Student advocate: Boy looking into the distance

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.

Learn more about disability and consent

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.

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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.

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Lucy Berrington is a health writer, editor, and communications manager. Her work has been published in numerous publications in the US and UK. She has an MS in health communication from Tufts University School of Medicine, Massachusetts, and a BA from the University of Oxford, UK.