People with disabilities can face barriers addressing sexual abuse

On Behalf of | Mar 2, 2023 | Catholic Church, Doctors/Healthcare Providers, Other Sexual Abuse, Schools & Universities, Survivors - Resources & Help

Sexual abuse does not discriminate. Survivors can come from every walk of life. At the same time, survivors with physical and cognitive disabilities can face additional barriers when it comes to stopping and advocating for themselves when facing sexual abuse.

What defines a disability?

A disability is a physical or mental impairment that can affect a person’s daily functioning. The severity and type of disability a person has can vary. For some, it may be a minor inconvenience, while others may require around-the-clock support from a caretaker.

A survivor’s disability can complicate things

No matter the type or severity of a person’s disability, it can affect if they can seek help, how they can seek help and who might believe them. Here are a few examples:

  • A perpetrator is also the person’s caretaker, so they use their position to block them from vital communication devices or threaten to use physical violence if the survivor tries to speak out.
  • A person with a disability seeks to file a report against their abuser, but finds the reporting options available don’t take their disability into account, like someone who is deaf having to provide details about their situation over the phone.
  • A person with autism tries to report their abuse directly to the police, but they disregard the individual’s claims because of the subconscious biases they have about the individual’s neurodivergent behaviors and mannerisms.

These are only a few examples of how people with disabilities can face issues when confronting sexual abuse. This can create an additional burden for people already dealing with incredibly emotional and stressful circumstances.

How to help sexual abuse survivors who have disabilities

If someone you care for has a disability and is a survivor of sexual abuse, you may feel a mix of intense emotions. Those emotions may drive you to jump in and take control of your loved one’s situation. While you may have good intentions, it’s crucial to keep the thoughts, feelings and considerations of your loved one in mind. Here are a few things you can do to support them:

  • Hear them out: People with disabilities have autonomy over their lives and can make their own decisions. If they ask for a specific type of support after experiencing trauma, find ways you can offer it to them. And if you have a suggestion, ask them if they would like you to make one first.
  • Believe them: Some people with disabilities may have trouble remembering specific details or instances from traumatic events. So, if they’re trying to tell you about the abuse they faced, provide a calm and judgment-free space for them to talk. And if you find that they’re struggling to put the story together, reassure them that you believe them and that you’re there to help them.
  • Empower them: If your loved one with a disability struggles to get access to specific resources to address sexual abuse, whether it’s due to the subconscious biases of others or other barriers, help them get the tools and resources they need to seek justice and accountability.

While anyone can endure sexual abuse, a person’s physical or mental impairment can place additional obstacles before them when seeking support. Knowing and understanding these difficulties can help others recognize what people with disabilities can go up against and find ways to be an ally in their search for accountability and justice.