recovery movement.

What Are Payment Options for Substance Abuse Treatment?

If you’ve decided to enter treatment, it’s encouraged to research the facility you intend to commit to. Reach out to a representative to discuss your options for payment. Medicaid and Medicare may be able to cover some or most of your costs for treatment. Ask if the facility accepts the government-funded programs. Scholarships are available to qualifying individuals who may not be able to afford treatment.

North Jersey Recovery Center Is Here to Support

Living with drug abuse, alcoholism and disability can be challenging at times, however, substance use can increase those challenges. With the growing uncertainty of our times, authentic support can be a lifeline in these rocky seas. Addiction treatment is becoming more available nationally. North Jersey Recovery Center can help those who are suffering from addiction while also dealing with a physical disability. If you or a loved one require support, reach out to our facility today.

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Laura Riley

Medical Reviewer

Laura comes to NJRC with 23 years of vast clinical experience in hospital, residential, outpatient, and community outreach settings where she has worked, supervised clinical teams, and volunteered. She has provided substance abuse and mental health counseling, clinical coordination, and advocacy to individuals, families and groups, and specializes in co-occurring disorders for both adults and adolescents.