Lifting the Voices and Meeting the Needs of Survivors with Disabilities

“As a disabled person, I often I find that I am the only one in the room who draws attention to the needs of folks with disabilities. I would like to see allies take a stand and acknowledge the ways that the sexuality of disabled folks is ignored or feared and that we face significant barriers to having healthy and happy sex lives. Part of that is also ensuring that when a disabled person faces abuse or violence that the programs created to support survivors take us into account and we have the same access to services promoting care and healing.“

Amber Melvin, Monument Quilt team leader


This July marks twenty-five years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This legislation greatly improved disabled* people’s’ access to public spaces and services. The ADA also created more public awareness of the sometimes unique needs of people with disabilities. One area that is still not often addressed is disabled people’s increased exposure to violence and sexual abuse.

Research on the experiences of people in the disability community is very limited, but here is what we do know:

  •  Women with disabilities are raped and abused at a rate at least twice that of the general population of women.
  • Among developmentally disabled adults, as many as 83% of females and 32% of males are the victims of sexual assault.
  • Women with disabilities are nearly twice as likely to experience intimate partner violence than non-disabled women.
  • One organization that serves deaf survivors of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and abuse found that 40% of their clients were people of color, with Black and Latino folks represented in higher numbers than in the local population.
  • Only 3% of sexual assaults against disabled people are reported, likely because their abusers are often people who help with their care taking.

People with disabilities, whether physical or developmental, often utilize assistance from family members, acquaintances, or personal care attendants to help with daily needs like getting dressed, eating, bathing, or transportation. The sad fact is that many people experience abuse at the hands of the very people they look to for help.

In addition to unwanted touching and physical violence; some caretakers may withhold assistive devices like a wheelchair or deny communication assistance, such as refusing to translate sign language as a form of violence and abuse. Disabled folks may fear that reporting abusive providers and companions will result in the loss of essential care. This puts people in an extremely difficult position.

If people with disabilities do choose to report or leave abusive environments, they may find difficulty in getting the support or services that the need. These issues are further compounded by the way that our race, class, gender, sexuality, or age may get in the way with our access to healthcare or to seeking and receiving services. Reporting also means interacting with law enforcement, which can be tricky depending on a person’s relationship or trust of the police. While the ADA has made tremendous changes in the way that people with disabilities access the world, there are still many ways that people remain isolated and silenced. For programs and services to begin to provide support to survivors and ensure that they are adequately and appropriately addressing disabled people’s needs, there are a few simple steps that can be taken.

Some of these considerations speak to people who are managing programs that provide care or support to survivors, but they are also important for people to think about as they interact with friends or family members from the disability community.

1) When speaking with a disabled person about their experience, speak to and look directly at them, not to a caregiver or the person accompanying them. This is true if you are interacting with folks in the community, too – not just in a service program.

2) Recognize that disabled people experience sexual attraction and participate in all kinds of sexual activities and partnerships, just as non-disabled folks do. You should not assume that a disabled person is unable to give consent. Read “Let’s Talk About Sex and Disability”. It is important to respect the agency of disabled people while also looking for patterns of coercion or abuse as to support and ensure healthy relationships and treatment of both disabled and non-disabled people in your life.

3) Train staff and volunteers about the specific needs that disabled folks may have when seeking services. If you do not have adequate information to provide that training, the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) has a checklist for facilities. It is primarily focused on the physical requirements for accessibility, but is a good start. The California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CCASV) also has a resource on supporting survivors with disabilities.

4) Build partnerships with organizations and people in the disability community and allow their leadership and expertise to make your work stronger and more inclusive. Here is a guide on programs and services that may help you to connect to a program or organization in your area. Not a service provider? How about finding the groups in your community to get on their lists and learn more?

5) Research and keep a list of resources that you can refer to as needed, such as ASL interpreting or language translation, accessible housing, experienced counselors, and accessible healthcare providers.

6) Make sure that all of your events and facilities are accessible for wheelchairs, provide ASL interpretation, and opportunities for folks to report other accommodations they may need. You can include space for requests on any registration forms. Promote these accommodations so that people know that they are available to them. If you are not someone who runs a program or provides services, think about any events that you are involved in. Are they accessible?

7) But the biggest thing anyone can do is to be open and aware and inclusive not just of the needs, but also the voices of disabled people. If you are providing services to the community, do you have anyone on your staff, board or planning committees from the disability community? And if you don’t (yet), make sure that you are working to build genuine partnerships with local disability organizations and that if a new program is being created or an event is being planned, the needs of people with disabilities are considered.

At FORCE, we are working hard to create strong partnerships with organizations and advocates in the disability community to ensure that the Monument Quilt provides an accessible, healing space.  We are committed to creating a movement where the voices and stories of all survivors are honored.

*We have chosen to use both person-first language as well as the term “disabled person,” which acknowledges how disabilities are not a result of one’s body, but that disabilities are created by structural barriers that make it more difficult for folks with different bodies to navigate the world.