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SUPPORT WITHIN REACH: Intellectually disabled people deserve to be heard and respected

The Justice Program’s annual report on sex crimes against people with intellectual disabilities shows that this population’s sexual assault rate is seven times higher than the rate of people without disabilities. Sexual assault of the intellectually disabled is an epidemic.

Marcy Webber Support Within Reach.jpg
Marcy Webber is a Cass County sexual violence services coordinator at Support Within Reach.
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The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities defines intellectual disability as a condition characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior that originates before the age of 22. Minnesota law defines sexual assault as any sexual contact without a person’s consent.

By reading these two definitions one can see why sexual assault in this vulnerable population can be so devastating. In January 2018 National Public Radio presented a program called “Abused and Betrayed.”

The Justice Program’s annual report on sex crimes against people with intellectual disabilities shows that this population’s sexual assault rate is seven times higher than the rate of people without disabilities. Sexual assault of the intellectually disabled is an epidemic.

In most cases, sexual violence against this vulnerable population goes unrecognized, unprosecuted and unpunished. This leaves the perpetrator free to abuse again. Sexual assault in institutions and group homes may be even higher. Many disabled people can’t speak. They are taught to be compliant and they would not be seen as credible witnesses. Basically, they are the perfect victims.

It is not unusual that when a victim tells someone about the assault, they’re not believed. “She couldn’t have been raped.” “Who would want to rape him?” “She doesn’t even know what sex is.” “He doesn’t know the difference.” “He just makes stuff up.” “She lies all the time.” These statements highlight the fallacy of sexual assault. Sexual assault is not about sex, it’s about violence.

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Unfortunately, 96% of this population is assaulted by someone they know and trust. Some of the dynamics of this type of perpetration include lack of education, lack of power, dependency, feelings of love and loyalty for the perpetrator, lack of equality and societal myths.

Recommendations for change include raising awareness of the epidemic, changing societal perceptions, more sex education for adults with intellectual disabilities and a national registry of abusive caregivers.

Thankfully, a movement was started to empower people with intellectual disabilities. In 2012 the VERA Institute of Justice brought together a group of self-advocates to address the epidemic of violence and abuse of people with intellectual disabilities.

By definition, a self-advocate is someone who has learned to speak up for themselves and the things that are important to them. They can ask for what they need and want.

Authentic involvement of self-advocates requires that they are involved in meaningful ways. They are allowed to make decisions, have the opportunity to learn leadership skills, see change and progress as a result of their contributions — and have ownership and control in decision-making processes.

Intellectually disabled people have the right to have their voices heard and be respected, valued and trusted. To help in the process there are allies who stand beside the self-advocates, not in front of them. The phrase “Nothing about us without us,” indicates the person’s right to make their own decisions.

Disability justice takes the rights of the intellectually disabled further. It is a multi-issue, political understanding of disability and ableism in which people are valued for their humanity, regardless of their ability to contribute to society. There is celebration, not just tolerance of neurodiversity and quality of life is defined by the individual themselves.

If you or someone you know is struggling with sexual violence, please contact Support Within Reach at (218) 547-4892 or (800) 708-2727.

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Marcy Webber is a Cass County sexual violence services coordinator at Support Within Reach.

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