There’s A Sexual Assault Epidemic Affecting People With Intellectual Disabilities — And We Need To Talk About It

by Sarah C. Epstein


Earlier this week, amidst the hubbub of the Golden Globes drawing attention to sexual assault in Hollywood, NPR quietly released a report revealing that a deafening amount of sexual abuse is happening to the most silent demographic — those with intellectual disabilities.

Intellectual disability, the prefered term for what was previously diagnosed as “mental retardation,” is “characterized by significant limitation in both intellectual functioning and in adaptive behaviors,” according to the The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Those with intellectual disabilities often exhibit physical and neurological difficulties and a struggle with social skills—  they have a difficult time dealing with other people, following rules, and are highly pliable, having trouble avoiding verbal and physical victimization — and practical skills, which include being unable to tend to their “health and safety.” Sometimes, they suffer from difficulties with motor function, which can affect their ability to speak clearly and coherently, if at all. They fall under the larger umbrella category of “developmental disability,” a label that includes folks with physical differences, like those with cerebral palsy, and those on the autism spectrum.

NPR’s written article is paired with a 12-minute audio segment and weaves in assault statistics with the story of Pauline, a 46-year-old sexual assault survivor with intellectual disabilities. NPR cited upublished Justice Department data that they obtained over the course of their yearlong investigation; the statistics say that “people with intellectual disabilities — women and men — are the victims of sexual assaults at rates more than seven times those for people without disabilities.” Compared to the rest of the population, they also experience higher rates of assault during the day, have a higher chance of repeated assault, and are more likely to be assaulted by someone they know. Their assailant, often “a person they have been taught to trust and rely upon,” tends to abuse them in locations “where they are supposed to be protected and safe” — such as in their home or group home, by their caregiver, family, and peers with disabilities.

Pauline’s story is not unique, but one of many. She was repeatedly raped and abused by her caregiver’s sons in the the home they all shared. When she told her caregiver, Cheryl McClain — whom Pauline called “mommy” and whom she had lived with for over 20 years — McClain called the police. The boys, ages 12 and 13, were arrested and were sentenced to juvenile detention. After the arrest, however, afraid of losing the social security checks and the small income Pauline brought home from her job as a busser in a Brooklyn pizza parlor, McClain recorded herself trying to persuade Pauline to change her story, urging her to tell the police that she “wanted to do it” and threatening to kick her out if the boys were imprisoned.

But when McClain played the recordings to the investigating officer, intending to use them against Pauline, the officer realized that McClain was intimidating Pauline in the recordings and assigned Pauline her own lawyer. McClain was charged with six felonies, including intimidating a witness and interfering with an investigation, and two misdemeanors. Prosecutors later dropped the felony charges and the court sentenced McClain to two years of probation and  $15,000 in fines.

What is unique about Pauline’s story is that she was able to not only speak out, but also be believed. People tend to discredit those with intellectually disabilities at a higher rate than any other demographic. Why? According to Nancy Thaler, a deputy secretary of Pennsylvania’s 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. Because of the intellectual disability, people tend not to believe them, to think that they are not credible or that what they saying, they are making up or imagining.” It is not only incredibly difficult for survivors to come forward, but this attitude contributes to an environment where folks with disabilities are afraid to speak up for fear that they won’t be believed; they cannot do anything to stop their abuse when the people they depend upon to help them live will not aid them, or worse, are the perpetrators. 

Additionally, folks with disabilities are considered unreliable witnesses; they are socialized to be compliant, a learned trait that can harm them when faced with a threatening situation or a demanding investigator. Even Pauline’s lawyer, Syzane Arifaj, was surprised by her unwavering testimony: “A lot of people who have intellectual disabilities are very malleable. So if you just repeatedly tell them this happened and this didn’t happen, they’re sort of prone to taking the suggestion,” Arifaj told NPR. Additionally, intellectually disabled people often have difficulty speaking clearly and explaining things in detail. They tend to present information out of sequence and without a clear timeline. Because of this, law enforecement find it hard to follow up on cases or leads, and in an astonishing feat of victim-blaming, most prosecutors decide instead not to believe their reports.

Their inability to speak up and be believed compounded with their learned compliancy, and social and physical issues, leaves those with intellectual disabilities very vulnerable to assault. Predators not only have unlimited, intimate access to their victims, they also feel confident that they won’t get caught, leaving disabled individuals as easy targets for repeated abuse. Additionally, healthcare professionals often have little or no experience talking about sexual violence and abuse with their patients who have disabilities, according to The Arc, a national orgnization that advocates for those with intellectual disabilties. As part of its Talk About Violence Program, the Arc provides training tools for healthcare professionals.

Pauline’s story may, on the surface, appear very different from those of the glamorous women representing TIME’S UP.  But sexual assault does not happen because of appearance, revealing clothing, or sex appeal. It happens as a result of one person choosing to wield their power over another. Predators choose victims that they can dominate and bully into silence, doing it over and over again, without consequence. But now, thanks to all of the women who have shared their stories, their time is up.

Top photo via The Arc

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