Why Are Persons with Disabilities 3 Times More Likely to Experience Sexual Assault?

Published June 14, 2022

Sexual abuse is a silent but rampant phenomenon among people with disabilities. According to the US Department of Justice, people with disabilities are 3 times as likely to experience sexual assault than the general population. Despite this fact, the issue receives relatively little attention.

As we recognize Sexual Assault Awareness Month this April, let’s take a deep dive into one of the biggest unresolved issues that impact the lives of persons with disabilities.

Who perpetuates these assaults?

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center found that most misconducts against people with disabilities are from perpetrators that are closest to them. This includes intimate partners, friends, and acquaintances. Such results debunk the common notion that survivors are most often attacked by total strangers.

According to the Vera Institute of Justice, many abusers have professional relationships with their victims. This typically manifests itself in isolated settings, those in which the perpetrator is trusted to provide services to the victim, such as transportation, personal care, therapy, and even education. 

Perpetrators feel that they can get away with attacking people with disabilities because they are often isolated and may not be able to effectively communicate the abuse, so they seek employment with organizations that will put them in contact with the most vulnerable members of the population. 

For this reason, it is critical that employers enact strong observation and check and balance policies to protect those in their care from potential assault. 

Why people with disabilities face especially high rates of sexual abuse

Individuals with disabilities who reside in group homes or other institutional settings are often at the greatest risk of sexual assault. In an isolated setting, individuals who have difficulty communicating, or those who do not have basic information about sexual health and relationships, will be less likely to decline consent as they do not understand the sexual intent of predators. 

Given that many children with disabilities are denied access to sexual education due to societal beliefs about disabilities and sex, as well as family members who intend to protect their child from bad experiences, many persons with disabilities never receive proper education, which complicates their ability to respond, reject, and report further. 

The Vera Institute of Justice summarized this in a 2013 report titled "Sexual Abuse of Children with Disabilities: a Snapshot," in which they stated “children with disabilities are not taught about their bodies, do not learn to distinguish good touches and bad touches, and are never given a framework for healthy relationships.”

When persons with disabilities are not properly educated they do not know how to communicate that they have been abused. 

A study by the African Child Policy Forum found that nearly every young person with a disability that was interviewed had been abused more than once. 

For this reason, Vera believes that current measures to prevent sexual assault are insufficient − society needs to take a more active and focused role in preventing sexual abuse. 

Barriers to justice for sexual abuse crimes

Unfortunately, many authority figures do not know how to spot the signs of abuse. Additionally, those in places of authority sometimes do not believe people with disabilities that report abuse because of their biases against disabilities. 

According to Vera, family members “may not report sexual abuse of a child in their care because they do not know who to turn to or are afraid that the child will be removed from their home.”

In the cases that a survivor does get sexual abuse services, they often encounter service professionals who are unprepared or misinformed in dealing with people with disabilities. These services can also have “physical, communication, attitudinal, and policy” barriers.

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center informed readers that some survivors “may be dependent on the abuser,” the caregivers, who survivors need for doing everyday, essential tasks. If the survivor reports, they will likely lose their caregiver’s assistance. Finding a new caregiver could take a long time. Other survivors who live in a group or institutional settings risk losing their homes if they report.

What can we do to prevent the sexual abuse of people with disabilities?

Training and education are critical, both for persons with disabilities and those who play a support or assistance role in a person with a disability's life. This includes staff, parents, guardians, and friends. 

Recognizing the signs of sexual abuse and having the ability to act is crucial. 

It is also important that individuals with disabilities have appropriate access to medical care. This includes gynecological exams - an "important tool for discovering sexual abuse" − according to Focus for Health. Healthcare providers are often the first line of defense in recognizing sexual abuse. 

Organizations that provide services for persons with disabilities should ensure that they have appropriately screened persons who work closely with vulnerable individuals, and have tightly controlled processes to report suspected abuse (most professions that work with vulnerable populations, such as caretakers and social workers are mandatory reporters). 

For more information about disability and sexual assault, visit the CDC's Violence Prevention section

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