“The Silent Pandemic”: Sexual Violence and the Disabled Community

By Priya Gadhe, SARC youth volunteer

The topic of sexual assault is one of the most whispered conversations, filled with hidden stories and rising stigmas around the world. The reality is that the less we talk about this issue, the more it will keep happening.

At a group convention with the national advocacy group, The Arc, advocate Leigh Ann Davis asked how many in the audience members knew someone with an intellectual disability who had been the victim of sexual harassment or assault. Only two hands were raised. With the high number of rape reports of those with intellectual disabilities, this result counters what we are seeing statistically.

“It means people with disabilities still don’t feel safe enough to talk about what’s going on in their lives,” she said. “Or we haven’t given them the foundation to do that…”

Disabled adults are often targeted by society, having their condition used against them. This abuse comes from many sources— loved ones, relatives, family, and strangers. The presence of such vulnerability in our society creates an extremely terrifying dynamic for disabled people, adding another societal pressure to their list.

Why are Disabled People Victimized? 

Disabled people are particularly vulnerable to crime for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to reliance on caregivers, limited transportation options, limited access to Sign Language interpreters and assistive devices, and isolation from the community.  In 2015, disabled people were 2.5 times more likely than nondisabled people to experience violent victimization. And serious violent crimes were even more disproportionate; more than three times as likely to impact disabled people.

The global pandemic of cases of sexual abuse against people with intellectual disabilities is at rising numbers, but still, these crimes go unrecognized and unpunished. NPR revealed from their Justice Department’s unpublished federal crime database that, not only are people with intellectual disabilities sexually assaulted at high numbers but “more than seven times higher than the rate for persons with no disabilities.”

What can be done? 

Regardless of these shocking statistics, the issue of sexual abuse of people who have a disability does not garner much public attention. While people speak out about their abuse, there is still very limited reach that the public has on changing the situation; it is important to stop this issue from being just a whispered conversation.

The role of consent is crucial when any person engages in sexual activity, but it plays an even bigger, and potentially more complicated role when someone has a disability. Some disabilities may make it difficult to communicate consent to participate in sexual activity, and perpetrators may take advantage of this. Therefore it is important that disabled people and their caregivers are knowledgeable of their safety and protection. SARC provides the Prevention and Education Program to address the root causes of sexual violence through education. The programs aim to target attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs regarding sexual violence in an effort to influence behavior and prevent perpetration from ever happening, which would greatly benefit disabled communities. Using these resources to identify potential mechanisms that may contribute to the increased risk of violence and abuse for people with disabilities will make the disabled community and their caregivers more knowledgeable.

We need to provide opportunities for people with disabilities to report victimization and empower them to access justice. Fundamentally, we need to shift community attitudes, and stop society from holding attitudes that people with disability are lesser. Making our society more aware of this rising crisis and taking action on this public health concern will speak stronger than rising numbers in reports. Looking forward, communities must offer awareness and change in this serious issue of sexual abuse and exploitation against people with disabilities.