People with intellectual and developmental disabilities are sexually assaulted at a rate SEVEN TIMES higher than those without disabilities.
There are several (largely preventable) reasons for these increased risks. Typically, there is limited access or no access to health education in the isolated special education classrooms that many people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) find themselves in. Even in inclusive classrooms, students with special needs often end up missing “elective” class time (like health class) for occupational therapy or other specialized services they may need.
In public schools, sexual health education standards vary widely depending on the state you live in. Regardless of ability, many people simply do not receive the sexual health education they need in school. Through social immersion, however, most people reach adulthood having gleaned the important facts. People with IDD do not have that same social immersion. Peers may see them as being “different” and as a result, friendships are difficult and often unbalanced for people with IDD. Most grow up feeling extremely isolated from their peers.
Without the tools the rest of us have, they are left with only their caregivers to provide this information. Though they are sexually mature adults at this point, who may be expressing and acting on needs and desires, people with IDD are often viewed as eternally childlike (“she has the mental age of an 8 year old”) or parents are unsure how to approach the topic of sex in a way that feels appropriate for their level of understanding. Therefore, the topic is almost universally avoided.
This complex combination of factors means that, ultimately, most people with IDD grow up without knowing how their bodies work, where babies come from, or what sexual touch is. They may find themselves in consensual relationships that quickly become too complex to navigate without support or some vital education.
Furthermore, because many people with IDD require personal care for things like bathing and dressing, predators have intimate access. Complicating the problem, people with IDD are taught to be compliant from an early age, and many often have co-occurring communication difficulties. Because of this, people with IDD who experience abuse:
- Can’t tell anyone because their speech may be difficult to understand, or they won’t be believed
- Won’t tell anyone in order to be compliant, and because their lives are literally in the hands of their abuser (abusers often have full control of food, money, transportation, etc. and studies have shown that in these cases 97% to 99% of abusers are known and trusted by the victim, including family members and caregivers in the home with them).
- Don’t even know they are being abused because they have not been taught the difference between personal care and sexual touch
The only way to face this problem is head on, and Oak Hill’s focus is on educating and empowering as many people as possible, providing the skills and tools they need to protect themselves and take charge of their bodies.
To keep this important conversation going, we launched the #SevenTimes campaign, to draw national attention to the horrifying statistic that people with IDD are seven times more likely than the general population to experience sexual abuse. As part of this, we are making free pins available, with an accompanying postcard to explain the why and how of the campaign. Our goal is to encourage people across the country to use the #SevenTimes hashtag to talk about abuse among this population.
Please help us raise awareness! Use the #SevenTimes hashtag in social media posts and talk about this important issue. We are all responsible for protecting the safety and rights of every person in our community.
People with disabilities have a right to know about their bodies and how to have healthy relationships. Oak Hill’s Center for Relationship & Sexuality Education offers a curriculum for teens and a seven-workbook series for adults that that addresses the root causes of widespread sexual abuse and other related issues experienced by the IDD community. In published clinical studies, our evidence-based materials have been shown to effectively increase vital knowledge among this population.