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The Many Challenges Facing Sexual Assault Survivors With Disabilities

For survivors with a disability, seeking justice often takes a backseat to fulfilling their everyday needs.
Date Published
July 17, 2017

Americans with disabilities face many challenges in fighting for the most basic necessities, including housing, employment, and food.

...researchers believe the results from this study suggest that current structures are not sufficient to respond when a sexual assault occurs, or to prevent repeated sexual assaults from occurring against those with disabilities.

When someone with a disability is a victim of sexual assault, adding the burden of fighting for justice in the criminal justice system becomes a tall order on top of their efforts in acquiring life’s most fundamental necessities.

That’s one of the critical findings from an NIJ-funded study examining criminal justice responses to and help-seeking patterns of sexual violence survivors with disabilities. This is one of the first studies to explore the experiences of sexual assault survivors with disabilities.

As the researchers point out, for individuals with a disability, the need for fundamental necessities in life often overshadows their efforts to seek help after the assault, their need for safety, and the possibility of recurring assaults.

Researchers compiled data from a special unit in a large metropolitan district attorney’s office that handles all cases involving adult victims who have disabilities, are deaf or hard of hearing, or are elderly. Additionally, researchers conducted community-based interviews with survivors of sexual assault and providers, which included the staff and volunteers who work with individuals with disabilities who have been sexually assaulted.

In interviews with survivors with disabilities, two themes emerged as to why many were reluctant to report their abuse. One was the fear that they wouldn’t be believed, based on a history of not being believed in general because of their disability. Another was that disclosure would not be believed because of the sexual nature of the assault and others’ stereotypes about people with disabilities.

A lack of service provision for sexual assault survivors with disabilities and of comfort in working with this population were dominant themes across survivor and provider interviews.

Available services that combined knowledge of disabilities and the dynamics of sexual predation and harm were scarce. No providers in the study specialized in or knew of anyone who specialized in the intersection of sexual assault and disability.

During the study years (2008-2013), researchers found that a majority of sexual assault cases (70.5 percent) referred to the special unit were closed with no charge. For half of these cases, law enforcement felt the case was not viable for prosecution due to lack of an identified individual who committed the crime, lack of sufficient forensic evidence, and concerns about the victim to withstand trial.

Additionally, through the interview phase of this project, researchers found that the social circles of survivors with disabilities more often than not included other people with disabilities on very low-income levels. Because of this, many survivors were hesitant to rely on their social networks for help.

With that, researchers believe the results from this study suggest that current structures are not sufficient to respond when a sexual assault occurs, or to prevent repeated sexual assaults from occurring against those with disabilities. This makes individuals with disabilities potentially one of the highest risk adult populations for sexual assault and victimization in the U.S.

Traditional justice practices for victims with disabilities who came to the attention of the system were clearly insufficient to attain the evidence and information necessary to identify those who committed the crime and criminal events for this population.

Bethany Backes, a social science analyst with NIJ, points out that this study was only exploratory and focused only on one metropolitan area, but the implications from this research point to a need for further research, potentially focusing on a specific disability to gain better information on the challenges faced by these survivors.

About this Article

The research described in this article was supported by NIJ grant number 2012-WG-BX-0050 awarded to the Vera Institute of Justice.

This article is based on the grant report Examining Criminal Justice Responses To and Help-Seeking Patterns of Sexual Violence Survivors With Disabilities (pdf, 87 pages).

Date Published: July 17, 2017