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Human Trafficking a Concern for Disability Community

January 23, 2020

By AACs Deputy Director Leigha Shoup

January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.

Human trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar criminal industry that denies freedom to 24.9 million people around the world. Although trafficking can happen to anyone, traffickers target vulnerable populations who have significant risk factors, such as people with substantial trauma histories, people with disabilities, runaway or homeless young adults, and people who don’t have reliable support systems.

Nationally, from January 2015 to December 2017, the National Human Trafficking Hotline documented 2,116 potential victims that had a pre-existing health concern or disability immediately prior to their trafficking situation. This includes a possible physical disability, mental health diagnosis, substance use concern, or intellectual/developmental disability. Many times, traffickers are skilled at recognizing and strategically using their victims’ vulnerabilities to control them.

There are two forms of human trafficking:

  • Sex trafficking is the crime of using force, fraud or coercion to induce another individual to sell sex. Common types include escort services, pornography, illicit massage businesses, brothels and outdoor solicitation.
  • Labor trafficking is the crime of using force, fraud or coercion to induce another individual to work or provide services. Common types include agriculture work, domestic work, restaurants, cleaning services and carnivals.

People with Disabilities are an At-Risk Group

According to the Polaris Project’s blog post Individuals with Disabilities May Face Increased Risk of Human Trafficking:

Any vulnerable person is at risk for human trafficking; however, individuals with disabilities may face increased risk for several reasons. The Office for Victims of Crime Training and Technical Assistance Center details the vulnerabilities that increase the risk for individuals with disabilities to being trafficked. Some of them are outlined below:

    1. Traffickers may seek out victims with disabilities to gain access to their public benefits such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits.
    2. Individuals with disabilities may require a caregiver to meet their basic needs, and this caregiver can take advantage of this dependency and force them into prostitution or labor. Even if the caregiver themselves is not the trafficker, people with disabilities may have a learned response to comply with caregivers’ wishes due to their dependence on them. Therefore, they may have normalized an unequal power dynamic in their relationships, which could carry over into their relationship with a trafficker or abuser.
    3. Some individuals with disabilities may require assistive technologies or additional supports with communication and/or speech. This may affect their ability to get help and report the abuse they are suffering and could require them to depend on their trafficker for interpretation. For these victims, suffering in silence takes on a very literal meaning.
    4. People with disabilities may be sheltered and isolated and therefore crave friendships and relationships. In one example from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, an adult potential victim with a developmental disability was recruited from a recreational and vocational training center. The potential trafficker posed as a boyfriend and made the victim believe that counselors, family, and friends did not want her to be an independent adult. He used her fear of being treated as a child against her, which caused her to be isolated from those looking after her interests. He then convinced her to engage in commercial sex out of their home.
    5. Traffickers may also target individuals with disabilities because of the social discrimination and prejudice they face. This can cause authorities and even their own family and friends to not believe victims when they report their abuse. This is especially true for victims with disabilities that affect intellectual, cognitive or communication functions or those individuals with mental health diagnoses.

In Ohio, the most common form of human trafficking is sex trafficking, with the majority of the victims being adult females. This isn’t to say that victims can’t be male, but the majority of cases in Ohio involve female victims. Since 2016, around 1,196 human trafficking cases have been reported in Ohio. These statistics continue to increase each year and come from the human trafficking hotline. It is crucial for everyone to know and recognize the signs and red flags of human trafficking and, most importantly, know how to report it.

Ohio’s Anti-Trafficking Efforts

Ohio is fortunate to have built a strong network of anti-trafficking coalitions around the state. The Anti-Human Trafficking Coalitions work together with service providers to provide education, awareness, outreach and direct services to Ohio’s counties. 


What Should You Do If You Suspect Someone is Being Trafficked?

If you or someone else is in immediate danger, call 911. If you suspect someone is being trafficked, you can also call the National Human Trafficking Hotline toll-free at 1-888-373-7888. The hotline is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and can provide support in 200 different languages. You can also file a tip online.

To find more information about the hotline and ways to keep yourself safe, visit

Additional Resources

To learn more about human trafficking please visit: