In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that there were about 56.7 million Americans, almost 19% of the population, living with a disability (Americans with Disabilities, 2010, United States Census Bureau). Persons with a disability are victimized by crime at much higher rates than the rest of the population. According to the Department of Justice, in 2013, the rate of violent victimization for persons with a disability was more than twice the age-adjusted rate for persons without a disability. Persons with a disability experienced about 1.3 million violent victimizations in 2013. Rates of serious violent victimization – rape, sexual assault, robbery or aggravated assault – were more than three times higher for persons with a disability than the age-adjusted rate for persons without a disability. Because persons with a disability are generally older, the age adjustment standardizes the rate of violent crime to show what it would be if the age distribution was similar in the two populations. (Crime Against Persons with Disabilities, 2009-2013 –Statistical Tables, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, May 2015)
The vulnerability of a person with a disability is heightened when he or she is dependent upon a caregiver. The close personal contact involved with assisting persons with a disability with daily activities such as bathing, dressing and personal hygiene fosters dependence upon the caregiver. Persons with a disability may also have an impaired ability to utilize self-defense and avoidance of violence mechanisms. It is a common misperception that persons with a disability are asexual, incapable of relationships and not able to engage in sexual acts. Consequently, when a person with a disability discloses that he or she has been a victim of sexual abuse, that person is frequently not believed. This dynamic is complex and places a person with a disability at greater risk of sexual abuse.
Disability and the general population
- 27.2 percent, or 85.3 million, of people living in the United States had a disability in 2014. About 17.6 percent, or 55.2 million people, had a severe disability. Taylor, D. “Americans with Disabilities: 2014.” U.S. Census Bureau, 2018.
- As of 2016, 11.6% of the Massachusetts population were persons with disabilities. Erickson, W., Lee, C., & von Schrader, S. (2018). 2016 Disability Status Report: Massachusetts. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability (YTI).
Crimes committed against persons with a disability are a frequently unrecognized and underreported problem that has reached epidemic proportions in the United States, as reflected in the following statistics:
- Women with disabilities are raped, assaulted and abused at rates more than two times greater than women without disabilities. Sobsey, D., 1994, Violence and Abuse in the Lives of People with Disabilities The End of Silent Acceptance? Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company, Baltimore
- Adults with developmental disabilities are at risk of being physically or sexually assaulted at rates four to ten times greater than other adults. Sobsey, D., 1994, Violence and Abuse in the Lives of People with Disabilities: The End of Silent Acceptance? Maryland: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company
- Sixty-two percent (62%) of women with physical disabilities reported experiencing emotional, physical or sexual abuse. Nosek, M. & Howland, C., 1998, Abuse and Women with Disabilities. VAWnet Applied Research Forum
Violence, crime, abuse (including but not limited to sexual) against persons with all types of disabilities
- The rate of violent victimization against persons with disabilities was 2.5 times higher than the rate for persons without disabilities in 2015. The rate of serious violent crime (rape or sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault) for persons with disabilities was more than three times the rate for persons without disabilities. Harrell, E. “Crime Against Persons with Disabilities, 2009-2015 – Statistical Tables.” U.S. Department of Justice, 2017.
- One survey revealed that 70% of respondents with any disability reported that they had been victims of abuse. Of individuals with any disability who reported abuse, over 90% experienced abuse on more than one occasion and 46% experienced abuse more frequently than they could count. N. J. Baladerian, T. F. Coleman and J. Stream, “Abuse of People with Disabilities; Victims and Their Families Speak Out,” Disability and Abuse Project, 2014.
- Preliminary findings from a survey of 275 men with physical and cognitive disabilities indicated that about 65% of the men had been physically abused while 24% of the men experienced sexual abuse in their lifetimes. Powers, L.E., McNeff, E., Curry, M., Saxton, M. & Elliott, D. (2004) Preliminary findings on the abuse experiences of men with disabilities. Portland, OR: Oregon Health & Science University Center on Self-Determination.
- In a survey of 200 women with physical and cognitive disabilities, 67% of the women reported having experienced physical abuse and 53% of the women reported having experienced sexual abuse. Powers, L.E., Curry, M.A., Oschwald, M., Maley, S., Saxton, M, & Eckels, K. (2002). “Barriers and strategies in addressing abuse: A survey of disabled women’s experiences,” Journal of Rehabilitation, 68 (1), 4-13. These rates of physical and sexual abuse are approximately twice those typically found for nondisabled women. National Research Council. (1996). Understanding violence against women. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
- Violence and abuse are serious problems for persons with disabilities, who are at greater risk than non-disabled persons (Brown, Stein, & Turk, 1995; Hassouneh-Phillips & Curry, 2002; Hughes, Swedlund, Petersen,& Nosek, 2001;. Powers, Curry, Oschwald, Maley, Saxton, Eckels, 2002; Sobsey & Doe, 1991; Turk & Brown; 1993; Young, Nosek, Howland, & Chanpong, 1997).
- A national survey by noted that women with disabilities reported significantly longer durations of physical and sexual abuse when compared to women without disabilities. Nosek, M.A., Howland, C.A., Rintala, D.H., Young, E.M., & Chanpong, G.F. (2001). National study of women with physical disabilities: Final report. Sexuality and Disability, 19 (1), 5-39.
- Any type of disability appears to contribute to higher risk of victimization but intellectual disabilities, communication disorders, and behavioral disorders appear to contribute to very high levels of risk, and having multiple disabilities (e.g., intellectual disabilities and behavior disorders) result in even higher risk levels. Sullivan, P.M. & Knutson, J.F. “Maltreatment and Disabilities: A Population-Based Epidemiological Study. Child Abuse and Neglect, 2000.
- A study of psychiatric inpatients found that 81% had experienced major physical and/or sexual assault. Jacobson, A.J. & Richardson, “Assault Experiences of 100 Psychiatric Inpatients: Evidence of the Need for Routine Inquiry,” American Journal of Psychiatry, 1987.
Violence, crime, abuse (including but not limited to sexual) against persons with I/DD
- Persons with a cognitive disability experienced the highest rate of violent victimization among persons with any disability. Rachel E. Morgan and Jennifer L. Truman, Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, Criminal Victimization, 2017.
Sexual abuse specifically against persons with all types of disabilities
- People with any type of disabilities are more than two times more likely to be sexually assaulted. Harrell, E. “Crime Against Persons with Disabilities, 2009-2015 – Statistical Tables.” S. Department of Justice, 2017.
- Women and men with disabilities are at greater risk for recent sexual violence victimization compared to those without a disability. Basile, K.C.; Breiding, M.J.; Smith, S.G., “Disability and Risk of Recent Sexual Violence in the United States,” American Journal of Public Health, 2016.
- Massachusetts Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (2016) reports that among adults, the percentage of women with disabilities who have experienced sexual violence is 26%, versus 14% for women without disabilities. The percentages for men with and without disabilities are 8.9% and 4.7% respectively. See Table 7.3, available at https://www.mass.gov/files/documents/2017/09/zt/report-2016.pdf
- In one survey, 41.6% of respondents with any disability reporting some type of sexual abuse. J. Baladerian, T. F. Coleman and J. Stream, “Abuse of People with Disabilities; Victims and Their Families Speak Out,” Disability and Abuse Project, 2014.
- The prevalence of lifetime sexual violence was 13.9% among men with a disability, compared to 3.7% for men without a disability. Men with disabilities were four times more likely to report lifetime and past-year victimization compared to men without disabilities. Mitra M., Mouradian V.E., and Diamond M. (2011) “Sexual violence victimization against men with disabilities.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
- A study of North Carolina women found that women with disabilities were four times more likely to have experienced sexual assault in the past year than women without disabilities. Sandra Martin et al., “Physical and Sexual Assault of Women with Disabilities,” Violence Against Women, 2006).
Sexual abuse specifically against persons with I/DD
- A 2018 National Public Radio story based upon unpublished Department of Justice data concluded that people with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted at more than seven times the rate of people with no disabilities.
- In one survey, one third (34%) of respondents with a developmental disability reported being victimized by some type of sexual abuse. N. J. Baladerian, T. F. Coleman and J. Stream, “Abuse of People with Disabilities; Victims and Their Families Speak Out,” Disability and Abuse Project, 2014.
- Intellectual disability (as well as chronic psychosis and speech and language difficulties), were associated with higher prevalence of sexual assault – 2.7 times more likely to have experienced sexual abuse than those with no disability. Incidence of sexual assault in persons with intellectual disabilities increased from 7.15 to 33.4 per 10,000 persons in 2002-2007. Lin L.P., Yen C.F., Kuo F.Y., et al. (2009) Sexual assault of people with disabilities: results of a 2002-2007 national report in Taiwan. Research in Developmental Disabilities.
- A prevalence rate of 5.4% of individuals who reported being sexually abused. Pan S. (2007) Prevalence of sexual abuse of people with intellectual disabilities in Taiwan. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
- Some reports suggest that more than 90% of people with developmental disabilities will experience sexual abuse at some point in their lives. D. Valenti-Hein et al., The Sexual Abuse Interview for Those with Disabilities, 1995.
- Only 20 % of these victims are abused on one occasion, while approximately 49% will experience ten or more abusive incidents. D. Valenti-Hein et al., The Sexual Abuse Interview for Those with Disabilities, 1995.
- Only 3% of cases of sexual abuse involving people with developmental disabilities will ever be reported to authorities. D. Valenti-Hein et al., The Sexual Abuse Interview for Those with Disabilities, 1995.
If individuals providing services to persons with a disability are to be successful in identifying and intervening in situations that place persons with a disability at risk, they must understand what makes individuals with a disability more vulnerable to becoming victims of crime, abuse and neglect. The following list of risk factors contributes to the abuse and neglect of individuals with a disability and may be used as a guide to help staff and agencies intervene more quickly and effectively:
- May have restricted social environments
- May feel powerless
- May depend upon touch for personal care and may not always be able to control the nature of the care or touch physically, cognitively or verbally
- May be socialized to accept being touched by anyone, especially someone called ‘staff’
- May be unable to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate actions, and therefore, are uncertain as to what constitutes abuse
- May not understand the concept of strangers
- May not be able to conceive of the fact that someone they know would harm them
- May not have received sex education
- May be particularly disadvantaged by communication barriers, and unable to tell others about the abuse
- May rely on others for decision-making in their ‘best interest’
- May live or work in a situation where compliant behavior is required, and considered ‘normal’
- Disclosures of abuse are more likely to be ignored when made by individuals with a disability (seen as less ‘credible’)
- Primary indicators of physical abuse, such as unexplained bruises, may be attributed to the disability itself (e.g. history of self-injurious behaviors)
- Secondary indicators of all types of abuse, such as impaired social interactions, may be attributed to the disability itself (e.g. symptoms of withdrawal or depression)
- Some people believe that persons with a disability are not as harmed by abuse (e.g. do not feel pain in the same way)
- Some individuals with a disability are highly dependent on their caregivers for daily care. This may make them reluctant to report abuse due to fear of retribution (e.g. more abuse, threat of institutionalization)
- Some family members or guardians of individuals with a disability may have a false sense of security about the safety of their loved ones and may believe they are safer in ‘supervised’ settings