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How Sexual Violence Affects People with Disabilities

Sexual violence is all too common in our society. While sexual violence can affect anyone, people with disabilities face unique problems when it comes to sexual assault, rape, and other forms of abuse. During Disability Pride Month, talking about these realities can help raise awareness — and inspire change.

Graph showing higher rate of violent victimization for people with disabilities compared to people without disabilities
Source: NCVS

According to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), people with disabilities are more often victims of crime, compared to people without disabilities. Specifically, people with disabilities are 7 times more likely to experience sexual violence, while women with intellectual or developmental disabilities are 12 times more likely to experience such crimes than someone without a disability.

There are many reasons why people with disabilities may be more vulnerable to sexual violence, including lack of education around consent and healthy sexuality. People with disabilities are often not offered sexual education, perhaps because their parents, caregivers, and educators do not view them as sexual beings. When this education is provided, it may not be accessible to all students — and isn’t effective as a result. Professionals and families can find a list of resources for education on healthy relationships and sexuality from Elevatus.

As a result, people with disabilities may not be aware of the types of touching that are appropriate and inappropriate. For people whose disabilities require others to touch them to provide care, this lack of education can make it even more challenging to understand what types of touching are appropriate — and which are inappropriate. Without education on sexuality, people with disabilities may also not understand that they have the right to consent — or not consent — to sexual activity.

Other risk factors may increase the likelihood that a person with a disability may be a target of people who abuse, including:

  • Type of disability;

  • Lack of accessible transportation;

  • Gender;

  • Social isolation;

  • Negative public attitudes toward persons with disabilities that lead sex offenders to view them as easy targets;

  • Communication barriers;

  • Learned compliance of people with disabilities;

  • Poverty;

  • Lack of resources/knowledge of resources.

Many people with disabilities also rely on caregivers. This creates a dynamic where the caregiver has a significant amount of power over the person with a disability — which may allow them to threaten, coerce, or force the person to whom they are providing care into nonconsensual sexual activity. In many cases, a person with a disability is expected to be compliant with their caregiver. For example, a person who lives in a group home is expected to eat what the staff assigns to them, regardless of what their preference may be. Similarly, a person with a caregiver is expected to follow their schedule. This can create vulnerability, where people with disabilities are expected to comply with the decisions of others (including intimate partners and family members), instead of empowering them to consent.

Consent is often an issue in cases of sexual violence perpetrated on people with disabilities. People with disabilities have the right to have healthy sexual experiences — unless the nature or severity of their disability means that they are unable to meaningfully consent under the law. In Pennsylvania, engaging in sexual activity with a person who is deemed incapable of consent due to their disability may lead to felony criminal charges.

Victims and survivors of sexual violence who have disabilities may find that getting help can often be challenging. There are a number of barriers that people with disabilities may face, including:

  • Not being taken seriously when they make a report of sexual assault or abuse;

  • Inability to access services without accommodations;

  • Not having the necessary tools to seek help, such as a computer;

  • Fear of perceived consequences, including retaliation by perpetrators, loss of independence, and reactions from family and friends; and

  • Socialization to be compliant or to rely on others, or being manipulated to feel blame.

These factors can make it very difficult for a person with a disability to find and seek help, whether it be from law enforcement, a community organization, or even a loved one.

At Blackburn Center, we offer a range of services to victims and survivors of sexual violence and other types of crime and abuse. For each individual, we strive to provide trauma-informed, accessible care. If you need help, we are here for you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week: 1-888-832-2272 (TDD available). Calls to our hotline are free of charge and can be anonymous.



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