People with disabilities are being encouraged to report sexual violence

Our Rights Sign
A disability advocate holds a sign that demands for respect for women with disabilities.

By Pat Nabong

When the whole world heard Donald Trump talk about grabbing a woman without consent in a 2005 tape, thousands responded with the #notokay hashtag. Tweets about how women were raped or sexually assaulted poured in, bringing rape culture to the forefront yet again.

As more women seem to be speaking out about the many ways in which they have been harassed, raped or assaulted, there is still not enough awareness about a demographic that is particularly at risk for sexual violence—women with disabilities, according to advocates for sexual violence survivors with disabilities.

Examples of #notokay hashtag twitter trend:

People with disabilities who are over 12 were raped or sexually assaulted at a rate twice to that of able-bodied people in 2008, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Compared to able-bodied kids, children with disabilities are 2.9 times more at risk for sexual violence, and those with intellectual or mental disabilities are 4.6 times more likely to be victimized, according to the World Health Organization in 2012.

Despite the numbers, many women with disabilities do not report being sexually assaulted or raped, according to a focus group conducted by Illinois Imagines, a project by the Illinois Department of Human Services that brings together disability service organizations, rape crisis centers, state agencies and people with disabilities to raise awareness of sexual violence.

When women with disabilities do come forward, many of their accounts are met with disbelief, according to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.

Lisa Cesal, a disability advocate and author who has cerebral palsy, is one of them. In 2005, she was sexually assaulted on a date. But to Cesal, being doubted by authorities when she reported the crime was more traumatic than being forced by the man to do things she did not want to do.

Lisa Cesal
Lisa Cesal, an advocate who has cerebral palsy, holds up a sign that calls for better support for sexual violence survivors with disabilities. (Photo courtesy of Illinois Imagines)

“The traumatic experience was the police station. It’s the experience of a policeman not believing what actually happened to you and saying you lied about it or you’re not believed because of the way you look or the way you act,” said Cesal.

Some people view survivors with disabilities as not credible because of stereotypes that come into play, said Jae Jin Pak, an advocate and educator at Illinois Imagines. “Even though it’s 2016, there still is a huge perception in the mainstream society that people with disabilities should be protected, and this type of thing doesn’t happen to us.”

Survivors with disabilities are often accused of just being confused, said Pak: “Who would want to rape you because you’re disabled? You’re not sexy,” he mimicked.

This is why many survivors are afraid to report their cases or seek help, said Michele Cunningham from the Chicago Hearing Society, which assists sexual violence survivors who are deaf. This is what happened to Cesal.

“I didn’t really seek help because I didn’t know how,” said Cesal who now provides support for survivors with disabilities. “Because I was afraid of some people. If people don’t believe you, why try?”

Some factors unique to people with disabilities increase their risk for exploitation. These include being dependent on caregivers, having been trained to follow authority and lack of information about sexual acts, according to the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

In some cases, their interpreters and caregivers are their predators, which makes it more difficult for them to come forward because they are dependent on their caregivers.

However, it is important to remind people that survivors with disabilities are not at fault for having been raped or assaulted, said Pak. “Sexual violence is violence. Nobody asks for it.”

Because of stereotypes that come into play and factors that put people with disabilities more at risk for sexual violence, just knowing that services and organizations that cater specifically to them are available is important, said Pak.

More organizations are trying to improve support for survivors of sexual violence with disabilities by making their centers more accessible, organizing educational discussions and connecting survivors with supporting agencies, according to Pak.

“The more outreach and the more resources that they have, the more they will be able to get out safely,” said Cunningham.

Photo at top: A disability advocate holds a sign that demands for respect for women with disabilities. (Photo courtesy of Illinois Imagines)