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Two Advocates Talk About the Sexual Assault Epidemic Affecting People with Disabilities & How We Can All Help

James Meadours is a nationally recognized Civil Rights and Sexual Assault Prevention Activist in the self-advocacy movement—a movement of people with intellectual disabilities speaking and acting on behalf of themselves or others about issues that affect them directly. As a survivor of a number of sexual assaults throughout his life, his mission is to educate society about the high rate of sexual violence in the disability community. Recently, James was featured in NPR’s series focused on ending sexual violence against those with disabilities. In April, he was also featured in the public service announcement created by 1in6 and NO MORE about male survivors of sexual abuse.

Leigh Ann Davis is Director of Criminal Justice Initiatives at The Arc of the United States and oversees its National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability®. She is a sexual assault survivor with over 22 years of experience working at the intersection of disability and criminal justice issues.

The following was co-written by James and Leigh Ann.

For far too long, people with disabilities and their allies have been invisible to mainstream society, forced to live in the shadows within our communities, and given little opportunity or a platform to speak out on issues we care about. This painful reality has been especially damaging when it comes to sexual assault. While national movements like #MeToo have opened the door to establishing a growing and collective awareness about sexual harassment and assault, there remains a general lack of awareness—even a feeling of apathy—regarding the epidemic of sexual assault against people with disabilities, and how little is being done about it.

Take a minute to let the reality of these statistics really sink in. Read this s-l-o-w-l-y. Think about the sheer number of people this issue is impacting, and the enormous weight of the trauma they are experiencing on a daily basis, often with no way to talk about what is happening or has happened to them:

  • People with disabilities are almost three times more likely than people without disabilities to be victims of violent crimes (i).
  • The survey also revealed that 1 in 5 crime victims with disabilities believed they were targeted because of their disability (ii).
  • Persons with “cognitive disabilities” (which the survey defined as serious difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions because of a physical, mental or emotional condition) had the highest victimization rate among the disability types measured for violent crime (iii).
  • Men with disabilities and deaf men were twice as likely to experience some form of sexual violence, other than rape (iv).
  • People with I/DD are seven times more likely to experience sexual assault (v).

Together, as victims of sexual assault and as advocates who care deeply about people with disabilities and the unique challenges they face as victims in the criminal justice system, we are working to bring the disability and the victim advocacy communities together in a joint effort to effectively address sexual violence in the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

We are speaking out about our own stories of sexual assault as persons with and without disabilities and taking our message to audiences working at the intersection of disability and sexual assault. Our growing friendship and professional collaboration over the past 20 years led to the welcome discovery that we are more alike than different when it comes to surviving and thriving after sexual assault. We know from experience that there is power when people with disabilities and their allies without disabilities use their common shared experience to create systemic change.

As victims and survivors of sexual trauma, we believe that a key part of our healing journey has come from no longer living in the shadows and stepping out—even on a national stage—to share our pain, our stories and our hope with others.

Male victims with disabilities, in particular, face almost insurmountable obstacles when it comes to being able to talk about or recover from a sexual assault. As a male survivor, I (James) took a big risk when I decided to start talking about the different types of sexual assault I endured throughout my life. Even though, over 20 years ago, I was a well-known leader in the disability community and often spoke out about other issues to advocate for myself and other people with disabilities, it wasn’t until much later in life that I felt safe to talk about sexual assault.

I believe we need to get past our male ego—to be open and brave to talk about this issue, so that other men don’t have to face what we have faced. We need to find a way to share our deep feelings so we can open the door for other male survivors to heal. There is power in telling the truth we have lived. I told my story with some other male survivors in the 1in6 PSA that was created to challenge stereotypes about who is more likely to be a victim. The PSA’s message is that it happens to men too, including men from all walks of life. Sexual assault does not discriminate when it comes to different groups of people, but certain groups face a much higher risk of becoming victims—including men like me who have disabilities.

As survivors, we need to create a world where people with disabilities—both males and females—can openly talk about sexual assault. First, we must ensure access to counselors who are experienced in providing counseling to victims of sexual assault with disabilities. There aren’t enough counselors and therapists with expertise in disability issues to address this epidemic. Without that, how can we heal?  Second, we need help to learn how to talk to our close friends and family members about it, so they can know how to help us as we go through the healing process. Third, those of us who are further along in our healing process can share our own stories of sexual assault. The more open and transparent each person is about sexual assault, the less power it has in our society.

Our stories need to be shared in mainstream media too, so society at large knows just how serious this problem is. For example, NPR highlighted powerful stories of sexual assault victims with disabilities in their Abused and Betrayed series released earlier this year, but we need to keep advocating that mainstream media outlets make stories about people with disabilities a priority.

As victims and survivors of sexual trauma, we believe that a key part of our healing journey has come from no longer living in the shadows and stepping out—even on a national stage—to share our pain, our stories and our hope with others. Together, victims and survivors from all walks of life can find common ground and build a common vision to end sexual violence. No one should be left in the shadows to suffer alone. Let’s work together, those with and without disabilities—and the advocacy organizations they represent—to build a better future for all sexual assault victims!

Learn more about people with disabilities and sexual violence at The Arc. If you or someone you know is experiencing sexual abuse, please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or access the online hotline here. 1in6 is an organization serving male survivors of abuse and assault.

 

Sources

(i,ii,iii) The 2017 National Crime Victimization Survey

(iv) The 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey 

(v) NPR’s Abused and Betrayed series uncovered unpublished data from the Justice Department.

 

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