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.

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 to 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.

Facts and 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.

Recommended Reading

NPR’s Investigations Unit spent a year reporting on sexual assaults against people with intellectual disabilities in a special series called “Abused and Betrayed.”

Learn More