People with intellectual disabilities are far more likely to be sexually assaulted than people without disabilities, according to an exclusive investigation conducted by reporters at NPR. Previously-unreleased government statistics suggest that Americans with intellectual disabilities may be sexually assaulted over 7 times more often than other people.
The shocking findings come after a yearlong investigation led by Joseph Shapiro, who gained access to unpublished sex crimes data held by the US Department of Justice. And it’s probably an understatement. Justice Department statistics only include victims ages 12 and up. Assaults that occur in institutions and group homes, where sexual assault is common, aren’t counted either.
Shapiro’s analysis sheds light on what may well be the most vulnerable segment of our population. Around 6.5 million Americans have an intellectual disability, representing nearly 2% of the total population. Yet their stories rarely make their way into headlines or press briefings.
“We are calling this an epidemic of sexual assault,” Shapiro said in an interview for Morning Edition. And, despite the increased awareness of sexual assault inspired by the #MeToo movement, it’s still a silent epidemic, Shapiro continues.
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But it’s a portrait of reality that mirrors the experiences of many in the disability community, as well as those professionals who work closest with people with intellectual disabilities. Shapiro spoke to one New York physician, who works exclusively with people with intellectual disabilities, who estimates that around half of the women she treats are survivors of assault. In his report, Shapiro summed up this distressing situation:
“We found that there is an epidemic of sexual abuse against people with intellectual disabilities. These crimes go mostly unrecognized, unprosecuted and unpunished. A frequent result was that the abuser was free to abuse again. The survivor is often re-victimized multiple times.”
According to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, a professional organization, intellectual disabilities are “characterized by significant limitation in both intellectual functioning and in adaptive behaviors.”
Adaptive behaviors are skills that are necessary to live, work and play independently of support, like the ability to communicate with others, read or manage personal finances. “Developmental” disabilities are often lumped into this category, but technically, people with cerebral palsy and autism spectrum disorders, who may or may not have an intellectual disability, are also considered to have developmental disabilities.
In some sense, people with disabilities have to rely on other people, whether that’s family members, friends or other members of their community. Trust has a big role to play in these relationships. In his talks with advocates in the disability community, Shapiro learned that many people with intellectual disabilities are taught, from an early age, to trust fundamentally those who offer or are employed to help them.
“Folks with intellectual disabilities are the perfect victim,” says Nancy Thaler, who works in the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. “They are people who often cannot speak or their speech is not well-developed. They are generally taught from childhood up to be compliant, to obey, to go along with people.” Abusers “see an opportunity,” Thaler continued, especially because many people dismiss the claims of people with intellectual disabilities as fantasy.
It’s tragic, but not particularly surprising, then, that people with intellectual disabilities are more likely to be assaulted by someone they know.
That’s true for everyone, regardless of disability. Only 28% of sexual assaults are committed by strangers, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. But the problem is actually bigger when you look solely at people with intellectual disabilities. NPR’s analysis found that an overwhelming 86% of people with intellectual disabilities were assaulted by someone they know.
And in many cases, the perpetrator is another person with a disability. Looking solely at data from the State of Pennsylvania, NPR discovered that, among over 500 cases of suspected abuse against people with intellectual disabilities, about 42% of the suspected perpetrators were also people with intellectual disabilities.