Reframing the Problem of Sexual Victimization of People with Disabilities

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In January of 2018, National Public Radio aired a six-part series, abused and betrayed, exposing the epidemic of sexual violence victimization of people with intellectual disabilities. The investigative reporter discovered unpublished Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) data indicating that people with intellectual disabilities experienced sexual assault at seven times the rate of people without disabilities [1]. For those of us working at the intersection of sexual violence and disability, this statistic was not particularly surprising. The BJS has been tracking crime victimization perpetrated against people with disabilities aged 12 or older living in non-institutional settings since 2007, with the first report published in 2009, and has consistently found much higher rates of violent victimization for people with disabilities in all disability categories (i.e., cognitive, independent living, ambulatory, vision, self-care, and hearing) than people without disabilities [2,3].

How is it possible that among the most closely monitored people in our society, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), are victims of sexual violence at such alarming rates? Perhaps the problem is rooted in the single story of vulnerability of people with disabilities, with this thinking resulting in the single solution of protection? In her critical consciousness raising TedTalk, The Danger of the Single Story, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie proclaimed: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. […] How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. [...] A single story is created by showing people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become. The single story robs people of their dignity”[4]. This paper is framed in the concept of the single story.


Social Work

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Journal of Sexual Medicine