By Brittany Lewis, MCASA Program Intern
Individuals living with disabilities are more likely to be victims of sexual assault than any other population. However, the extreme vulnerability of those living with disabilities is rarely discussed. In 2017, NPR conducted a yearlong investigation into the prevalence and impact of sexual assault among those living with intellectual disabilities. NPR’s findings, along with individual stories of survivors are detailed in their series Abused and Betrayed. According to NPR, unpublished data from the U.S. Department of Justice shows that individuals with intellectual disabilities are at least seven times more likely to be sexually assaulted than those without. These individuals are also more likely to be assaulted by someone they know, assaulted multiple times, and assaulted during daytime hours. Given these alarming statistics, it is essential that we examine the barriers sexual assault survivors with intellectual disabilities face when trying to access justice or seek services.
Barriers to Justice
Sexual assault survivors with intellectual disabilities face unique barriers to justice. Many survivors report that their perpetrators were also their caregivers. In these cases, reporting a perpetrator can mean losing the person who has cared for the survivor for years, creating potentially life-changing consequences and uncertainty regarding how the survivor’s daily needs will be met.
The criminal justice system itself presents many barriers. Even for survivors without disabilities, reporting a sexual assault to law enforcement and navigating the criminal justice system can be daunting. For those who have difficulty communicating or understanding what is happening, those challenges may be insurmountable. NPR reports that the majority of abuse reports made to authorities by those with intellectual disabilities are deemed unsubstantiated or unconfirmed. Even when authorities are able to substantiate an investigation, prosecutors may hesitate to file charges due to communication difficulties between the survivor and prosecutor that create a perception that the survivor is an unreliable source and will not be able to testify well in court.
Overcoming Obstacles and Empowering Survivors
Organizations throughout the country are working hard to reduce the incidence of sexual assault among those with intellectual disabilities, and to empower survivors. Momentum is among several organizations that work to educate individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and their support teams, about healthy relationships and sexual health. The Arc created the National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability (NCCJD), which partners with professionals in the criminal justice field to offer guidance on supporting individuals with intellectual disabilities as they navigate the criminal justice system. The Disability and Abuse Project educates advocates, professionals and other stakeholders on ways to reduce physical, sexual, and emotional abuse in individuals living with intellectual disabilities. The organization also works to promote healing for the survivors, create avenues to obtain justice, and stop the cycle of re-victimization through education. In Maryland, the state protection and advocacy program is Disability Rights Maryland (formerly the Maryland Disability Law Center). DRM advises and represents individuals in Maryland, and advocates for better policies for people with developmental disabilities. Individual cases prioritize leaving or avoiding institutions, eligibility for services, and serious rights violations. Policy issues address improving the quality of and access to home and community based services.
Most important to assisting and protecting individuals living with intellectual disabilities is the creation of strong support systems with allies that has the survivors’ best interest in mind. One survivor in NPR’s Abused and Betrayed series, Meadours, encouraged allies to help survivors ‘not be judged’ and ‘embrace them when they need to be embraced.’ It is important for all survivors of sexual assault to have adequate support and access to resources to achieve their potential and lead meaningful and fulfilling lives. More stories of survivors can be found by reading NPR’s complete series, Abused and Betrayed.
For more statistics on sexual violence against people with disabilities, or to request a training, visit the MCASA website.
 Shapiro, J. (2018, Jan. 8). The sexual assault epidemic no one talks about. Retrieved from
 NPR. (2018). Abused and betrayed. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/series/575502633/abused-and-betrayed