Researchers at TIRR Memorial Hermann’s Spinal Cord Injury and Disability Research Center (SCIDR) have received funding from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to conduct a detailed study of interpersonal violence and its effects on psychosocial health in men and women with spinal cord injuries (SCI). The study is being conducted in collaboration with researchers at the University of Montana and UTHealth Houston.

The work will follow up on findings from a previous report, published in November 2022, which showed that a majority of women with SCI had been abused during their lifetime.1

That publication, titled “Interpersonal Violence Against Women with Spinal Cord Injury: Adding Insult to Injury,” resulted from data collected from 175 women who participated in a randomized controlled trial studying an online psychological health promotion intervention.

Among other questions, the study briefly asked whether the participants had been subjected to abuse during their lifetime. A shockingly high percentage reported a history of abuse.

A total of 55% of the surveyed women reported having experienced abuse. Of these, 43% reported physical abuse, 32% sexual abuse, and 23% disability-related abuse. Sixteen percent reported having been the victim of all three types of abuse.

Susan Robinson-Whelen“We were startled and disturbed to find that the majority of women in our study had experienced abuse,” says Susan Robinson-Whelen, PhD, an assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and a scientist at TIRR Memorial Hermann’s SCIDR. Dr. Robinson-Whelen was also lead author of the report.

“We know there is a need for research in the area,” she adds. “It’s not something that is getting any attention and yet we know these folks are at risk.”

Dr. Robinson-Whelen emphasizes that there are many reasons why people with disabilities may be particularly vulnerable or at risk for abuse. They include physical vulnerability, perceptions of powerlessness and social isolation. Those with SCI often are dependent on others for care and financial support, and care for people with SCI often includes intimate care assistance.

“Additionally, there are lots of barriers to reporting and getting help,” Dr. Robinson-Whelen says. “Many shelters are not accessible, and individuals may have fears about retaliation or losing the care that they feel they need.”

“Understanding abuse better and being able to begin to help address it warrants more attention, energy and effort,” she adds.

With the newly funded DOD project, which had a start date of Sept. 1, 2023, Dr. Robinson-Whelen and her colleagues will be able to do exactly that, via a broad-ranging, detailed look into the abuse: what types of abuse are experienced, who are the perpetrators, what are the barriers to reporting and seeking help, and what may be done to facilitate help-seeking.

The study will use a mixed-methods approach. First, the team will conduct a qualitative interview study to look in depth at the people who do report prior abuse. Individual interviews with this small sample will then inform a national survey of 350 people, including men and women from across the United States.

“We will ask broad questions focused on types of abuse and personal experiences, who perpetrators were, the nature and type of abuse, how long it lasted, and when it occurred,” Dr. Robinson-Whelen says.

Using these data, the researchers will focus on what impact the abuse had on the participants’ psychosocial health.

“There aren’t studies which really get at this,” Dr. Robinson-Whelen notes. “Our study will allow us to better understand these complex issues.”


  1. Top Spinal Cord Inj Rehabil. 2023;29(1):70-81.
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