Developmental Disabilities and Sexual Assault

Developmental disabilities are defined as severe, ongoing physical and/or mental impairments that develop before age twenty-two and prevent, slow down, or limit typical development. Examples of developmental disabilities include, but are not limited to: autism, behavior disorders, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and spina bifida.

Sexual assault is general term that includes sexual harassment, unwanted sexual contact, child sexual abuse, incest, and rape. Sexual contact becomes assault when a person is unable to or does not give affirmative consent to an activity. Rape is a crime of aggression, power and control in which one person forces, coerces, or manipulates another person to have sexual intercourse without their consent.

Individuals with developmental disabilities are sexually assaulted at rates that are much higher than those of any other population. Individuals with developmental disabilities are often not seen as sexual beings and are therefore deprived information about their bodies and sexual health. When people are denied the information necessary to describe and understand their own bodies, it is sometimes difficult for them to identify and communicate abuse.

Our society does not always acknowledge the fact that individuals with developmental disabilities have a right to control their own bodies. Therefore, persons with developmental disabilities are not taught that their body is theirs and that they can decide what happens to it. People with developmental disabilities are often taught to be compliant and not question the authority of parents, care providers, teachers, and other people in their lives. This sends the message that it is more important to do what you are told than to do what is comfortable.

Because people with developmental disabilities sometimes need assistance with tasks like getting dressed, bathing, or toileting, it is assumed that they do not have a right to privacy. Not acknowledging an individual’s right to privacy encourages the idea that they can be touched or looked at without their permission.

Ensure the rights and safety of individuals with developmental disabilities by providing developmentally-appropriate information about body parts and sexuality. Everyone deserves to have the vocabulary to describe their bodies and physical experiences. It can be difficult to communicate that someone inappropriately touched you if you do not understand the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touch and if you do not know the names of your body parts. Acknowledge that people with developmental disabilities are like all people: beings who have feelings, concerns, and questions about sexuality.

Teach that everyone has control over their own body and has the right to non-comply. This might seem obvious, but if no one ever tells you that you have a right to decide what happens to your body, how will you know that? Individuals with developmental disabilities need to be taught that it is okay to say “no” – not just about issues regarding their bodies but about anything that makes them uncomfortable – and that other people need to respect their decisions.

Acknowledge that everyone has a need for privacy and model respect for privacy. Teach that you need to get and give permission to be touched, and live out that lesson. Always ask for permission before touching a person or entering their personal spaces (bathroom, bedroom, etc.). Model appropriate boundaries by speaking up if you are uncomfortable with a certain touch that happens to you.

Facts & Figures

Up to 83% of women and 32% of men with developmental disabilities have been victims of sexual assault.

49% of people with developmental disabilities who are victims of sexual violence will experience ten or more abusive incidents.

According to research by the National Center of Child Abuse and Neglect, of all children who were sexually abused, 15.2% had a disability.

Among sexual assault victims with developmental disabilities, 97-99% know their abuser.

32% of those who abuse people with intellectual disabilities are family members or acquaintances.

In 44% of cases, the abuser has a relationship with the victim specifically related to the person’s disability: residential care staff, transportation providers, personal care assistants, etc.

The risk of being physically or sexually assaulted for adults with developmental disabilities is between 4 and 10 times higher than for other adults.

Males with disabilities are twice as likely as males without disabilities to be sexually abused in their lifetime.

Even when people with intellectual and developmental disabilities attempt to report abuse, the police may not perceive them as credible due to having a disability.

Issues of violence and abuse have been identified as the highest health priority of women with disabilities.

Many special education programs encourage students to be compliant with a wide variety of new activities. This learned compliance makes children with developmental disabilities more vulnerable to abuse.