Sexual violence perpetrated on individuals with some type of disability is a widespread and persistent issue in the United States and in other countries the world over. In order to come to a better understanding of the nature and pervasiveness of sexual violence against people with disabilities, a number of preliminary factors need to be understood. These include:
- Legal definition of disability
- Impact of the American with Disabilities Act on law enforcement
- Prevalence of sexual violence perpetrated against people with disabilities
- How predators target vulnerable people or create vulnerabilities
- Decreased likelihood of reporting sexual violence against people with disabilities
- Extent of sexual violence committed by caregivers, family members, and other known perpetrators
What Constitutes a Disability
When it comes to the matter of sexual violence perpetrated against a person with a disability, a fundamental consideration is what legally constitutes a disability. The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) has established a broad definition of disability. Pursuant to the ADA, a disability (broadly defined) is an impairment that substantially limits one more major life activities.
U.S. law currently recognizes a myriad of different types of impairments that rise to the level of a disability under the ADA as well as when it comes to specific laws pertaining to sexual violence against a person with a disability. The ADA and other laws group disabilities into a number of identifiable categories. These are:
A person with a disability in any one of these recognized categories can be classified as a person with a disability for the purposes of laws governing sexual violence against individuals with a disability.
A physical disability is one that impairs a person’s physical functioning, dexterity, stamina, or mobility. A cognitive disability impacts a person’s ability to think or learn. A communication disability impacts an individual’s ability to understand or express speech. A developmental disability tends to be multiple impairments that overlap one another. These impairments tend to exhibit at a young age. Finally, a mental disability is a mental or behavioral anomaly.
The ADA and Law Enforcement
Any and all law enforcement agencies are required to comply with the provisions of the ADA. Even a law enforcement agency consisting of one officer is required to comply with the ADA. The ADA specifically requires a law enforcement agency to accommodate an individual with a recognized disability in areas that include:
- Enforcing laws
- Receiving complaints from citizens (including victims and witnesses)
- Interviewing victims and witnesses
- Arresting, booking, and holding suspects
- Operating 911 call centers
- Providing emergency medical services
Law enforcement officials must ensure that a person with a disability has reasonable accommodation to law enforcement services. Areas in which reasonable accommodation must occur in regard to law enforcement services include:
- Access to law enforcement facilities
- Access to law enforcement services
- Access to communication portals
Prevalence of Sexual Violence Against People with Disabilities
The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that people with disabilities are significantly more likely to become victims of sexual violence than are members of the so-called general population. Indeed, the Bureau maintains that people with disabilities are twice as likely as the general public to become victims of sexual violence.
Diving into this data reveals even more. A woman with a disability is four times more likely to have been the victim of some type of sexual violence in the past year when contrasted with females in the community at large.
Sexual Predators Target or Create Vulnerabilities
People with certain types of disabilities are more likely to be targeted by sexual predators. In addition, certain sexual predators are able to create vulnerabilities with individuals identified as having disabilities.
For example, an individual who requires consistent, regular assistance with task of daily living like dressing and bathing becomes more vulnerable not only to caregivers but other individuals who are sexual predators as well.
Decreased Likelihood of Reporting Crime of Sexual Violence
Research demonstrates that there is a decreased likelihood that sexual violence or sexual assault perpetrated on individuals with disabilities will be reported. Decreased likelihood of reporting when a victim of sexual violence is a disabled person occurs for a number of reasons. These reasons include, but are not limited, to:
- Inability to communicate facts surrounding sexual victimization
- Lack of access to law enforcement or other individuals in authority
- Abuse perpetrated by a person in a position of power
- Lack of understanding that a sexual violation occurred
- Victim not believed
- Sense of shame and blame on part of the victim
Sexual Violence Perpetrated by Strangers, Caregivers, and Others
An alarming number of acts of sexual violence or sexual assault are perpetrated by caregivers, family members, or other individual with which the victim has a close, preexisting relationship. A credible study on sexual violence against persons with disabilities revealed that 96% of victim were sexually assaulted by a caregiver, family member, or other perpetrated with a preexisting relationship with the victim. In addition to family members and caregivers, examples of other individuals with preexisting connections to a disabled person include, but are not limited to:
- Healthcare providers of different types
- Facility or organizational support staff
Armed with this information, you can have a better understanding of the foundational elements of and factors associated with sexual violence perpetrated against disabled persons. Moreover, this general information on sexual violence, the laws, and other dynamics provides the groundwork for exploring associated issues like protecting vulnerable members of the population and bringing perpetrators of these types of crimes to justice.