Raising Awareness of Survivors with Disabilities

By Racheal Hebert, LCSW, STAR President & CEO

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), disability affects more than 1 in 4 women and 1 in 5 men in the United States and has been associated with a greater risk of experiencing sexual violence compared to people without a disability.

What is a Disability?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a person with a disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.”[1] Major life activities are those functions that are important to most people’s daily lives, such as breathing, walking, talking, hearing, seeing, sleeping, caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, and working. Major life activities can also include major bodily functions such as immune system functions, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.

According to the World Health Organization, disability has three dimensions:[2]

  1. Impairment in a person’s body structure or function, or mental functioning; examples of impairments include loss of a limb, loss of vision or memory loss
  2. Activity limitation, such as difficulty seeing, hearing, walking, or problem solving
  3. Participation restrictions in normal daily activities, such as working, engaging in social and recreational activities, and obtaining health care and preventive services

Although the term “people with disabilities” can be used to refer to a single population, those with disabilities are a diverse group of people with a wide range of needs. Even two people with the same type of disability can be affected in very different ways. Further, some disabilities may be hidden or not easy to see.

Sexual Violence & People with Disabilities

The disability community experiences one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the U.S.

According to data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are seven times more likely to experience sexual violence than people with no disabilities.

According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) conducted by the CDC in 2010: [3]

  • An estimated 2 in 5 (39%) female victims of rape had a disability at the time of the rape. Men with a disability are at greater risk for experiencing sexual violence other than rape (e.g., being made to penetrate, sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact, and noncontact unwanted sexual experiences) than men without a disability.
  • Nearly 1 in 4 (24%) male victims who experienced sexual violence other than rape had a disability at the time of the victimization.
  • For both women and men, having a disability was associated with an increased risk of sexual coercion (pressured sex without physical force) and noncontact unwanted sexual experiences (e.g., harassed in a public place, made to participate in or view sexually explicit material).

Survivors with disabilities face many of the same barriers to reporting and seeking support as able-bodied survivors, but because of societal norms that devalue and dehumanize individuals with disabilities, there are also a wide range of issues unique to their experiences. These barriers can include the following:

  • People with disabilities are stereotyped as not being sexual, therefore people may not believe that they can experience sexual assault.
  • Parents of children with disabilities often do not know how to talk with their children about sex, sexuality, and sexual abuse, which can put their child at risk.
  • Individuals who have a disability may rely on the perpetrator for care or support and fear that disclosing the abuse could compromise their overall safety and wellbeing.
  • Survivors with disabilities may not know who or where they can turn to for support.
  • Depending on the severity and type of disability, survivors may not have the support and adequate resources—such as an interpreter or proper equipment—to report their assault.
  • Many victim service providers are not equipped with the knowledge and resources to conduct adequate outreach and provide services to the disability populations.

Combined, these barriers create a cycle in which survivors with disabilities may fear disbelief or repercussion and may not report the assault at all.

Warning Signs of Sexual Violence

Depending on the type of disability, those with disabilities may not understand what forms of personal contact are appropriate or inappropriate. Individuals with disabilities may struggle to maintain appropriate physical boundaries with others; however, certain behaviors and actions can be indicative of sexual violence.

The warning signs of sexual violence include the following:

  • Nightmares or other sleep problems
  • Changes in eating habits or refusing to eat
  • Unusual changes in mood
  • New fear of specific places or people
  • Expresses sexual behaviors or draws sexual images
  • “Bribery-like” gifts, such as money or toys that are out of the ordinary
  • Negative view of their body, especially the genital area
  • Fears bathing or getting undressed
  • Sudden onset of depression or anxiety
  • Self-injurious behaviors, such as cutting, burning or otherwise harming oneself

While it’s important to take steps to proactively protect people with disabilities from experiencing sexual violence, disability rights advocates also point out that in many cases, people with disabilities can and should be supported in engaging in healthy romantic, dating and sexual relationships as part of living a full life. Protecting people with disabilities from sexual violence is key, while also considering that overprotection that limits engaging in positive relationships can be harmful to people with disabilities. Disability rights advocates refer to this as the “dignity of risk,” and urge allowing people with disabilities the option of taking risks that people who don’t have disabilities are typically allowed to take to engage in relationships.

Reporting Sexual Violence Against Individuals with Disabilities

According to the RS 14:403.2, all Louisianans are required to report abuse, neglect, exploitation, and extortion of individuals with disabilities. Reports can be made through the Department of Children and Family Services, Adult Protective Services, or Elderly Protective Services, depending on the survivor’s age.

Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services
1-855-4LA-KIDS (1-855-452-5437)
Serves: Under the age of 18, when perpetrator is caregiver or family member

Louisiana Adult Protective Services
Serves: Vulnerable adults ages 18 – 59 and emancipated minors

Louisiana Elderly Protective Services
1-833-577-6532 or 225-342-0144
Serves: Adults 60 and older

Disability Resources in Louisiana

The Arc of Louisiana advocates with and for all people with intellectual and related developmental disabilities and their families so that they shall live to their fullest potential.

Beyond Accommodations assists individuals with a disability understand what a healthy relationship is and how to start one.

Disability Rights Louisiana protects and advocates for the human and legal rights of all children, adults and seniors with disabilities. Our work aims to empower the disability community to live an integrated life, free from abuse, neglect and exploitation.

The Families Helping Families Networks are individual, non-profit, family-driven resource centers. They are a group of families, who, through their own experiences, promote advocacy and are committed to reaching other families who have members with disabilities. The term “disability” includes physical, mental, emotional, behavioral, and/or academic needs. The FHF Centers are directed and staffed by parents, self-advocates, or family members of individuals with disabilities. The Centers provide education and trainings, peer support, and information and referrals as part of their free services.

The Louisiana Developmental Disability Council’s mission is to increase independence, self-determination, productivity, integration, and inclusion for Louisianans with developmental disabilities by engaging in advocacy, capacity building, and systems change.


Additional Reading:



[1] ADA.gov. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ada.gov/ada_intro.htm July 8, 2020.

[2] World Health Organization. (2010)) International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF). Retrieved from https://www.who.int/classifications/icf/en/ on July 8, 2020.

[3] Black, M.C., Basile, K.C., Breiding, M.J., Smith, S.G., Walters, M.L., Merrick, M.T., Chen, J., & Stevens, M.R. (2011). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 Summary Report. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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