Rego & Plunkett: Sexual assault among people with disabilities is overlooked

Rory Plunkett and Shay Rego

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

People with disabilities are overlooked in many aspects of everyday life. People without disabilities sometimes do not fully consider all the various struggles that disproportionately affect this community. Heinous crimes, such as violence and sexual assault, are higher for this population of people than anyone else.

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It’s important we listen to this part of our community and make sure there is equity in sexual health education. Sexual assault affects everyone, but the disabled community is affected by it more heavily than society is led to see.

People with intellectual or developmental disabilities (IDD) are one of the populations which are often overlooked. People with IDD are sexually assaulted at rates seven times more than people without those disabilities.

There are plenty of people living with an IDD today in Larimer County. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates about 11 percent of college students are disabled. There’s an estimated 7.4 percent of people with disabilities living in Fort Collins. 

NPR did its own investigating and released a special series of their findings with interviews from real survivors. What they found confirmed that people with IDD’s experiences have rarely been noticed or discussed.

The Arc of Larimer County, an organization in Fort Collins, works to promote and protect the civil rights of intellectually and developmentally disabled peoples.

Jessica Shouse, the director of advocacy at The Arc of Larimer County said “The victims themselves aren’t always believed, or the courts and stuff aren’t sure how to process the cases so they get dismissed. It’s all about (the disabled people’s) capacity … and competency.”

According to the Arc of Larimer County, about 9 out of 10 disabled peoples are affected by sexual assault.

Assaults on women without disabilities are perpetrated by a stranger 24 percent of the time while women with an intellectual disability are only assaulted by a stranger less than 14 percent of the time, according to NPR.

“It’s very easy for them to be misled because they want relationships so bad so it’s easy for a professional to say ‘I’ll be your boyfriend but let’s not tell anyone’,” Shouse said.

Shouse also talked about how easily cases involving people with disabilities get swept under the rug by the perpetrator. Unfortunately, many of these kinds of cases are unsuccessful. 

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“A lot of times it’s what we call direct support professionals, so it’s not typically like an advocate or a case manager, it’s those people that are really providing those direct care supports. So whether it’s a live-in aid or a bus driver… and 47 percent of abusers are connected to their victim strictly because of their disability,” Shouse said.

A fact of reality is that many individuals with intellectual disabilities don’t always realize what’s happening to them, something that varies greatly from most non-disabled individuals.

Shouse plans to implement a program called “Our Healthy Body, Healthy Boundaries”, to help teach people with developmental disabilities how to recognize sexual assault, and how to ask for help.

Another leading reason sexual assault occurs so frequently is a lack of sexual health resources and education available for this portion of the community. If we could work together to help raise awareness around this issue the impact would be significant.

There are also resources such as the Sexual Assault Victim Advocate Center.

Shouse said, “We [The Arc of Larimer County] think of prevention as a solution, prevention and education can drastically help reduce and get rid of this problem.”

In the NPR article titled “For Some With Intellectual Disabilities, Ending Abuse Starts With Sex Ed,” Katy Park, a sex ed teacher, said, “This is really an epidemic and we’re not talking about it.”

“This is really an epidemic and we’re not talking about it.” – Katy Park

Park asserts that one of the best ways to stop sexual assault is to give people with IDD the ability to identify abuse and to know how to develop the healthy relationships they want.

While sexual assault is not exclusive to just one demographic by any means, due to increased vulnerability people with disabilities are often overlooked and affected by sexual assault and violence more than anyone else.

People in Larimer County should be aware of the problems surrounding people with disabilities, especially when it comes to sexual assault.

Shay Rego and Rory Plunkett can be reached at letters@collegian.com or online at @shay_rego

or @jericho_wav.