Most people aren’t aware that sexual assault and intimate partner violence against people with physical, sensory, mental health or learning disabilities are very common. This is because people who commit these assaults perceive disabled people as easy targets, and they frequently get away with these crimes. It’s also very likely that you know the person who abused you: most often the assailant is someone the survivor knows, or who has some role in her/his care. You may have even become disabled, or further disabled, because of the abuse.
A 2007 report (Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report on Crime Against People with Disabilities) points out that as many as 40% of women with disabilities experience sexual assault or physical violence in their lifetimes (National Clearinghouse on Family Violence, Canada) and that more than 90% of all people with developmental disabilities will experience sexual assault (Schwartz & Valenti-Hein, 1995). Disabled survivors are also more likely to experience a longer duration of sexual abuse, and are more likely to experience sexual violence from someone they know – one study estimates that for survivors with disabilities, 33% of abusers are acquaintances, 33% are family members, and 25% are other caregivers or service providers
While disabled people experience forms of interpersonal violence that are very similar to the experiences of people without disabilities, power and control are often exerted in specific ways based on the type of disability or medical needs. Some forms of abuse a disabled survivor may experience include:
- The perpetrator restricts the survivor’s access to medical services, such as doctors’ appointments or medications.
- Blaming the survivor for the violence, saying they were being uncooperative in relation to mobility needs, or that their mental health issues were a problem.
- Denying the violence, for example “I’m not doing that, you are just too pain sensitive.”
- Telling the survivor’s other support systems that they are confused or don’t understand what is going on or telling those support systems that the survivor doesn’t need their assistance while denying them the care they need.
- Control of financial resources, access to food or transportation services.
- Telling the survivor that they cannot survive without the abuser, or that no one else will be able to help them.
- In the case of sexual assault, the perpetrator may tell the survivor that they were lucky and that nobody else would want to have sex with them. In addition, there are people who might believe that disabled people don’t have a right to control their own sexuality or even who has access to their bodies.
The bottom line is this: no one has the right to assault you. You might feel powerless to do something about it because this person has control of your care or your finances, or has more authority than you, or is seen as more powerful. You may actually feel confused about what happened and may not be sure that what happened was legally wrong, even if it feels wrong. Regardless of that person’s role in your life, you still have the right to file a complaint and seek redress against them.
You may find, as you may have prior to your assault, that people who are supposed to be “helping” you treat you as though you are helpless or unable to understand what happened. They may ignore your needs, acting as though they know what is best for you. Others may feel that you won’t be effective in helping apprehend your assailant. All these ideas are misconceptions, not facts, about people with a wide range of disabilities. You have the right to be treated with the same care and concern as any other survivor. It’s okay to ask for a companion from SARA or the Victim & Witness Program to work with you on your terms. At UVA, the Confidential Advocate can provide support and guidance throughout your recovery and any processes you choose to use, as individuals working in other programs.
Your family might be a great resource for you as well, although some survivors with disabilities find that parents or other family members become overprotective. The more you can make decisions for yourself, the more empowered you will feel.
The assault may make you feel very vulnerable. You may want to seek emotional support and other kinds of assistance from local agencies which advocate for persons with disabilities. It might be helpful to ask the agency if there is a staff member with experience in working with sexual assault issues. Because this is rarely the case, you may decide to work with two advocates: a sexual assault companion and a disabilities advocate.
If your disability is related to mental health, you probably won’t be surprised to know that this kind of trauma can aggravate existing mental illness, whether biologically based (such as bipolar) or trauma-based (such as anxiety or PTSD). In this instance it can be important to let your mental health professional know or find someone as soon as possible if you haven’t been seeing a therapist.
If you are a UVA student, you also have resources on grounds: Student Disabilities Access Center (SDAC), Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center (where the confidential advocate and trauma counselors are located), Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights Office (EOCR), where the Title IX and ADA office is located, and the Office of the Dean of Students. All of these resources are physically accessible.
The Women’s Center is located in the Corner Building, which you can reach by walking down to 14th St. and University Avenue or on the CAT Trolley (wheelchair accessible), which stops right in front of our building. If you wish to make an appointment with the confidential advocate, you can reach her at 434-982-2774 or email email@example.com.
If you have a close friend or on-grounds advocate that you trust, ask that person to be your companion at meetings when it is appropriate. Sometimes it’s helpful to have a second set of eyes and ears to make sure that communication is clear. You may also want to learn self-defense; regardless of your disability, there are self-defense techniques, including assertiveness and physical techniques modified to your needs, which you may find empowering.
There are also a number of online resources and articles that may be helpful for you or for loved ones:
The Vera Institute of Justice is an advocacy organization with excellent resources and information on their site, including information for survivors with disabilities or who are Deaf as well as for transgender survivors.
The Intersections of Disability and Violence (Joyful Heart Foundation)
A Healthy and Safe Dating Life for All