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Soyer: Be aware of sexual assault against people with disabilities

BY HANNAH SOYER | APRIL 24, 2015 5:00 AM

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April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and as such, an opportune time to discuss sexual abuse toward a specific demographic that is often overlooked — people with disabilities.

According to a study cited in the People’s Law School of Canada, males with disabilities are twice as likely than those with without disabilities to be sexually abused. The rates are the same for females with disabilities, except this statistic broadens to include all types of abuse — physical, mental, financial, etc.

Lioness Ayres, a University of Iowa associate professor of nursing, has devoted much of her research to exploring how caregivers and family members respond to chronic illnesses. In her research, she has also learned about the abuse of people with disabilities.

“People with disabilities are easy to abuse,” she said. “Blind people are easy to rob, people with closed-head injuries are easy to exploit financially, people in wheelchairs are frail or fragile oftentimes. And it’s easy because — and this is terrible but true — when people with disabilities complain about abuse, they’re often not taken seriously.”

Let’s imagine a potential stereotypical sexual-assault scene involving an able-bodied and able-minded person. The attacker comes up to them, and physically tries to overtake them. It is possible that the person who is being assaulted could run away or physically fight back. If the person being attacked has a physical disability, this possibility is greatly decreased, as they may neither have the strength or the stamina to do either.

We also know, however, that most sexual-assault perpetrators are acquaintances of those who are assaulted. And on top of the manipulation and guilt-tripping that often is involved in an acquaintance assault, a person with a disability is often dependent on this person in the situation, or, in the case of someone with an intellectual disability, may have a hard time realizing that what is being done is wrong. They may also be easier to manipulate.

Even if someone does not have an intellectual disability but has a physical disability, they may find themselves in a situation in which they are being manipulated into accepting sexual abuse as “normal.” Or they may be so dependent on the person who is abusing them that they may believe that they have to accept the abuse or go without care.

Of course, as Ayres said, there is also the issue that when people with disabilities choose to report abuse, they are often not believed, because they are often seen as not as sound of mind. With this in mind, it is likely that they will simply choose not to report anything wrong, and thus the cycle of abuse continues.

As someone with a disability, this fact horrifies me. If you don’t have a disability, you should be horrified, too. Why? Because “people with disabilities” is the only minority group that you can become a part of anytime in your life. Not everyone with a disability is born that way, meaning that you, too, could one day find yourself in a position where you are dependent on other people to perform everyday tasks.


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