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Preventing and Addressing Sexual Assault of People with I/DD

April 28, 2023
Naomi Hess, Office of Disability Services Innovation within ACL’s Administration on Disabilities

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. It was created to raise awareness about sexual violence around the world and to educate communities on how to prevent it. This is a critical issue for the disability community, and particularly for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). This blog post explores why.

According to CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, nearly 27% of women and 4% of men have experienced a completed or attempted rape in their lifetimes. Almost half of women and almost a quarter of men have experienced other forms of unwanted sexual contact, and nearly 9.5 million women and 4.5 million men experienced sexual violence in the past year. Sexual trauma is associated with both short-term and long-term — and even lifelong — consequences, and sexual violence victims experience higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts than those who have not been victimized.

Those numbers are higher for people with disabilities, particularly those with I/DD. While statistics vary, the higher prevalence of sexual violence against people with I/DD is well-documented. For example, a study published last year by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that women with disabilities reported lifetime incidences of sexual violence at approximately double the rate of women without disabilities, and women with cognitive disabilities or multiple disabilities were at greatest risk. In 2018, NPR analyzed unpublished statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice and found that people with I/DD were seven times more likely to experience sexual assault. 

People with I/DD are more susceptible to sexual violence for various reasons. They are often more physically and financially dependent on others and more likely to be socially isolated, which increases risk. When the perpetrator is also the person who provides support, reporting the abuse can be nearly impossible. People with I/DD also often receive improper sex education — or none at all — and may have difficulty recognizing and reporting abuse. For people who use sign language or alternative and augmentative communication, typical systems to report abuse may not be accessible.

Even when people with I/DD do report abuse, law enforcement or other authority figures may not believe them. They also face challenges receiving support services because many service providers do not adequately embed accessibility into their work. For example, domestic violence shelters are often located in inaccessible buildings and lack attendant services and sign language interpreters. Additionally, rape crisis and domestic violence center staff may lack the training to work effectively with survivors with I/DD.

ACL’s programs are addressing these issues in several ways. For example, ACL’s University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD) at Oregon Health & Science University runs training on sexual assault prevention for people with I/DD and teaches parents, support providers, and disability professionals how to better promote sexual health and healthy relationships among people with I/DD. Alaska’s UCEDD at University of Alaska Anchorage also teaches teens and adults with I/DD how to develop and maintain friendships and relationships and minimize interpersonal violence. ABLE South Carolina, a center for independent living, helps disabled victims of sexual assault find resources and understand their legal rights, and they run trainings for people with I/DD and support professionals.

ACL also is working with federal partners to prevent sexual assault and to make the systems for reporting sexual assault and supporting survivors more accessible for people with I/DD. In collaboration with the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health and with additional support from the Administration for Children & Families, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Health Resources & Services Administration, ACL is planning a June webinar about the intersection of disability and sexual assault. Survivors with I/DD will share their stories and talk about what is needed to improve support for people with I/DD who experience sexual assault. In addition, you’ll hear from federal partners and others who are working to meet those needs. Stay tuned to ACL Updates for more information.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month — an opportunity to explore the work being done and identify what more is needed to combat sexual violence. However, the work to prevent sexual assault does not end when April ends. ACL is committed to working alongside our partners — disability advocates and service providers; advocates and organizations dedicated to preventing and addressing sexual violence; people with disabilities and their families; and everyone else who can help to prevent, identify, and respond to sexual assault — to ensure that people with I/DD can live their lives without fear of sexual violence.

Last modified on 04/28/2023

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