Sexual Violence and the Disability Community

Barbara Altman holds hands with her son Andrew, who has microcephaly, on a bench at their home in Rockville, Maryland, on October 29, 2016.

In 2018, with support from the Ford Foundation, the Disability Justice Initiative and the Women’s Initiative at the Center for American Progress developed their “Courageous Conversations” work to bring together leaders across the disability rights and justice movement and the reproductive health, rights, and justice movements. Staff of the Disability Justice and Women’s Initiatives convened a series of conversations at conferences including Let’s Talk About Sex, The Abortion Care Network, and the Association of Rural Independent Living, among others to talk about how to better collaborate across the two spaces. The authors created this column and the companion resource guide as tools that can be easily adopted or adapted by those wanting to bring these communities together for a nuanced discussion of sexual violence and disabled people.

Sexual violence against disabled people is a silent epidemic, often overlooked both within and outside of reproductive health, rights, and justice circles. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2009–2014 National Crime Victimization Survey, people with disabilities were more than three times more likely than nondisabled people to experience serious violent crime such as rape and sexual assault. In addition, having multiple disabilities can increase a person’s risk of rape and sexual assault, and children with mental health or intellectual disabilities are almost five times more likely than their nondisabled peers to experience sexual abuse.

The myths people believe about the sexuality and autonomy of disabled people fuel these assaults. These myths include stereotyping all disabled people as asexual, believing a disability means an inability to participate equally in an intimate relationship, and assuming that disabled people cannot control their urges, among many others. Part of the challenge is the lack of comprehensive sex education provided in accessible formats to people with disabilities, which would enable individuals to make informed decisions about their bodies and their health. Additionally, society and the media fail to provide an accurate representation of people with disabilities, which results in misinformation, including about the types of relationships that people with disabilities have. An often cited NPR story in 2018 about the sexual assault of individuals with cognitive and intellectual disabilities is an outlier in terms of news coverage, though it revealed a truth to the outside world that was no surprise to the disability community: People with disabilities are at a much higher risk of victimization—especially people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. All of these myths and trends contribute to a culture in which people with disabilities are more likely to face sexual violence, are often targeted because of their disabilities, and often are not believed because of their disabilities.

As detailed in the CAP report “Transforming the Culture of Power: An Examination of Gender-Based Violence in the United States,” people with disabilities—and especially women—already experience ableism in a world not designed to meet their access needs. This forces them to deal with an additional level of objectification in a patriarchal society with a power dynamic that restricts access and autonomy. Disabled women are often victimized because of their disabilities, and they are often undervalued by society because of ableism and perceived power imbalances in relationships, which are often leveraged or lead to manipulation. This power dichotomy plays out frequently in violence against a disabled person by a partner or a person of trust. A lack of self-worth; the need for emotional, physical, or financial support; or even the reliance on a partner for a connection to the outside world can all affect the lens through which disabled people view—or excuse—a toxic relationship. The world often tells disabled people that they are unworthy of love and unwelcome in society, and the abuser reinforces that message.

Sexual violence can also increase the possibility that an individual acquires a disability, particularly trauma-induced mental illness. According to End Rape on Campus, women who are survivors can experience depression, post-traumatic stress disorders, and alcohol or other drug use at rates higher than nonsurvivors. Survivors can also experience physical (sexually transmitted infections, bruises, and serious physical injuries), psychosomatic (difficulty sleeping and headaches), and behavioral (aggressiveness and withdrawal) effects. It is critical to ensure that these health conditions are treated seriously so that survivors can access the treatments and supports that they need.

Furthermore, campaigns such as “It’s On Us” have highlighted the prevalence of campus sexual violence. However, much of the ongoing conversation tied to Title IX and violence against women on college campuses erases women with disabilities. A significant challenge for survivors with disabilities on college campuses continues to be the lack of supports and services. A recent report by the National Council on Disability found that campus programs do not include information and supports for people with disabilities, nor do they provide general information in accessible formats.

In addition, the incompetence of providers and support services directly affects the quality of services that survivors receive. There is a need for increased information and training to meet the needs of survivors with disabilities. For example, the Vera Institute of Justice provides a series of archived webinars on this topic and has created a resource for programs working to be more inclusive of survivors with disabilities.

In the disability rights space, there is also a history of not discussing issues of sexual violence, largely because of the stereotyping of disabled women’s sexuality but also because of power dynamics and economic inequality. Recent scandals centering on training centers serving the needs of certain parts of the disability community have forced rights groups to reconcile with a history of both violence and silencing of survivors. Bringing together disability justice and reproductive health, rights, and justice leaders and organizations can help set both on a new path forward while recognizing the hurt done in the past; ignoring a history of violence only condemns us to repeat it.

Sexuality is a key part of human nature: All people deserve to express themselves sexually—and safely—regardless of ability. Achieving this goal requires a comprehensive and intentional effort to overcome myths, misinformation, and a lack of information. Disabled people should be empowered with knowledge about consent and have access to appropriate sex education in school from an early age. These efforts must equip students with the tools to understand their bodies and what constitutes an appropriate, safe encounter, as well as the means to report abuse and assault. Those within the reproductive health, rights, and justice spaces must also be a part of the conversation and solutions to address the ableism surrounding disability and sex; it should not be solely on the shoulders of the disability community to push this narrative forward. Many disability rights and justice organizations have advocated for access to better sex education curricula and resources, pushed for justice for survivors of sexual violence, and worked to erase the stigma about what it means to be a sexual individual within a disabled body. The disability community endures much higher rates of sexual violence, lack of access to sex education, and the failure of society to understand that sexuality belongs to everyone. And provider organizations that support survivors of sexual violence are often ill-prepared to meet the needs of survivors with disabilities.

Now is the time for advocates—including reproductive health, rights, and justice activists and workers—to act to ensure that their efforts include people with disabilities. Disability activists must also ensure that their advocacy in this space incorporates reproductive health needs. Both are instrumental for the work to be truly inclusive of and for all. Additionally, the disability rights movement has to ensure that its work incorporates issues of disabled people of color, disabled LGBTQ individuals, disabled immigrants, and disabled people who have experienced incarceration and institutionalization. Both movements have an opportunity to learn how to become more inclusive.

Vilissa Thompson is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Nora Ellmann is a research associate for women’s health and rights with the Women’s Initiative at the Center. Rebecca Cokley is the former director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center. Jamille Fields Allsbrook is the director of women’s health and rights with the Women’s Initiative at the Center.