The Need for Sexual Assault Education, Awareness And Prevention In The I/DD Community

Mar 10, 2021 at 10:25 am
James J. Wilkerson.
James J. Wilkerson.

It was a late evening in March 2019 when Natalie was on her way home from work. Her cab driver was one she was familiar with as he had driven her numerous times through the TARC3 program with no incident. But on this night, he insisted on helping her carry her backpack and lunch box to her apartment door. Natalie informed him that she did not need help, but he insisted on following her to her home anyway. Once there, to Natalie’s surprise, he barged his way into her apartment. She told him he was not supposed to be there and asked him numerous times to leave. But he insisted on staying, ultimately pushing her down on her couch and groping her. Natalie fought him off and thinking quick, told him that her apartment was equipped with hidden cameras. Upon this revelation, her attacker quickly left the apartment with Natalie locking the door behind him. Natalie and her mother Tina would eventually report the sexual assault to TARC3. 

Their response?

Next time it happens, call 911. 

Predatory Patterns

Natalie and Tina would also report the assault to the police, and upon doing so, would learn of other accusations against this driver. Specifically, they learned that this driver targeted young women with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (I/DD). These predatory patterns speak to the enormous issue of sexual assault against the I/DD community. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, people with disabilities are three times more likely than nondisabled people to experience sexual assault. And when it comes to the youth, research shows that children with intellectual or mental disabilities are almost five times more likely than nondisabled children to experience sexual assault.

When seeking to understand why the I/DD community is at much greater risk for sexual assault, it is important to understand the mindset of the predator. 

“Predators perceive those with disabilities as weak, vulnerable and less likely to report abuse,” said Loren Pilcher, the COO of Sweet Behavior, an organization that serves individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in 40 counties throughout the Kentuckiana area. “Predators view those with disabilities as less than human and therefore view crimes against them as less serious.”

Tina also believes that predators see those with disabilities as easy targets. 

“They don’t think I/DD women will fight back or report sexual assault,” Tina said. “And even if they do, there is the thought that they won’t be believed.” 

The fact that predators are often trusted members of their victim’s support circle, only puts the I/DD community further at risk — 97% to 99% of abusers are known and trusted by their victims. The abusers range from family members and acquaintances to caretakers, or in Natalie’s case, transportation providers. Kentucky does address nonconsensual intercourse with those incapable of giving consent due to an intellectual disability in its second degree rape and sodomy laws. 

The Lack of Education

While sexual education programs typically focus on the biology of sex, important units covering sexual assault prevention are usually glossed over or omitted completely from the lesson plan. Of the 29 states where sexual education is mandated, only eight states teach consent. Neither Kentucky nor Indiana are among the ones that do. Other tools such as bystander intervention and victim empathy rarely make it into a student’s toolbox either. While this lack of education exists on all levels, it is especially frustrating in a community that statistics show to be at greater risk. 

Tina doesn’t recall a single class on sexual assault prevention being offered to her daughter. 

“There have been a few classes on relationships, but that has been about it,” she states. 

Meanwhile, Pilcher theorizes that caretakers and parents viewing those with I/DD as perpetual children create a barrier for this type of education. 

“I’ve had numerous parents and caretakers question why their children need to be educated on the topic as they are never going to have sex in the first place,” Pilcher said. “I know the statistics can be scary, but in order to prevent toxic sexuality, you must be able to identify it.”

A Blueprint for the Future

Down Syndrome of Louisville (DSL) is preparing to address the lack of meaningful education head on. 

“We are so excited to begin creating an education program that supports our members, educates the parents and community, and advocates for those who don’t have a voice,” said DSL Engagement Director Carly Riggs. 

DSL is working with local advocates and educators to craft a program they hope can eventually be adopted on a national level and provide a blueprint for other agencies.

On April 6, they will broadcast an informational podcast that highlights the sexual assault issues the I/DD community are facing. Then, on April 13, the nonprofit organization will host an interactive online panel discussion with several experts, before using the summer to develop the program’s curriculum. Riggs highlights consent, safety, self-defense and the balance of safety and independence as necessary elements for the program to cover. She also hopes to create a class focused on teaching parents and caretakers how to best identify signs of abuse, predatory behavior and how the statistics apply to them. An emphasis will be put on including parents in the planning stages of the program as well. 

“We don’t want parents to be scared but rather, we need their help at the table,” Riggs says.  

As sexual assault awareness month approaches, the time is ripe not only to understand sexual assault against the I/DD community, but also to act in combating it. Understanding the issue is important but bringing parents, educators, students and the community together to fill the educational void is needed action. 

For as Dr. Phil states, “awareness without action, is worthless.”