National studies estimate that almost 80 percent of people with developmental disabilities are sexual assaulted on more than one occasion, and 50 percent of those experience more than 10 victimizations. However, only one in 30 cases is reported to law enforcement. Why is that?

People with developmental disabilities are much more vulnerable to sexual assault because they are often dependent on care providers and others for a wide range of services. Often the care providers are family members. In those cases, a survivor may not want to disclose the abuse because they don’t want the family member to get in legal trouble. They also fear punishment, isolation, loss of independence and retaliation from the family.

People with developmental disabilities are often taught from a young age to be compliant and not question authority; in many situations the person with authority is the one caring for them. That creates a power imbalance which causes the perpetrator to easily target the person with a disability and make it difficult for that person to report.

That is also true for people with developmental disabilities who live in group homes or institutions where they may not have a support network outside of that environment.

There is a misconception that we don’t need to educate people with developmental disabilities about sexual health, relationships and consent because it is not something they will face. However, if they don’t have the information, then they may not recognize sexual assault as a violation or an illegal act. In those cases, they may not report to authorities because they don’t understand what happened, or they fear being blamed or not believed.

Unfortunately, more times than not, people with disabilities are not seen as credible in these cases and their report is not believed or taken seriously. Or, there may be a misconception that people with disabilities are not sexual, so their report of a sexual assault is just not considered (even though sexual assault has nothing to do with sexual attraction and everything to do with power and control).

Some people with a developmental disability may have communication barriers, which would make reporting difficult. It could be a lack of interpreters, not being able to articulate or have the vocabulary to explain what has happened to them, or they may communicate through a device that is being held from them by the perpetrator.

A person with a developmental disability may not be able to read social cues which may put them in a situation to trust someone who is befriending them in order to take advantage of them. There is also a fear of social isolation, so they may ignore identified “red flags” in order to have a social life, even if it is not a healthy relationship.

What are we doing about this?

As part of our education and outreach programs at the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services, we go into the community and educate adults with developmental disabilities about consent, healthy relationships, boundaries, sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, human sex trafficking and how to make a report. It is a 10-week class that is done with a small group of individuals. There are always two advocates available, so if an individual needs one-to-one support, we can provide that. We also follow up with the individuals who have disclosed sexual abuse and help them through the process.

SAPARS also provides education to students in grades kindergarten through 12 and on campuses at public and private schools. All of the educational material is age-appropriate and the content builds on itself each year. Our educators work really hard to make sure all students understand the content that is presented to them. In some cases they will meet one-to-one or do small groups with students who have disabilities. They schedule in extra time to allow the students to ask questions and process the information.

What can other people do?

I believe that everyone should be heard and validated regardless of their disabilities. I also think everyone should be listened to and taken seriously when disclosing a sexual assault. I encourage those people who work in a group home or work with people with disabilities to call SAPARS for education for consumers or staff. Our advocates are trained to work with all populations and to provide advocacy and support.

As a community, it is important that we watch out for our neighbors. Believe a disclosure when it occurs and help connect the person to appropriate services and resources.

Jamie Demers is outreach coordinator for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services.

Jamie Demers

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