Trigger Warning: sexual assault, sexual abuse, rape
In a time where news headlines are gripped with accusations, revelations, and admissions of sexual assault, a silent victim remains, a victim who too wants her story told: a woman with an intellectual disability. Unfortunately, this story is not uncommon for people like her. In this moment of reckoning in which women are sharing accounts of sexual assault and abuse and publicly naming the men who harass them, there is little recognition of the experiences of persons with intellectual disabilities whom, according to data run for National Public Radio (NPR) by the Justice Department, are assaulted at a rate of seven times higher than their non-disabled counterparts (Shapiro, 2018).
The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities defines an intellectual disability as “characterized by significant limitation in both intellectual functioning and in adaptive behaviors” (Shapiro, 2018). Those adaptive skills include social skills, such as the ability to negotiate interpersonal relationships, listen with understanding and empathy, and avoid being victimized, and practical skills (i.e. being able to work and manage one’s health). Disparities in these skills means that those with intellectual disabilities are often unable to communicate effectively and report the crimes that have been committed against them or are not viewed as credible. Often, perpetrators do not face prosecution or punishment and are subsequently free to abuse again, frequently assaulting the same person multiple times (Shapiro, 2018).
Generally speaking, most rape victims are assaulted by an acquaintance as opposed to a stranger (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network). NPR’s numbers from the Justice Department found that people with intellectual disabilities are even more likely to be raped by someone they know. For women without disabilities the rapist is a stranger 24% of the time compared to less than 14% of the time for women with an intellectual disability. Further, risk of sexual assault exists at all times of day in all locations. Half of the sexual assaults committed against people with disabilities occur during the daytime compared to 40% of the time for the rest of the population. These assaults often occur in places where those with intellectual disabilities are supposed to feel safe – in group homes, at school, work, or on assistive transportation – by persons they count on for care and support. According to 2016 data from more than 500 cases of suspected abuse compiled by the state of Pennsylvania at NPR’s request, 42% of offenders were themselves people with intellectual disabilities, 14% were staff, 12% were relatives, and 11% were friends (Shapiro, 2018).
Recognition of the increased vulnerability of those with an intellectual disability is imperative in improving the prosecution and punishment of perpetrators. The ill-informed characterization of the effect of trauma on disabled persons, discriminatory laws which negotiate the often inadequate legal representation of those with intellectual disabilities, and the reluctance of law enforcement to take these cases because they are difficult to win continue to serve as barriers to prosecution. A recognition of the epidemic of sexual assault against people with disabilities as a public health problem and the provision of a foundation for these people to feel safe enough to discuss their lives and experiences is imperative.
Hear more on this topic here: https://www.npr.org/2018/01/18/577065301/from-the-frontlines-of-a-sexual-assault-epidemic-two-therapists-share-stories
Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (n.d.). Retrieved January 18, 2018, from https://www.rainn.org/statistics/perpetrators-sexual-violence
Shapiro, J. (2018, January 08). The Sexual Assault Epidemic No One Talks About. Retrieved January 17, 2018, from https://www.npr.org/2018/01/08/570224090/the-sexual-assault-epidemic-no-one-talks-about