There is an epidemic of sexual abuse against people with intellectual disabilities. In a 2018 NPR study, people with intellectual disabilities – women and men – were found to be the victims of sexual assault at rates more than 7 times higher than for people without disabilities. Among women with intellectual disabilities, the rate of sexual assault is 12 times higher than the rate for persons with no disabilities. The only other group more victimized than people with disabilities are – women between the ages of 18 and 24 who are not in college. Compared with women with disabilities they have an almost identical rate of assault – just slightly higher.
The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities defines intellectual disability as “characterized by significant limitation in both intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviors” Those adaptive behaviors include social skills – such as the ability to deal with other people, to follow rules and avoid being victimized – and practical skills, things like being able to work and take of one’s health and safety.
The Crime Victims with Disabilities Awareness Act compiles annual reports and researches crimes against individuals with disabilities. These reports show that people with intellectual disabilities are vulnerable everywhere: where they live, work, go to school, ride in vans for medical appointments and in public places. Most of the time, the perpetrators are people they count on the most. Also, they are subject to assault by other people with intellectual disabilities with whom they share living space.
People with intellectual disabilities often cannot speak or their speech is not well-developed. They are taught from childhood to be compliant. Also people tend to not believe them. A perpetrator will see this as a safe opportunity to victimize them. Abusers also count on under-reporting by the disabled person. For women with disabilities, sexual assault and violence are routinely unreported and under-addressed. National studies indicate that only 14 to 39% of sexual assaults are reported. Reporting by victims with a disability is even less frequent. Abusers can use an individual’s disability to further exert power and control over the victim. Abusers can use their power to remove a victim’s access to hearing or other support devices for communication. This leads to a barrier in reporting. There are limited trauma services for victims’ of sexual violence with intellectual disabilities. Due to biases and stereotypes, the disability community is not taken seriously when they report instances of sexual violence.
Then when they do report sexual violence, often they find it hard to be believed in the judicial system. There still exists today a bias in which victims, even those without a disability, find it hard to get justice. Rape culture in American creates a myth that victims must act in a certain way or they raise doubts about the legitimacy of the rape.
In 2012, a jury in Georgia found a man guilty of raping a 24 year old woman with Down Syndrome. The jury heard evidence that the defendant’s semen was found in her bed and the doctor found evidence consistent with an assault. Appeals Court Judge Christopher McFadden, two years later, overturned the guilty verdict, saying the woman did not “behave like a victim” because she waited over a day to report the rape and that she did not exhibit “visible distress”.
Similar to adults with intellectual disabilities, minor girls who are victims of sexual assault also suffer when judges de-legitimize sexual assault due to “victim-blaming”. Here are some examples: A Montana judge reduced a former teacher’s rape conviction to 32 days because the 14 year old girl was “acted older than her chronological age.” In California, a judge reduced a sentence of a convicted rapist because the woman did not fight back hard enough. In Alabama, a man got three years probation for forcibly raping a 14 year old because she did not behave like a victim.
For people with disabilities, they are frequently not heard, not seen, and not believed. The statistics on women in the US and violence are staggering. On average, one in three women are victims of intimate partner violence and one in five women are survivors of sexual assault. The disability community experiences one of the highest rates of sexual assault in the US.
In this era of heightened sensitivity to sexual misconduct in the workplace, the reporting and concern related to abuse and sexual abuse of the developmentally disabled receives too little attention. Executives of organizations that provide care have a tremendous responsibility to protect the vulnerable among us. Sustained diligence on background checks of employees, adequate orientation and training and continued monitoring of behaviors, both by employees and the disabled for whom they care, is an absolute necessity. We can do better as a society in protecting the most vulnerable among us.