Disability and substance abuse. It’s a lethal yet all too common combination. According to addiction centers.com, “persons with disabilities are substantially more likely to suffer from substance use disorders than the general population, and they are also less likely to receive treatment for them. In the United States, 54 million people experience some form of a disability, of which roughly 9% (a total of 4.7 million adults) have both a substance use disorder and a co-existing disability.” Those with intellectual disabilities have some of the highest levels of addiction with approximately 9% to 26% suffering from addiction disorders.
There are many reasons why people with disabilities are more likely than others to become addicted to drugs and alcohol. One reason is that individuals with physical disabilities are more likely to be prescribed pain medications such as opioids, which are highly addictive. When opioids become too expensive or prescriptions run out, people may turn to less expensive street drugs such as heroin to feed their addictions.
Individuals with disabilities also tend to be more isolated from their peers; experience higher rates of depressive and anxiety disorders; and face significantly higher rates of unemployment. These conditions frequently lead to self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.
Many believe that drug and alcohol dependence disorders are best treated by regular attendance at meetings held by self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. These groups (fellowships) typically hold meetings in local churches, community centers and schools. When the pandemic started, most fellowships were forced to discontinue in-person meetings and pivoted to online meetings. It was a difficult transition, but many believe it was a successful one.
While some people missed the intimacy of in-person meetings, others appreciated the access that virtual meetings afforded. “Now, you can bring meetings into your home,” said Jessica W., AA accessibility chair for District 29 of Baltimore, Maryland. In her role, Jessica is responsible for making sure that recovering alcoholics in her district have whatever they need to make participation in AA possible.
During the pandemic, Jessica discovered that virtual meetings had many advantages for those who are elderly or disabled. “Some needs [of older and disabled] adults are different,” she says. “It’s harder getting out to meetings. Some may have visual or hearing impairment; some live in assisted living facilities where they have no way to get to meetings.”
Virtual meetings make it possible for people without transportation and those who are homebound because of chronic health issues to access meetings, she says. In addition, they enable individuals with visual or hearing impairment to make use of accessibility features such as screen readers and closed captioning. Finally, holding 12-step meetings online make it possible for those in recovery from substance abuse to access 12-step meetings all over the world at all hours of the day or night.
Now that many of us have been vaccinated, some meetings are returning to an in-person format. Yet, based on the positive aspects of virtual meetings, most experts expect that many 12-step groups will continue to be held over Zoom.
“The overwhelming and rapid transition to virtual 12-step formats has proved to be a reliable means for individuals to stay connected and stay sober,” write Lee Holley and Breslyn McCrory, for PsychologyToday.com. “Virtual meetings may prove to be a mainstay in recovery programs even after the COVID-19 pandemic passes. Hybrid meetings are becoming more common, so people can access the same meeting both in-person or virtually.”
Those who would like to try online meetings but are uncomfortable with technology can request a “tech buddy” through their fellowship’s accessibility committee,” says Jessica. Meanwhile, if you have a disability but still prefer to attend in-person meetings, be aware that many fellowships have accessibility committees dedicated to ensuring that recovery from drug and alcohol dependence help is available to all.
The AA Accessibility Workbook, published by Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. in 2019, provides detailed information on how fellowships everywhere can make participation in AA [and other 12-step programs] accessible to everyone who needs them. AA provides literature in Braille, American Sign Language (ASL), and easy-to-read pamphlets in English, as well as in other languages, in regular and large print. Additionally, the accessibility chair can help recovering alcoholics to find meetings that are wheelchair accessible.
“If you need an ASL interpreter to take part in a meeting, you can contact me and I will arrange for an interpreter,” says Jessica. “A lot of recovery comes down to knowing you’re not alone. Other people have been there and made it to the other side.”