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The Intersection of Sexual Violence and Disability

Sexual Assault Is Everyone's Issue!It’s time to dive a bit deeper into the nuances of sexual violence and how it differentially affects certain groups of people. Although I’ve been involved in the anti-violence movement for about 5 years, something you may not know is that I’ve also done a lot of work to support folks in our community who have developmental and/or intellectual disabilities. Having the opportunity to work with folks with an array of different levels of ability, both cognitively and physically, has only increased my passion for raising awareness about the intersection of sexual violence and disability status. Based on extensive research, we know that people with disabilities are at heightened risk to be sexually victimized. I hope to highlight some of what we know about this issue.

Many of us have heard the line “sexual violence does not discriminate,” and it affects people of all races, ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, genders, sexual orientations, religious affiliations, and other forms of identity. However, though this violence affects us all, it does not do so equally. Research consistently shows that people with developmental and/or intellectual disabilities are at increased risk to experience sexual violence in their lifetimes.

Based on 1996 data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 76% of adults in the U.S. with intellectual disabilities are survivors of sexual violence. And the CDC’s 2010 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) showed that people with disabilities in North Carolina experience sexual assault at a rate that is 5 times higher than people who do not have disabilities. Overall, it is estimated that between 68% and 83% of women in the U.S. with intellectual or developmental disabilities will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lives, which is much higher than for women who do not have disabilities. And as in instances of childhood sexual abuse, care providers are often the perpetrators. The vast majority of perpetrators are known and trusted by the survivor.

Some of you may be asking yourselves why this is. I know I found this information shocking when I first learned the details. The following elements, often commonplace for people living with disability, are likely to contribute to this horrific pattern:

  • An inability to understand or identify abusive behaviors
  • Feelings of being powerless
  • Being treated as helpless
  • Impaired communication skills
  • An inability to provide one’s own protection whether due to a lack of education, a lack of accessible resources, or a physical or cognitive impairment
  • Living in a highly controlled environment
  • Lack of access to opportunities to learn how to develop their own protective skills and intuition
  • Being without an understanding of healthy sexuality
  • Absence of professional policies and structure to support preventing and responding to the perpetration of abuse by care providers
  • Lack of holding offenders accountable for these crimes


So what can you do to help? There’s so much! It is time to educate ourselves on the intricacies of sexual violence and continue to educate others in our lives. Here are some tips for advocating for survivors with disabilities:

1. Learn and share this information with others in your life. Getting the word out there about the reality of sexual violence and the particular intersection of sexual violence and disability is a step toward heightening awareness of the issues. In addition to this article, find out more about sexual violence against people with disabilities from The Arc.

2. Stand up for equality. At times, we witness people with disabilities not being treated equally in comparison to folks without disabilities. Take action toward making sure people with disabilities are equally valued in your community. This is a step toward ensuring all survivors, regardless of level of ability, will be taken seriously.

3. Do your research and take precautions. You may know folks or be a care provider for someone with disabilities. Look into the services and care providers in that individual’s life and/or empower others to do so. Make sure there are policies and procedures that help keep folks safe.

4. Report any suspicion of abuse or neglect. If you are ever suspicious that a person of any age with a disability is suffering abuse or neglect, you have a legal duty to report it to Department of Social Services or law enforcement as appropriate. In North Carolina, we are all mandatory reporters of abuse or neglect perpetrated against a person with a disability by a caretaker, regardless of age.

Help us work towards a world free of violence! Everyone deserves to live safe and healthy lives without the threat of being subject to violence, and we can work together to advocate for survivors across ability levels. Knowledge is power, and putting knowledge to action can create incredible results.

Laurie Graham is our Programs Director. She oversees our Community Education and Direct Services programs, and she manages our Support Group program. Laurie has experience and special interest in working with people with disabilities and in preventing human trafficking. She has volunteered and worked in the anti-violence field since 2008.

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