By Caitlin Shockley, Director of Education and Community, FACT Oregon
In January, National Public Radio (NPR) published a series of stories titled, “Abused and Afraid,” uncovering the devastating statistics of sexual abuse within the disability community. The series quotes that “people with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted at seven times the rate of people without disabilities. It’s a crime that often goes unrecognized and unpunished” (Joseph Shapiro, Investigation Finds Hidden Epidemic Of Sexual Assault, NPR).
I struggled with how best to share this information with my community in a sensitive manner. My intent is not to simply scare people, but let’s face it, the statistics are terrifying. As a mom to a daughter who experiences disability, this information makes me sick, and yet the reason it needs to be shared is exactly what the author of the series mentioned above. All too often, this abuse happens under the radar and goes unpunished. The more we know, the more we can prevent this type of abuse from continuing.
The statistics speak for themselves, and it’s no wonder parents are terrified of sharing the big, wide world with their children experiencing intellectual disability (ID). Assaults are commonly committed by paid staff and abuse against people in institutions and group homes are not counted in the data (Michelle Diament, Government Watchdog Warns of Group Home Dangers, Disability Scoop).
“The federal numbers, and the results of our own database, show that people with intellectual disabilities are vulnerable in places where they should feel safest: where they live, work, go to school; on van rides to medical appointments and in public places. Most of the time, the perpetrators are people they have learned to count on the most — sometimes their own family, caregivers or staffers, and friends” (Joseph Shapiro, The Sexual Assault Epidemic No One Talks About, NPR).
These are places where a parent assumes their son or daughter is safe. Places receiving federal funds to provide services to the most vulnerable. From my work as the Education and Community Director at FACT Oregon, I know that it’s rare for a student with ID—a student most likely to become a sexual assault victim—to ever receive any sex education, let alone comprehensive sex education. The progress of a student with ID is often measured by their compliance with adult demands, and their personalities are often infantilized as cute, innocent, and adorable instead of the truth: whole, complex people with all the same needs as anyone else their age.
So what is a “safe place” for a youth or adult experiencing ID?
The issue is complicated, but it’s connected to unnatural settings, social isolation, and a lack of real life experiences and authentic relationships. We have to rethink the way we do everything to combat this. I strongly believe the best protection is real inclusion in all areas of life. Isolation, “special” places, low expectations, lack of education, absence of relationships with neighbors, community members, and the perpetuated reality that people with disabilities are less than and invisible all contribute to this horrific situation. It won’t stop without a radical shift in attitude and practice. Please join me in this shift by learning, sharing, and working toward real inclusion for people with disabilities. Let’s have the tough conversations about the harm and risk of segregation. Let’s talk about what a whole life looks like, and then let’s get to work on removing barriers so that our communities are welcoming and accessible to all.