Sexual Violence and Persons with Disabilities

by Wendie H. Abramson, LMSW, Lee Ann Cameron, LSW, and Cema Mastroleo, M.Ed.

People with disabilities have the right to personal safety and a life free of sexual violence and abuse. Research has documented that individuals with disabilities face increased risks for sexual assault as compared to persons without disabilities. Sexual assault includes any unwanted sexual contact. The problem of assault and abuse against persons with disabilities is complicated by the fact that most of the abuse is perpetrated by someone whom the individual has an established relationship (i.e., family member, intimate partner, personal care provider).

Contrary to public opinion, people with disabilities are sexual beings and can experience and express positive sexuality. It is a myth that people with disabilities are unattractive and therefore not at risk for sexual assault. Rape is an act of violence motivated by power and control rather than sexual attraction. Any person can be the target of a sexual assault. In cases of sexual assault, degradation, humiliation, and power are the issues… not lust or passion.

Individuals with disabilities who are sexually assaulted have the right to protection by law enforcement, the right to receive or refuse a Sexual Assault Nurse Exam (SANE) and other related procedures, the right to be informed of the progress of their case, and the right to privacy and confidentiality. A sexual assault survivor with a disability also has the choice whether or not to make a police report and/or to press charges against the perpetrator. Crime victims with disabilities may also effectively participate in the prosecution of their assailants. Additionally, a report of suspected abuse against a person with a disability may be made to the local or state protective and regulatory services department. Adults with disabilities may have the right to refuse protective services.

People with disabilities may experience trauma similar to other victims of violent crime. A sexual assault survivor with a disability may benefit from counseling services from a local rape crisis center. Sexual assault counselors and advocates may be able to assist with issues such as:

  • Resolving trauma symptoms;
  • Asserting the individual’s rights to privacy, independence, and confidentiality;
  • Linking the person with additional community resources; and/or
  • Advocating for the individual’s rights with medical and criminal justice systems.

If you know an individual with a disability who has been sexually abused or assaulted, it is important to believe the person and to support their recovery while maintaining respect for their independence and self-determination.

People with disabilities can learn skills through personal safety, sexuality education, and self-defense training to enhance their ability to protect themselves. Empowering a survivor with a disability to increase their knowledge and skills for self-protection can make a difference in their healing process.

Some helpful websites on this topic include:


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