In January, NPR did a series of reports on a largely hidden epidemic of sexual assault against people with intellectual disabilities. Previously unreleased numbers obtained by NPR from the U.S. Department of Justice show that the rate of sexual assault against people with intellectual disabilities is seven times higher than against people without disabilities—and most often, it is by someone they know.
Why is this population so much more at risk? NPR talked to experts who explained.
- People with intellectual disabilities may come into contact with many people in the course of their day—aides, teachers, drivers, therapists, family members—and they’re accustomed to being cooperative and trusting of these people. This leaves them open to being manipulated.
- In many cases, people with intellectual disabilities have not received any sexuality education, including learning about touching, privacy, and what is and is not appropriate. So while they may be traumatized by what’s happening, they may not know that they are being victimized.
- Some people are non-verbal and can’t tell anyone what is happening. Those who can speak up are often dismissed or misunderstood.
- Prosecuting these cases in court can be challenging and people with intellectual disabilities are often not seen as reliable witnesses. This leaves predators free to victimize others.
Before the deinstitutionalization movement of the 1960s, people with disabilities often faced horrific abuse and neglect in the state hospitals that they lived in. The move to community living was a huge step forward, so it’s terrible to see these sexual assault statistics in 2018. People with disabilities and those who work with them are not unaware of the issue, but the extent of the problem still shocked many of them.
Locally, the FISA Foundation has been working for years to address these issues. Their mission has long been to improve the lives of three groups: women, girls, and people with disabilities in southwestern Pennsylvania. Preventing sexual assault and ensuring that individuals with disabilities have access to needed services is a big part of their work.
FISA has recently engaged the Vera Institute of Justice to lead a learning cohort of representatives of nearly 20 local agencies—both service providers to people with disabilities and organizations that work with victims of sexual violence—for monthly meetings to build relationships, raise awareness, and improve services to survivors with disabilities in the region.
According to Shani Lasin, program officer at FISA, prevention is one goal, but ensuring that survivors can access services is also critically important.
“If you raise the issue and you uncover the fact that so many people with disabilities have been victimized—then you also need to provide accessible and inclusive support and services,” she said. Building connections between these two formerly separate groups has raised awareness for both types of organizations and opened up new resources for those who need them.
The Pennsylvania Keystone Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society used a FISA grant to develop the REACH (Relocation & Safety, Education, Awareness, Change, and Hope) program when they realized that many of their clients were victims of domestic violence and abuse. The program screens people with multiple sclerosis for domestic abuse and helps them develop safety plans. Learn more about that program here.
Another FISA grant funded a sexuality education program offered by ARC Human Services in Washington County to people with intellectual disabilities.Sex education is important because it gives people with intellectual disabilities the knowledge to know what’s appropriate and what’s not, along with the resources to talk about it. The program also addressed agency policies and procedures related to abuse prevention and reporting and trained staff to recognize and prevent abuse. Read more about the program here.
FISA staff also meet regularly with medical students to teach them how to recognize signs of abuse and what steps to take when abuse is revealed.
If you want to learn more:
- The whole NPR series is online to listen to (or read, using transcripts).
- The Vera Institute of Justice is a national organization focused on social justice. For more information on their work on preventing abuse of people with disabilities, check out The End Abuse of People with Disabilities website, a project of their Center on Victimization and Safety.
- Nancy Thaler, deputy secretary of the Office of Developmental Programs of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, was interviewed on PBS NewsHour along with Joseph Shapiro, the NPR investigative correspondent, about his series.
- The Harrisburg-based WITF Smart Talk hosted a discussion following the release of the NPR series, including comments by Nancy Thaler, deputy secretary, Office of Developmental Programs, Pennsylvania Department of Human Services; Maureen Cronin, executive director, The ARC of Pennsylvania; and Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer, Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.
- A national teleconference on April 15 aims to teach staff and managers of
- Centers for Independent Living (CILs) how to prevent and address sexual violence and harassment.
- The February newsletter of the Office of Developmental Programs (ODP)of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services provides information and resources related to the issue of sexual assault against people with disabilities.
- A federal study shows colleges are not properly preventing or recognizing sexual assault on students with disabilities, nor are they offering sufficient support to victims.