Sexual violence effects individuals of all abilities. A disability is an impairment that can be cognitive, developmental, intellectual, mental, physical, sensory, or some combination of these (Wikipedia).
Any kind of disability contributes to a higher risk of victimization, however, intellectual disabilities, communication disorders, and behavioral disorders have been found to have very high levels of risk (Sullivan & Knutson, 2000).
Many people with disabilities are more vulnerable to sexual abuse and/or assault because they may have access to information about healthy sexuality and appropriate touching versus inappropriate touching. This can be especially difficult to understand if their level of care involves someone having to touch them (e.g. helping to bathe; RAINN, 2017). Consent is an even bigger problem with sexual activity and someone with a disability.
Some disabilities make it challenging to effectively communicate consent to engage in sexual activity and perpetrators take advantage of this (RAINN, 2017). Individuals with less severe disabilities who are assaulted do not know that it is illegal or that they can say “No.” What’s worse is that individuals with disabilities may never report the abuse or assault because of the perpetrator’s threats against the person’s well-being or loved ones (Davis, 2011).
Research studies have shown that 97-99% of abusers are known and trusted by a victim with intellectual disabilities. Of that, 32 % were family members or acquaintances while 44% had a specific relationship with the victim (e.g. residential care staff, transportation providers; Davis, 2011).
If you are a survivor of sexual violence, and a person with a disability, please know that SARCC is here to listen and provide support. We believe you, and healing is possible.
Friends, family members, and community helpers can also help to support survivors who have a disability. You can watch for signs of abuse or grooming, listen carefully, believe, and encourage others to be respectful of their space and boundaries. It’s also important for family and support staff to learn about the effects of trauma (The Top 10 Things, pp. 6-7).