In the state of Ohio, as well as across the nation, there is an increasing awareness about the incidence of sexual assault. Recently, Ohio lawmakers approved bills that would create a rape kit tracking system that would allow assault survivors to keep tabs on the status and location of their case’s evidence. These bills are an effort to remedy an enormous backlog of thousands of untested rape kits, which contain physical and DNA evidence from rape cases.

Other examples include changes at the Ohio State University, where the comprehensive sexual assault unit was closed by the university due to mismanagement and the potential retraumatization of survivors. OSU terminated staff members who were previously employed at the unit after concerns that it failed to properly report students’ sexual-assault complaints. For students at Kent State University, Sexual and Relationship Violence Support Services shares information about the threat of sexual assault and violence on a college campus.

All of the above-mentioned news items are steps in a positive direction. Yet, there is one group of individuals who are sometimes forgotten — people with intellectual disabilities.

The tragic relationship between intellectual disabilities and sexual abuse:

According to data obtained by NPR, the rates of sexual assault for people with disabilities are 7 times greater than those for individuals without disabilities. These shocking statistics have some researchers describing this as an epidemic of sexual abuse of people with intellectual disabilities.

In the broader context, when one looks at college students with disabilities the numbers are still disturbing. An investigation by the Association of American Universities found that 31.6 percent of undergraduate females with disabilities reported non-consensual sexual contact involving physical force or incapacitation, compared to 18.4 percent of undergraduate females without a disability.

Sexual assault is typically defined as physical sexual contact without consent, which includes incapacitation or disability. Studies show that most victims of rape are actually assaulted by someone they know, instead of a stranger. This fact is even more pronounced for people with intellectual disabilities. For women without disabilities, the attacker is a stranger 24 percent of the cases, but for women with an intellectual disability, it is less than 14 percent of the time.

Earlier research has stated that individuals with disabilities are sexually assaulted at nearly three times the rate of people without disabilities. Data from 2005 found that 60 percent of respondents to a survey had been subjected to some form of unwanted sexual activity. Individuals with disabilities experience domestic and sexual violence at much higher rates than people who do not have a form of disability. The following statistics illustrate this problem:

  • 83% of women with disabilities will be sexually assaulted in their lives.
  • Just 3% of sexual abuses involving people with developmental disabilities are ever reported.
  • 50% of girls who are deaf have been sexually abused compared to 25% of girls who are hearing; 54% of boys who are deaf have been sexually abused in comparison to 10% of boys who are hearing.
  • Approximately 80% of women and 30% of men with developmental disabilities have been sexually assaulted – half of these women have been assaulted more than 10 times.

A more detailed analysis of data from the state of Pennsylvania shows that in instances where an attack was committed against a person with a disability, the attacker was also a person with a disability. These attacks occurred in a variety of settings, including group homes, adult day programs as well as work environments. The Pennsylvania data indicated that people with intellectual disabilities made up 42 percent of the suspected offenders. Direct support professionals made up 14 percent of the suspected rapist, with the victim’s relatives comprising 12 percent of the suspects.

As a reminder, sexual abuse is connected to acts of sexual assault. Sex abuse a pattern of sexually violent behavior that can range from inappropriate touching to rape. The main difference between assault and abuse is that sexual assault constitutes a single episode whereas sexual abuse is ongoing. 

Why are the rates of sexual assault higher for people with intellectual disabilities?

There are multiple reasons as to why there are higher rates of assault and abuse for people with intellectual disabilities. The following are some of the more common reasons:

[1] Some individuals with intellectual disabilities may not fully comprehend what is happening, or are unable to sufficiently communicate the assault to a trusted person.

[2] Some people may realize that they are experiencing an assault, but they are not aware that it is illegal.

[3] They are receiving threats from their DSP or caregiver, so they are afraid to say anything. Sadly, this is particularly true if a trusted authority figure is the one committing the abuse.

[4] Some law enforcement officials are resistant to investigate claims made by individuals with disabilities. The fact that the individuals involved in the claim have a disability makes them less credible in the eyes of the police.

Beyond these four reasons, the fact is that in the span of a year, individuals with disabilities receive care from hundreds of different caregivers and DSPs. The way people with disabilities lives are structured exposes them to a higher probability of being victimized. The fact that many HCBS waiver provider agencies and intermediate care facilities (ICFs) have a shortage of qualified staff, only makes this problem more difficult to solve.

The yearlong investigation by NPR found that people with people with intellectual disabilities were most often assaulted during daytime hours. This population is easier for predators to manipulate with many of the crimes unprosecuted. Their research reinforced earlier studies that demonstrated that law enforcement is reluctant to prosecute due to the fact that they believe these cases are difficult to win in court.

What to do in cases of suspected sexual abuse?

Every agency should have a sexual assault response team (or something similar) in order to investigate these incidents. Direct support professionals, such as case managers, service and support administrators (SSA) and direct care workers need to report suspected abuse. If the suspected abuse is happening to a child, contact your local child protective agency. Otherwise, people should contact adult protective services.

If the attacker is an employee they can be barred from working as a DSP. For example, in Ohio, the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities maintains an Abuser Registry which is a list of people who the Department has determined have committed one of the Registry offenses (like sexual assault).

Other resources include the Project CARE (Community, Accessibility, Response, Education) collaborative provides comprehensive intervention and prevention services to people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in Greater Cincinnati. They are a collaboration between LifePoint Solutions, the Center for Hamilton County Developmental Disabilities Services, Women Helping Women, and the YWCA of Greater Cincinnati.

For more general information is available at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). This organization operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline, as well as the Department of Defense (DoD) Safe Helpline, and carries out programs to prevent sexual assault and help survivors. RAINN also fights to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice.

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