Ask Ava

Ask Ava, Episode 109: "Do disabled people experience sexual abuse?"

April 28, 2022 Ask Ava Season 1 Episode 109
Ask Ava
Ask Ava, Episode 109: "Do disabled people experience sexual abuse?"
Show Notes Transcript

Episode 109: "Do disabled people experience sexual abuse?"

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On today’s episode, we’re answering a question from local teens about sexual abuse that disabled people experience. 

This is Jessica Skultety, Outreach and Prevention Manager at Safe+Sound Somerset. We are Somerset County, New Jersey's lead domestic and sexual violence response organization, providing services at no charge to survivors for over 40 years.  

Today's question from local teens is: “Dear Ava, Do disabled people experience sexual abuse?"

The short answer is yes, but there’s many things to keep in mind as we unpack this question. We know that language is important. Many people use the term “disabled people” while some prefer “people with disabilities.” We will be using “disabled people” today to honor those who advocate for this term. It’s important to be respectful and mindful of the ways people name themselves. 

So, sexual violence is any behavior that is sexual in nature or targets someone’s gender or sexual orientation, and is done without someone’s consent or permission. It includes unwanted sexual touching, comments, coercion, and/or penetration. Sexual violence is not about attraction or desirability. It’s a form of gaining power and control over another person.

Many people believe that sexual violence is about attraction. In mainstream media, people who are deemed “desirable” often are able-bodied. This message creates an assumption that disabled people don’t experience sexual violence because the media says they are not “desirable.” At Safe+Sound, we know this is far from the truth. But because of these assumptions, disabled survivors may feel unheard, invalidated, and left out of a very important conversation. 

Even though many people think that disabled people can’t be victims of sexual violence, the National Crime Victimization Survey by the United States Department of Justice shows that disabled people are victimized by crime at higher rates than the rest of the population. 

The CDC, or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reports disabled men and women are exposed to increased risk of sexual coercion and noncontact, unwanted sexual experiences. This means that disabled people may be harassed in public, made to participate in or view sexually explicit material, and/or are pressured into sexual activity. 

The CDC also reports disabled women are at a greater risk of experiencing rape than women without a disability. An estimated 2 in 5 female victims of rape had a disability at the time of the rape. Nearly 1 in 4 male victims who experienced sexual violence other than rape had a disability at the time of the victimization. These realities of sexual violence are also significant for those who are gender diverse and disabled.

Although disabled people experience high rates of sexual violence, there’s often a lack of representation in advocacy, or working with survivors. This is especially because of a low reporting rate. Sexual assault and violence are often underreported and unaddressed, and disabled survivors may face additional barriers to reporting and/or accessing services.   

Here are some of the obstacles that they might face trying to get services:

  • A disabled person may be abused by someone who is caring for them, and they worry that by reporting sexual violence, they may lose access to this care.
  • The perpetrator may use the individual’s disability to gain and keep power and control over them by taking away their supportive devices for communications, isolating them, or withholding care.
  • Because of the reasons we discussed earlier, an abuser may tell the disabled person that no one would believe them. 
  • A disabled person may have already had bad experiences with systems of care, like doctors, counselors, and other services, so this person be worried about trying to seek services for sexual assault. Some organizations that support survivors may not be accessible or have services that meet individual needs of disabled folks.

For all of these reasons and more, disabled people are more vulnerable to sexual violence and may also experience a lack of support. That is not their fault, and at Safe+Sound Somerset, our staff works to meet the individual needs of all survivors. It is important to recognize that ANYONE can be a victim of sexual violence, and that survivors of all ability statuses deserve to feel safe and respected.  

To speak with an expert about relationship or sexual violence, call or text the Safe+Sound Somerset 24/7 confidential helpline at 866-685-1122 for supportive listening, information, and safety planning. 

Want to “Ask Ava” a question? Visit our website at Thank you for listening today. Join us next time here on Ask Ava.