Students with disabilities are at heightened risk of sexual assault and abuse, and are less able to access support services and legal justice, research shows. The same is true of students with emotional health conditions who may not identify as disabled. How can schools help prevent these students from being targeted and support those who have experienced sexual assault and abuse? These five strategies can help:
1. Conceptualize disability broadly
Around 11 percent of US undergraduates identify as disabled, according to the Department of Education. This largely excludes students experiencing severe loneliness or anxiety, depression or chronic illness, or past trauma. Emotional health issues and disability can increase students’ isolation and vulnerability to sexual assault, experts say. “Community power dynamics have enormous impact,” says Dr. Melanie Boyd, assistant dean of student affairs at Yale University. “Social status can dictate who gets targeted, who is granted the right to advocate for themselves, [and] who is seen as a legitimate self-advocate.”
2. Ensure that sexual consent policies are inclusive
Schools can help build a culture in which everyone’s bodily autonomy and communication is respected. Sexual assault policies should recognize every adult student’s right to consensual sex, and the right to be heard and presumed competent, with or without disabilities.
3. Guide students in establishing inclusive social norms and practices
“How do you address people’s vulnerabilities without reaffirming those in some way? Build structures and practices that accommodate them without calling them out,” says Dr. Boyd, who oversees Yale’s Consent and Communication Educators program. This means helping students reconsider the social accessibility of experiences such as grad student mixers or half-time at the big game. Inclusive cultural norms support all student populations.
4. Keep the needs of survivors with disabilities in perspective
Survivors with disabilities have largely the same needs as those without disabilities, says Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center, a legal service in Massachusetts representing sexual assault victims. “Sexual assault victims [may have] suicidal ideologies and think they are to blame,” says Bruno. Skilled advocates and health care providers can help meet students’ disability-specific needs (e.g., HIV prophylaxis treatment following a sexual assault may interact with other medications).
5. Build supportive networks for students with disabilities
Mentor relationships and disability-informed support services can be protective against assault and improve students’ access to resources. Support networks should include designated faculty, advocates, office hours and spaces, disability-informed counseling, and representation in student government.
Melanie Boyd, PhD, assistant dean in student affairs; lecturer in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, Yale University, Connecticut.
Colby Bruno, Esq., JD, senior legal counsel, Victim Rights Law Center, Massachusetts.
Michael Glenn, LICSW, clinical social worker and sex educator, Massachusetts.
Isabelle Hénault, PhD, director, Clinique Autisme et Asperger de Montréal, Quebec.
Albrecht, G. L., & Devlieger, P. J. (1999). The disability paradox: High quality of life against all odds. Social Science and Medicine, 48(8), 977–988.
American College Health Association. (2016). American College Health Association—National College Health Assessment II: Reference Group Executive Summary Spring 2016. Hanover, MD: American College Health Association.
Balderian, N. (1991). Sexual abuse of people with developmental disabilities. Sexuality and Disability, 9(4), 323–335.
Brieding, M., & Amour, B. (2015). The association between disability and intimate partner violence in the United States. Annals of Epidemiology, 25(6), 455–457.
Brown-Lavoie, S. M., Viecili, M. A., & Weiss, J. A. (2014). Sexual knowledge and victimization in adults with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44(9), 2185–2196.
California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA). (2010). Creating access: Supporting survivors of sexual assault with disabilities. Retrieved from http://www.calcasa.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Disabilities-Info-Packet-Final-Upload-12.29.10.pdf
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2006). Behavioral Risk Factor Survey 2006: Survey data and documentation. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/brfss/annual_data/annual_2006.htm
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Key findings: Prevalence of disability and disability type among adults, US—2013. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/features/key-findings-community-prevalence.html
Francavillo, G. S. R. (2009). Sexuality education, sexual communication, rape myth acceptance, and sexual assault experience among deaf and hard of hearing college students. DRUM, University of Maryland. Retrieved from http://drum.lib.umd.edu/handle/1903/9937
Johnson, I., & Sigler, R. (2000). Forced sexual intercourse among intimates. Journal of Family Violence, 15(1), 95–108.
Khan, A. (2015, February 12). The hidden victims of campus sexual assault: Students with disabilities. AlJazeera.com. Retrieved from http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/2/12/the-hidden-victims-of-campus-sexual-assault-students-with-disabilities.html
Keilty, J., & Connelly, G., (2001). Making a statement: An exploratory study of barriers facing women with an intellectual disability when making a statement about sexual assault to police. Disability & Society, 16(2), 273–291.
Martin, S. L., Ray, N., Sotrez-Alvarez, D., Kupper, L. L., et al. (2006). Physical and sexual assault of women with disabilities. Violence Against Women, 12(9), 823–837.
Mitra, M., Mouradian, V. E., & Diamond, M. (2011). Sexual violence victimization against men with disabilities. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 41(5), 494–497.
National Center for Education Statistics. (n.d.). Fast facts: Students with disabilities. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=60
Obinna, J., Krueger, S., Osterbaan, C., Sadusky, J. M., et al. (2005). Understanding the needs of the victims of sexual assault in the deaf community. Researching Sexual Violence Project. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/212867.pdf
Sobsey, D., & Doe, T. (1991). Patterns of sexual abuse and assault. Sexuality and Disability, 9(3), 243–259.
Stimson, L., & Best, M. C. (1991). Courage above all: Sexual assault against women with disabilities. Toronto Disabled Women’s Network: Toronto.
Stockburger, S., & Omar, H. A. (2015). Women with disabilities: Reproductive care and women’s health. International Journal of Child Health and Human Development, 8(4), 429–447.
Student Health 101 survey, November 2016.
Sullivan, P. M., & Knutson, J. F. (1994). The relationship between child abuse and neglect and disabilities: Implications for research and practice. Omaha, NE: Boys Town National Research Hospital.