Five Things to Know When Working with Sexual Assault Victims with Disabilities

People with disabilities experience sexual assault at rates three times higher than people without disabilities. When this is broken down further, people with intellectual disabilities are seven times more likely to be sexually assaulted and 2 in 3 victims with disabilities have multiple disabilities. The vast majority of survivors with disabilities were assaulted by someone they know —this could mean a caretaker, a relative, an intimate partner, a friend, or an acquaintance. Survivors with disabilities face unique challenges when it comes to reporting and accessing services. Here are five things to know when working with survivors with disabilities.

5. Disabilities come in many forms.

Disabilities can be developmental, physical, sensory, or psychiatric. Developmental disabilities become apparent before age 22 and include intellectual disabilities, attention deficit disorder, and autism spectrum disorder, among others. Physical disabilities include those that affect the physical body and could be the result of an accident, birth and/or genetics, chronic illness, or aging. Sensory disabilities include those who are blind and/or Deaf/hard of hearing. Psychiatric disabilities affect mental, emotional and behavioral health to the point that it impacts daily functioning, and includes major depression, anxiety, bipolar depression, and borderline personality disorder. Disabilities may be invisible or apparent, and a person can have more than one disability. Responders should always follow the victim’s lead in identifying if they have a disability or not—some people might not identify as having a disability or it may be a sensitive subject.

4. People with disabilities face many myths and stigmas about sex.

We live in a society that often denigrates and discriminates against people with disabilities, and this can take many forms. People with disabilities may be socially and/or physically isolated because of their disability. Additionally, many people with disabilities do not receive appropriate sexual education and may have a limited vocabulary or knowledge about sex and sexuality. This can make it very difficult to discuss or even recognize sexual assault. When it comes to sex, many people hold cultural beliefs that people with disabilities are asexual, undesirable, and/or incapable of having sex. However, people with disabilities are having and enjoying sex just as much as people without disabilities. If first responders hold these beliefs, they may be less likely to believe a sexual assault victim with disabilities.



People with disabilities experience sexual assault at rates

three times higher than people without disabilities.

~The Vera Institute of Justice



3. Myths and stigmas create unique barriers to reporting.

Like most victims, people with disabilities fear not being believed, being blamed, and fear retaliation if they come forward. Their disability may mean they face even more barriers than someone without disabilities. The myths and stigmas around sex may preclude survivors with disabilities from recognizing their experience as sexual assault. They may not have the language or communication abilities to report. Some people with disabilities may fear losing their autonomy and/or being institutionalized as a result of reporting. Others may be financially dependent on their abuser and concerned about what will happen to them if they report. Responders need to challenge their own beliefs around these myths and stigmas to better serve people with disabilities. It is also important to recognize the barriers people with disabilities face, so justice practitioners can work to mitigate these challenges by making their institutions more accessible and working with advocates to help people with disabilities work through their concerns about reporting. Responders should also partner with community agencies specializing in working with people with disabilities in order to learn about local concerns, raise awareness they are able to support victims with disabilities, and examine strategies for enhancing sexual assault response in the community.


2. Being accessible does not just mean having ramps.

Having wheelchair accessible ramps, elevators, and bathrooms is very important for people with physical disabilities, however more steps are needed to make services fully accessible to all people with disabilities. Responders do not always have the necessary skills to appropriately respond to people with developmental or intellectual disabilities. Training and/or hiring staff who understand different developmental and intellectual disabilities and can communicate appropriately with people with disabilities is an important aspect of making services accessible. For example, among Deaf victims, language barriers can be a significant issue, especially if they rely solely on American Sign Language (ASL). Certified ALS interpreters can be used, however, survivors may have additional concerns about confidentiality and whether their experiences are being fully understood. Technology, such as a text telephone (TTY) where text is turned into a phone call, or video relay services (VRS) where a third party ASL interpreter can be video called and speak to the hearing person, can both be used to help serve Deaf survivors. Finally, it is also important to have training on behavioral and mental health to better serve survivors with psychiatric disabilities and make referrals as needed.


Having wheelchair accessible ramps, elevators, and bathrooms

is very important for people with physical disabilities,

however, more steps are needed to make services fully accessible

to all people with disabilities.


1. Convey belief.

As with all victims, survivors with disabilities often fear that upon coming forward they will not be believed. Given that we live in a culture that victim blames and often assumes what someone was wearing, doing, or drinking causes sexual violence, this is a legitimate fear, even though the only person at fault for sexual violence is the perpetrator. Having a disability can also influence whether or not responders will believe a survivor. An intellectual disability, impaired cognitive abilities, and/or mental or behavioral health issues might lead a responder to think the survivor is lying because they are considered unreliable. A responder may believe that people with certain disabilities are undesirable and therefore cannot be raped, despite the fact that desirability has nothing to do with sexual violence. Instead, responders should investigate all claims of sexual violence and convey belief as much as possible. Active listening, referring to advocacy and other services, and supportive statements, such as “It’s not your fault” and “I’m sorry this happened to you,” can go a long way to convey belief. Finally, remember to treat all victims with disabilities with respect, and never make assumptions about someone’s capabilities.





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