Substance Abuse Resources & Disability Issues

Josephine F. Wilson, D.D.S., Ph.D., Director

Substance Abuse & Students with Disabilities: Little Known Facts

Sponsored By:
Substance Abuse Resources & Disability Issues (SARDI)
SARDI is funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR)


Did you know?

  • Alcohol-related accidents are the leading cause of death among students 15 to 24 years old
  • Alcohol use is a major cause of disabilities for 20-21 year olds.
  • Alcohol abuse rates for people with disabilities may be twice as high as the general population.
  • 40-80 percent of traumatic brain injury patients are injured while intoxicated.
  • 40-80 percent of spinal cord injuries are related to substance abuse.
  • Students with attention deficit hyper-activity disorder are at elevated risk for alcohol and other drug abuse.
  • Alcohol & other drug abuse significantly increases the risk for HIV infection among college students.

What are the warning signs?

  • Concern expressed about substance use by friends, classmates, instructors.
  • Using "social drugs" with prescribed medications.
  • Using alone.
  • Focus on disability to exclusion of other aspects of self.
  • Pattern of absences or lateness because of substance use.
  • Declining or inconsistent academic performance.
  • Use of large quantities without appearing intoxicated.
  • Frequent intoxication or intentional heavy use.
  • Recurring hangovers or blackouts.

What to look for?

  • Recurring physical injuries.
  • Recurring bladder infections.
  • Bed sores.
  • Frequent colds, sore throat, coughing.
  • Consistent run down condition.
  • Anxious behavior.
  • Change in friends.
  • Mood swings & personality changes.

What are the special risks for students with disabilities?

  • Misidentification & Enabling. Professionals, family, friends, and attendants tend to focus on the disability, missing the warning signs of substance abuse. Also they tend to be lenient toward use by students with disabilities or to encourage use as a compensation for one's disability. (e.g." She's disabled, give her a break. If I had a disability, I would drink too.")
  • Prescribed Medications. It is common for students with disabilities to take 2 or more prescribed medications and to have easy access to other drugs. Prescription medication abuse as well as the danger in mixing medications with alcohol and other drugs can be easily overlooked.
  • Constrained Socialization Opportunities. Since alcohol is a common facilitator of college social interactions, students with disabilities may have particular difficulty finding drug-free social alternatives.
  • Family of Origin. Research suggests that students with disabilities have a higher rate of parental alcoholism than other students. Parental alcoholism is one of the strongest predictors of substance abuse.
  • Physical & Attitudinal Inaccessibility. Some programs have not had sufficient experience with students with disabilities to understand how to make their services fully accessible. Very few professional programs specialize in prevention or treatment for students with disabilities.

Empower Yourself!

While substance abuse is recognized as a national problem, substance abuse among students with disabilities often is not recognized or included in prevention efforts. It is important that you know the special risks related to substance abuse, and have access to help, activities, and services on campus. It is also important to let people know of your needs that are not being met.

  • Know your medications and their interactions with alcohol & other drugs.
  • Ensure that your assistants are sober & clean while attending to your needs.
  • Support a healthy lifestyle.
  • Take the first step in getting help.
  • Get involved in university activities.
  • Utilize campus services such as counseling or health services when needed.
  • Advocate that prevention and treatment services be fully accessible to students with disabilities.

What do I do?

If you think that someone you know is abusing alcohol and other drugs, it is important to be supportive, open and honest. You might begin by simply stating in a clear, non-accusing manner (e.g. "I have noticed that you miss a lot of Monday classes after weekend parties").

If the person responds positively, listen and ask how you might be of assistance. If the person doesn't see his/her use of substances as problematic, you may want to share your observations and your concerns. It is important for the person to see and experience consequences, so it is not beneficial to help deny or cover up these problems.

Realize that it is up to the individual to choose to get help. Continue to communicate your care and willingness to help.

  • Alcohol Abuse Crisis Center: (800) 333-2294
  • Drug Abuse Action Helpline: (800) 888-9383
  • Children of Alcoholics: (800) 553-7160