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The Dark Epidemic of Social Isolation Among Disabled People

What does it mean to be alone? Most of us have gone through periods of feeling isolated or disconnected. Anyone who has experienced loneliness knows just how devastating this experience can be for one’s physical and mental health. Most of us who go through periods of isolation due to life changes and circumstances eventually find our way back to having a sense of “belonging” among friends, family, colleagues and society. The “dark time” simply becomes a foggy, faraway memory. Unfortunately, the impact of long-term “aloneness” on certain members of the population is widely misunderstood by society. A disability is often a precursor to a state of feeling alone. Let’s take a look at the devastation and complexity involved in the epidemic of social isolation among disabled persons.

We often focus on the physical implications of living with a disability. However, the unseen side effect of nearly every form of disability is an invisible screen between the disabled person and society. Here are some of the factors that play into social isolation among disabled people:

  • A lack of social contact with friends.
  • A lack of emotional “connection” with friends and society.
  • A lack of day-to-day participation in society.
  • Conflicts with family and friends.

A big misconception among the abled population is that disabled people prefer to stay home.

This is a form of disability stereotyping and is not true. In fact, research shows us that this idea is flawed. The way that society treats disabled people breeds isolation (Hernon et al., 2015). Isolation is often a consequence of circumstance instead of the result of a choice made on the part of a disabled person. Retirement or an exit from the workforce can strongly drive feelings of isolation among those who are unable to perform work duties. Why must both the medical community and society be concerned with the phenomenon of social isolation among the disabled? The consequences of this silent, unseen issue are dire. Here are three realities that cannot be ignored:

  • The impact of isolation worsens over time.
  • The life expectancy of the disabled is lower due to poorer quality of life.
  • A significant percentage of disabled people attempt suicide in response to an unbearable sense of isolation.

Social isolation isn’t an isolated problem. The impact of passive isolation-building factors is compounded by what is known as disability harassment. Both forms of exclusion must be considered when dissecting the emotional, psychological and social implications of living life as a disabled person in modern society. Disability harassment can be both obvious and subtle. Events and environments that do not accommodate the disabled are essentially sending a message that the disabled are not welcome. Overt harassment often plays out through denial of service, ignoring the disabled or pestering the disabled.

What Fuels Social Isolation Among the Disabled?

Social engagement is vital and useful for the life of a human being. This applies to both abled and disabled human beings (Grootegoed & Tonkens, 2017). However, the need often goes unmet among the disabled. The impact can be elevated or reduced based on an individual’s personality. Some people indeed thrive on “alone time” when they need to recharge. However, involuntary isolation can make a person feel “less than human” and bring up negative feelings. The causes of social isolation among disabled people can appear subtle. Here are the three factors that drive isolation among the disabled:

  • Disabled lack of access.
  • Social exclusion.
  • Social comparison and self-identity.

What is meant by a lack of access? Disabled people often have problems participating in daily life without assistance from friends or family. The use of special vehicles and power wheelchairs can sometimes help with this. However, human intervention is ultimately needed when it comes to retrieving and loading items while doing everyday tasks like shopping (Söderström, 2016). Constantly asking for assistance can become tiring and embarrassing over time. The disabled also need friends to help them get home or to the hospital regularly. What’s more, abled members of society often find the needs of the disabled to be overwhelming or too far outside the realm of normal (Harasemiw et al., 2018). This can cause friends to leave when they feel inconvenienced by the pressure to constantly help a disabled friend. Unfortunately, this can help to reinforce many of the negative beliefs that the disabled have about themselves.

Social exclusion is almost the default when it comes to the disabled. Most people assume that disabled people have close primary relationships with their relatives or caretakers. Many people look at those with disabilities with pity instead of pushing forward to address the prejudice, equity and inclusion issues that these individuals battle daily (Warner & Adams, 2016).

Society doesn’t provide a mirror where the disabled can see their reflections being projected back at them. This is damaging because social comparison plays a role in how individuals evaluate their positions (Harasemiw et al., 2018). Disabled individuals will often quickly fall into loneliness because the default is to compare themselves against the fully-abled. Such a comparison can cause a disabled person to feel inferior when they realize that they are unable to attend parties, meetings, and events due to the practical, logistical and medical limitations caused by their disabilities. Unfortunately, social comparison has a compounding impact because the disabled may stop attempting challenges as they feel worse and worse about where they stand in comparison to others. One loses their original position when one fails to interact positively with people in society (Hine & Mitchell, 2017). This means that they begin to wholly identify as disabled.

The Need for Intervention

Inclusion is necessary if disabled people are going to find a place and purpose in society. According to Holanda et al. (2015), social groups help in reducing isolation as they create an environment of inclusiveness. It can be exceptionally beneficial for disabled persons to engage in social groups for not less than six months. One limitation is that social groups are only effective for those who possess the skills to participate.

One positive bridge for disabled persons who may be experiencing social isolation is social media. One can use social media to interact with people and make new friends from all over the world using platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram (Alhaboby et al., 2016). YouTube is an avenue that the disabled can use to learn through watching videos on exercising and other physical activities. Many popular platforms have strict guidelines for preventing harassment and abuse that disabled persons could face when participating. The Internet is helping to widen the scope of the disability rights movements across the world.


Social isolation among the disabled needs to be taken seriously. Discrimination against those with disabilities must be eliminated. Both engagement in physical settings and online engagement can help to draw disabled people back into society. Social media provides a low-stakes way for disabled people to engage. Online engagement can provide a way for disabled people to make connections and develop social skills that may translate to greater confidence in real-world encounters.

Below is a link to some highly rated books on social isolationsocial rejection, and depression, with many including coping skills useful for disabled people facing these consequences and emotions.