Disability and Sexual Abuse During the Pandemic

Aug 12th, 2020

By Marian Geiger, Program Intern

The Crisis: Heightened Vulnerability for Abuse

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised concerns over the heightened vulnerability for abuse facing people with disabilities. Shapiro’s (2018) article on the silent epidemic of disability abuse explores the exclusion of disability within mainstream discussions of sexual violence. Shapiro draws attention to the disproportionate rates of abuse facing disabled communities: “for women without disabilities, the rapist is a stranger 24 percent of the time, but for a woman with an intellectual disability it is less than 14 percent of the time” (Shapiro, 2018). It is widely accepted within sexual violence prevention work that sexual abuse is often carried out by a known abuser. For women with disabilities, the potential for physical dependence, higher levels of poverty, social isolation and perceived vulnerability by perpetrators contribute to a greater risk of violence and victimization (Breiding & Armour, 2015, p. 455).

There is little data on the rates of sexual abuse for people with disabilities during the pandemic. Many advocates have been in reduced contact with their clients and social services are limited. Disability and sexual violence prevention advocates fear that the COVID-19 precautionary measures including social distancing and quarantine orders will lead to increased rates of physical and sexual violence, economic abuse, isolation and withholding or misuse of needed support. (National Disability Rights Network, 2020).

Structural Inaccessibility

The pandemic has led to a reduction in care, an increase in informational barriers and food and medical inaccessibility for people with disabilities. Disabled women’s collective Sisters of Frida has named food and medical inaccessibility and social isolation as major issues facing disabled communities (Linsey et al. 2020). Additionally, women are expected to continue home and family life responsibilities with a lack of governmental support (Pring, 2020). This greater isolation and reduction in support networks pose challenges for protections of people with disabilities during the pandemic (King, n.d.). A decrease in communication with social workers and a decrease in outside witnesses may lead to an increased chance of victimization within the home (End Abuse of People with Disabilities, n.d.). By not accommodating the needs of people with disabilities, it allows for abusive situations to go unsupported.

Intersectional Approaches to Disability Support: Advancing Health Justice

            Human rights advocates and sexual violence prevention specialists have proposed health justice interventions to ensure equitable access to support services during COVID-19. This includes ensuring the accessibility of domestic violence shelters, remote service providers, language, and federal support. Without ensuring basic accessibility of shelters, domestic violence survivors risk referrals to shelters that cannot accommodate them (Breiding & Armour, 2015). Government officials and care workers must understand the heightened risk and vulnerability people with disabilities face in order to take a health justice approach to sexual violence prevention (Linsey et al., 2020). This includes adapting coronavirus precautions and information to include accessible language and considerations for how to safely relocate individuals from inpatient institutions (Human Rights Watch, 2020).       

To combat the high rates of sexual abuse against the disabled community, advocates are working to ensure remote service provision and support (End Abuse PWD, 2020). Advocates have proposed that affordable and equitable access to care be backed by federal support to ensure protections for the most vulnerable (Benfer and Wiley, 2020). Narváez, Vice President of the European Disability Forum proposed a series of action steps to ensure the inclusion and protection of disabled women during COVID-19. Necessary steps include ensured access to sexual and reproductive care, protections for women with disabilities, services for violence against women and centering the voices of disabled women (2020). To be advocates for ending sexual violence against people with disabilities, we must consider the ways in which health and disability justice center the voices of those most marginalized. We must continue to center people with disabilities to identify areas of intervention and end sexual abuse.

Works Cited

Benfer, E. A. & Wiley, L. F. (2020, March 19). Health justice strategies to combat covid-19: protecting vulnerable communities during a pandemic. Health Affairs. https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hblog20200319.757883/full/

Breiding, M. J. & Armour, B. S. (2015). The association between disability and intimate partner violence in the United States. Annals of Epidemiology, 25(6), 455-457. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.annepidem.2015.03.017

King, D. (n.d.). Risks for harm skyrocket for people with disabilities during pandemic. Safe Austin. https://www.safeaustin.org/risks-for-harm-skyrocket-for-people-with-disabilities-during-pandemic/

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