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Survivors with Disabilities

People may or may not identify with disability.  Never assume a person identifies with disability – always follow the survivor’s voice.

We know that sexual violence flourishes in an atmosphere of oppression.  When people are not seen as individuals, when their voices go unheard, when their concerns are dismissed, and when their perceptions are swept aside, they are more likely to be victimized and less likely to experience justice.  Advocates know that disability does not equal a lack of credibility, that barriers can often be overcome through patience and creativity, and that everyone benefits from an environment of respect.

What is Disability?

Disability is a broad term to signify a mental, sensory, cognitive, emotional and/or physical characteristic that, in conjunction with societal values, may limit a person’s physical or emotional well-being or ability.  Disability is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which one lives.  Overcoming the difficulties faced by people with disabilities requires interventions to remove environmental and social barriers” (DRW, WCSAP, & LTCOP, 2013, p. 59)


  • Among adults with developmental disabilities, as many as 83% of females and 32% of males are victims of sexual assault (Johnson, Sigler, 2000).
  • 40% of women with physical disabilities reported being sexually assaulted (Young, Nosek, Howland, Chanpong, Rintala, 1997, p. 534-538).
  • Women with disabilities, in a 2001 study, said that their limited ability to perform basic daily tasks was the factor that turned ordinary situations into situations where there was potential for abuse (Gilson, DePoy, Carmer, 2001, p. 220-235).
  • Individuals with disabilities often depend on their abuser for daily care or economic needs (Swedlund, Nosek, 2000, p. 57-64).
  • 49% of people with developmental disabilities, who are victims of sexual violence, will experience 10 or more abusive incidents (Valenti-Heim, Schwartz, 1995).
  • Only 3% of sexual abuse cases involving people with developmental disabilities are ever reported (ValentiHeim, Schwartz, 1995).
  • 33% of abusers of those with disabilities are friends or acquaintances, 33% are natural or foster family members, and 25% are caregivers or service providers (Sobsey, 1988).

People with disabilities are sexually abused at higher rates than the typical population. This is due to a number of reasons, including:

  • Increased barriers in accessing help (fear, shame, dependence, isolation, communication & perceived lack of credibility)
  • Perceived lack of credibility. Perpetrators seek out individuals that they feel will not be believed or able to communicate their abuse, or those they know fear retaliation from reporting abuse.
  • Lack of sex education provided by parents and educational systems. When people outside the disability community don’t receive sex education from these sources, they typically turn to their peers. Many times in the disability community (particularly those with Intellectual and Developmental disabilities) as people grow older they experience more and more isolation which limits interactions and learning opportunities from their peers. In turn, sex education may be received from perpetrators.
  • Lack of adequate response system. There are very few organizations that feel prepared to respond to disclosures of sexual abuse. Even systems in place to protect people with disability and vulnerable adults lack the proper resources to effectively respond to survivors with disabilities.

For these reasons it is vital community sexual assault programs are prepared to support and respond to the needs of survivors with disabilities.

Foundational Steps to Advocating for People With Disabilities:

  1. Uphold human rights.
  2. People with disability can and do have consensual sex. Listen to the survivor and how they describe their experience. At times, you may need to advocate for the survivor’s right to sexual expression.
  3. Always assume competency of every person you work with regardless of age, gender, disability, language.
  4. Check your own bias. Do you have any biases against people with disabilities?  Know that many biases are based off myths promoted by society. Be honest about your biases and seek additional training from a disability organization.
  5. Treat all people with respect. People with disabilities have expressed experiences where they are infantilized by people outside the disability community.
  6. Infantilized- treating (someone) as a child or in a way that denies their maturity in age or experience.
  7. Offer accommodations. This should be done for every survivor you work with. People may have visible or invisible disabilities.
  8. Disability does not equal vulnerability. Many people with disabilities are not vulnerable and are able to advocate for themselves and others. Some people with disabilities have strong support systems in place that reduce their likelihood of being abused.
  9. Remember, if you are good at what you do, understand those skills transfer directly to working with people with disabilities.


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Reviewed: March 31st, 2017