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Unfortunately, due to societal perception, dependent lifestyles, and communication difficulties, people with disabilities are at a significantly higher risk of being abused by people close to them. This issue is exacerbated by being underreported and under-investigated.

Compared to people without disabilities, disabled individuals are at a significantly greater risk of experiencing abuse and enduring its consequences more frequently for an extended time. Statistics reveal that more than 90% of people with developmental disabilities will be a to sexual assault, with half enduring these traumatic experiences more than ten times.

Data from the National Crime Victimization Survey demonstrates the severity of the issue. According to the survey conducted from 2017 to 2019, individuals with disabilities experienced a significantly higher rate of crime across all types when compared to the age-adjusted category of individuals without disabilities. The disparity is similarly concerning when examining the rate of simple assault, which was more than three times higher for individuals with disabilities.

Even worse, while individuals with disabilities only account for 12% of the population, they were victims of 26% of reported incidents of violent crimes. This overrepresentation highlights how society has failed to protect vulnerable people from abuse. Additionally, statistics show that having multiple disabilities increases the risk of rape and sexual assault.

Unfortunately, many people with disabilities endure abuse at the hands of people they know and are often subjected to repeated acts of abuse by the same person. Abusers can include caregivers, educators, family members, relatives, neighbors, classmates, or staff members entrusted with supporting and caring for them. The betrayal of trust further puts the victims in abusive situations, making it difficult for them to escape or seek help.

Several factors contribute to person with disabilities vulnerability and why they are at a heightened risk of abuse. For one, they may be viewed as weak, vulnerable, or less likely to report abuse, making them easy targets for perpetrators seeking to exploit their circumstances. This perception, coupled with their potential isolation and dependence on a small support network, allows abuse to remain concealed, as victims often lack access to the necessary intervention and support from authorities and social services personnel.

Dependence is a significant contributing factor to disabled people’s vulnerability. Relying on others in their day-to-day lives and their limited control over the nature of the care they receive creates an environment where abuse can go unnoticed or unreported. The power dynamics inherent in these situations can leave victims feeling helpless and unable to assert their rights or seek assistance.

Communication barriers further compound the issue, leaving disabled victims marginalized and invisible. Many people with developmental disabilities have limited communication ability, resulting in underreporting and a lack of visibility for their experiences. Additionally, societal norms may socialize individuals with disabilities to accept being touched by others, particularly those labeled as “staff,” blurring the line between appropriate and inappropriate actions and further contributing to their vulnerability.

Understanding the concept of strangers and navigating social situations can be challenging for people with developmental disabilities. Difficulties in forming relationships and limited communication skills make it even more arduous for them to disclose abuse. Moreover, the lack of comprehensive and accessible sex education compounds their vulnerability, preventing them from making informed decisions about their bodies and health and perpetuating a cycle of misinformation about their relationships. Physical indicators, such as unexplained bruises, can also be associated with the person’s disability history. Other indicators, such as impaired social interactions or depression, are often misunderstood or overlooked due to a lack of understanding of the impact of abuse on people with disabilities.

This leads to people with disabilities having more limited access to justice. Despite being entitled to care and protection, whether their disability is physical, mental, or developmental, these individuals often find themselves marginalized and left without proper recourse when facing abuse. This systemic barrier only exacerbates their vulnerability, perpetuating a cycle of victimization and denial of justice.

One contributing factor to the lack of justice is a lack of reporting. Of those who are abused, people with disabilities are only about half as likely to report their abuse to the police. When people with disabilities can’t report or don’t feel comfortable reporting, their abuse is minimized, and society can ignore the problem. In Oregon specifically, the state recorded 107 complaints of sexual abuse against people with developmental or intellectual disabilities between 2019 and 2021. However, less than 12% of those complaints were sustained, and statistics show that more than two-thirds of the investigations were completed late.

There are failures to protect people with disabilities at every junction. The sad reality is that people with disabilities, namely developmental or intellectual disabilities, face significantly higher abuse risks than those without disabilities. It is crucial to address these systemic failures and take steps to protect and support those with disabilities.

The attorneys at Crew Janci LLP have experience representing people with disabilities who have been sexually abused. Additionally, Crew Janci partner, Peter Janci, is an advising board member for the Natalie Project. Call today for a free, confidential consultation at 1-888-407-0224 or use our confidential submission form. We will treat you with dignity and respect.

You are not alone. We are here to help.

Madeline Russell

Madeline is a law clerk at Crew Janci and a law student at Lewis & Clark Law School, where she will be entering her final year as a J.D. candidate this fall. As a law clerk, Madeline supports Crew Janci attorneys with legal research and writing largely regarding sex abuse cases. At Lewis & Clark, she is involved with Women’s Law Caucus and International Law Society while pursuing a certificate in International Law. Madeline hopes to pursue a legal career advocating for victims. In her free time, Madeline likes to read fiction, travel, and dance.