Tag Archives | sexual abuse

My Inevitable Post About Daniel Tosh

Because You Know That I Couldn’t Stay Quiet On This OneDaniel Tosh

Oh goody, another comedian to avoid. For those that haven’t heard, Daniel Tosh is in the media spotlight this week over a controversy involving rape jokes in his recent appearance at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles. Tumblr blogger “cookies for breakfast” posted an account of a woman who was at Daniel Tosh’s show:

“So Tosh then starts making some very generalizing, declarative statements about rape jokes always being funny, how can a rape joke not be funny, rape is hilarious, etc. I don’t know why he was so repetitive about it but I felt provoked because I, for one, DON’T find them funny and never have. So I didnt appreciate Daniel Tosh (or anyone!) telling me I should find them funny. So I yelled out, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!”

I did it because, even though being “disruptive” is against my nature, I felt that sitting there and saying nothing, or leaving quietly, would have been against my values as a person and as a woman. I don’t sit there while someone tells me how I should feel about something as profound and damaging as rape.

After I called out to him, Tosh paused for a moment. Then, he says, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…’”

Read the woman’s full account here:  http://breakfastcookie.tumblr.com/post/26879625651/so-a-girl-walks-into-a-comedy-club

The club owner says that it went down differently than the woman claims http://www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog/2012/07/daniel_tosh_apo.html, and Daniel Tosh claims “context misquotes” in his tweeted apology. But the incident has ignited an intense debate between two powerful groups: those who believe that comedy can be about anything, and those that jokes like the ones that Daniel Tosh told have no place in comedy.

Damn Daniel Tosh for Complicating My Life

I had no idea who Daniel Tosh was until the day before yesterday. I’d never heard his comedy. I saw link about this story and was pretty disgusted when I read it, and I’ve tried several times to get my thoughts together on the issue and get them down here. Because this has disturbed me as a feminist, as a woman with disabilities, as someone who’s worked with women with disabilities…not to mention as someone who knows many women who have been raped, and as an aunt to a beautiful niece who will be celebrating her first birthday in just over a month.

Debates of this nature come up every time comedians use a slur like “retard” in a routine. I thought I knew how I felt – that if comedians are willing to make one vulnerable group a target, then they should have the integrity to be willing to make any vulnerable group a target, and I can always walk away if I don’t like it (which I do. I don’t like comedy that makes targets of people).

This seems different somehow, though, and I haven’t quite worked out why yet. I do know that with the sexual assault rates for women in general, and women with disabilities in particular, so high (and the rates for men likely higher than they are because of under-reporting), I’m very uncomfortable with any comedian inciting group rape as part of his routine. I feel very off-balance; this really threw my beliefs about the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” of comedy, and my ideas of from what I’m prepared to just walk away with a “Oh well, I don’t have to listen to it. Just be fair, if you’re going to be mean.”

I still need to do some more thinking. But I really, really like this woman’s perspective:

http://ltchubbins.blogspot.ca/2012/07/daniel-tosh-and-his-funny-funny-jokes.html#comment-form

What side do you come down on? Is there “nothing sacred” in comedy, or should some things just not be joked about?

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Sexual Assault and Disability: Behind the Eight Ball

I was watching an episode of “Law and Order: SVU” this weekend. You may remember from sexual assaultother posts that this particular television show, even among those within the “Law and Order” franchise, challenges me (and often disturbs me) like few others. This episode involved the sexual assault of a young woman with a mental condition.

Sexual Assault and Disadvantaged Groups

In this episode, a young man in an inpatient mental health facility witnesses a female resident being sexually assaulted by a staff member, prompting an investigation by the Special Victims Unit. Their investigation reveals that the assailant isn’t on staff at all. He’s the girl’s uncle, sneaking in disguised as a doctor, using an ID lifted from a staff member. The young woman is 24. He has been raping her since she was 14.

The SVU detectives talk to the young woman about to whom she disclosed the abuse when she was a teenager, and about why nothing was done at the time. It appears to be a case of a family in denial, not wanting to believe that an immediate family member could do something like that. When one of the detectives promises that the uncle will never touch her again, the young woman just laughs and says that there’s no way that will happen.

“Why?” the detective says.

“Because,” the young woman says. “He’s sane and I’m crazy.”

How often does that happen?, I wondered. How often does it happen that someone makes an allegation of sexual assault and the people around them say, “Well, he’s crazy…it’s him imagining things again,” or “She’s retarded…she misunderstood.” or even, like in the some of the New York state group homes that are coming under scrutiny, the caregivers just didn’t give enough of a damn to even call the police even though they knew that they should.

“Reliable Witness” and Sexual Assault

I know that these things happen. I’ve talked to people with disabilities who have told me about abuse and then said, “But I told people and they didn’t do anything, so why should I tell anyone else?”

I also know that there are very good reasons why some people with mental conditions and intellectual disabilities don’t make reliable witnesses when it comes to making sexual assault allegations. Their stories fall apart under scrutiny, or details come out that make authorities suspect that an encounter was actually consensual…even when it still might not have been. People with developmental disabilities specifically may have made an allegation using the wrong terminology but some sort of assault still may have happened.

It can become very sensitive, involved work, to untangle all the threads, and figure out if there’s actually an assault allegation there on which people need to move when the witness seems “unreliable”, particularly if a disability complicates the issue. But it’s especially when a disability complicates the issue that the appropriate professionals need to be brought in, to ensure that the sensitive, involved work is done. The concern should be with ensuring something really didn’t happen before the person is labelled an “unreliable witness” and the case dropped on that basis. These cases can simply too complicated to let that happen, and no one should feel that they’re at a disadvantage at a sexual assault trial because of a disability.

Accessibility in the Judicial System

The judicial system is already a daunting place for people with mental conditions and intellectual disabilities (or both). It’s intimidating, the questions are difficult to understand, the rights of the people involved are difficult to understand and the processes aren’t intuitive. We need advocates to help the judicial system become more accessible for those whose disabilities affect how they experience life and how they communicate those experiences to others – and to mitigate the experience of feeling like they’ve lost before the trial has even begun.

More on sexual abuse of people with disabilities:

http://calcasa.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Survivors-with-Disabilities.pdf

 

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More on New York State Group Homes

In case anyone needs a review on what’s been happening with New York State group homes for people with developmental disabilities:

http://www.girlwiththecane.com/new_york_state group_homes/

New York State Group Homes in “The New York Times”

The latest article in the “Abused and Used” series in chronicling the abuse in New York State group homes appeared in “The New York Times” just before New Year’s. The article focuses on one of the operators: Federation of Multicultural Operators of Brooklyn. The full text of the article is here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/28/nyregion/operator-of-ny-group-homes-thrived-despite-lapses-in-care.html?_r=2&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1325176919- Nhrsh5AFVgD828ev1jiW6w.

The financial history and hiring practices alone of the Federation are shocking enough. But the 27 citations for failing to meet health and safety standards in Federation’s Intermediate Care Facilities (all issued between 2006 and 2010) would be, one would think enough to make New York State want to sever ties with this operator. C.E.O. Danny King, who is a retired police officer with no experience in the developmental services field before starting work with the Federation, doesn’t seem concerned, according to the “Times”.

Just an Observation

Working in the developmental services field, I’ve noticed that we’re learning as we go along.  We thought that institutionalizing people with intellectual disabilities was the best thing for them for a while. Now we don’t. Now we’re becoming aware that even the best of community residential options brings up issues around rights and safety and how people in staffed homes should be interacting with the people they support. In the almost twenty years that I’ve been involved withNew York state group homes agencies that support people with disabilities, I’ve seen ways of thinking come into favour and fall out of favour and settle in the middle and then move toward one side again.

I’m okay with working in a field where there a lot of “grey areas” and issues that need to be worked out. I don’t tend to think in absolutes, and I’ve got a lot of patience. However…

No Patience or “Grey Areas” for New York State Group Homes

I do not see grey areas, and I have no patience, when it comes to people who violate the safety of vulnerable people and of animals.  Abused kids need to go to a safe place and parents should  have to go through a long, comprehensive rehabilitation process before they get them back (if it’s ever appropriate).  People who abuse animals shouldn’t be allowed to own pets.

And a service provider that receives 27 citations within 4 years for safety violations within housing (including the Federation’s failure to investigate abuse, inadequate medical care, and medication errors), should simply not be allowed operate New York state group homes. Period.

The article says that this all started four decades ago with the state’s decision to stop institutionalizing people with disabilities and a the lack of an oversight agency that could do proper and timely inspections of the group homes that people ended up in. Forty years is a long time not to have learned as they’ve gone along with this.  Particularly as the first small public group homes became multi-million corporations like the Federation, one would think that the state would have seen the need to put proper oversight and inspection procedures in place.

It makes me wonder, again, about how much society really values people with disabilities.

I keep seeing evidence that it doesn’t, and that makes me sad.

See the archive for the “Abused and Used” series about the New York state group homes situation here:

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/nyregion/abused-and-used-series-page.html

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Involuntary Sterilization: Never Again

Several feminist bloggers have recently written about a story out of Tanzania involving the involuntary sterilization of a woman with several children.  As an American doctors helped her to deliver another child, there was a problem with the epidural injection, and the woman stopped

sterilization

How much is the option to have a child worth to you? How would you feel if someone forcibly took it away?

breathing. The American doctor did chest compressions to save her life. Another doctor performed a tubal ligation, saying, “I think she does not need another baby after this.” The American doctor later called the second doctor’s actions “heroic”

Not Acceptable

When the story broke on the “Femnomics” blog, he defended his stance on the second doctor’s actions by saying that it had to do with realities of life in remote parts of the world and that the sterilization was done with the risks in mind of what could happen if the woman got  pregnant again. But all I could think about was large group of women who were sterilized “for their own good”.

(Read the whole story on the Tanzania sterilization here, plus the American doctor’s defense of his actions, here: http://femonomics.blogspot.com/2011/11/involuntary-sterilization-cowboy.html)

Involuntary Sterilization in North American News

Meanwhile, North Carolina is currently trying to decide how much monetary compensation is owed to the 7600 people that its Eugenics Boards declared should be sterilized involuntarily between 1933 and 1977. According to a recent New York Times articles (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/10/us/redress-weighed-for-forced-sterilizations-in-north-carolina.html?_r=2&pagewanted=2&seid=auto&smid=tw-nytimes), 31 states had such eugenics programs. They were  “an experiment in genetic engineering once considered a legitimate way to keep welfare rolls small, stop poverty and improve the gene pool.” The “feeble-minded”, or people with intellectual disabilities or mental conditions, were often targets.

Not that America has the monopoly on the this. Forced sterilization was widespread in Canadian institutions for decades.  Even after the eugenics argument had fallen from favour, sterilization for women was still favoured as a way to them and the women who support them handle menstruation easily, as birth control, and as a way to protect them from abuse (see http://www.wwda.org.au/steril2.htm for a discussion of this).

Not Enough

North Carolina is currently proposing that the each person that was forcibly sterilized be given $20 000. I don’t think it’ll surprise anyone where I stand on this. There’s a scene in the film “Erin Brockovitch”, which (in case there’s anyone left out there who hasn’t seen it), deals with a lawsuit over a town’s water that’s got a cancer-causing compound in it, courtesy of a very large company. When the lawyers are trying to hammer out a settlement for each citizen that’s been affected, Erin says, (and I’m paraphrasing), “I’d like you to consider what your kidneys mean to you…or your ovaries…or your kid’s health…and times that by a million…and then come back with an offer. Anything else is insulting.”

I think that’s the kind of consideration that’s needed here. These people need to go home and look at their kids’ baby pictures, and think about how they would feel if the choice to mother or father that child was taken away from them without their consent (and quite possibly even their knowledge). And think about just what that sterilization was intended to do. And multiply whatever number they come up by another, substantial number. Then they might be getting close to a reasonable settlement.

And put the laws in place so that this never happens to anyone else again.

Anything else is insulting.

 

 

 

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International Day of Persons with Disabilities

International Day of Persons With Disabilities

international day of persons with disabilities

December 3  is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. It’s a day to celebrate the contributions of people with disabilities and to raise awareness about their rights.

I knew that I wanted to blog about this in some way today, and I spent a lot of time thinking about it last night, and kept coming back to what Michael Bloomberg saying that having making all the cabs in New York accessible wasn’t necessarily what people with disabilities wanted.

What Do People With Disabilities Want?

I’m not a scholar in the field, but I’ve worked with people with disabilities for over fifteen years, and I’ve been living with my own disabilities for over a decade. I think that our needs are fairly simple.

  1. Access to Buildings When we’re cut off from buildings and from areas in buildings, we’re cut off from experiences and from participating fully in the community. We don’t have choices and opportunities that everyone else has.
  2. Access to Resources The current struggles to make web pages more accessible, to make menus easier to read, to make the justice system more navigable, etcetera, seem like overkill to some people without disabilities. But when you can’t see a computer webpage because you’re red-green colour-blind, or you can’t read a menu because the print is too small, or you can’t don’t understand what your public defender is saying to you because you’ve got an intellectual disability, you’re at a distinct disadvantage because of your disability.
  3. Respect for Rights and and Knowledge of Responsibilities  People with disabilities need to live in communities where, like everyone else, they have rights and responsibilities. People with disabilities, adults and children, are at a much greater risk for bullying or assault, sometimes by people are supposed to be taking care of them (paid and unpaid). Abuse can come in all forms (verbal, sexual, financial, violation of privacy, theft). Other rights that get disrespected are as follows: the right for a person to make their own decisions about their life, to be in relationships, to try new things, and to make health and/or money decisions. People with disabilities deserve to have rights abuse allegations take seriously, and need to understand that they have the responsibility to behave in ways that respect others’ rights. Failure to do so will result in consequences for them, just as it would for people without disabilities.
  4. Opportunities to be a Part of the Community  Everyone has ways that they can contribute. Community members need to be open to having all sorts of people as volunteers and employees in the community and makes everyone feel welcome at community events.
  5. People-Centred Supports for Assistance When Necessary  Not everyone needs help all the time, but sometimes something comes up with which people need assistance. It’s always nice to know that someone will be there if you need, whether it’s a paid or non-paid support.
  6. Income Support for Those that Can’t Work That Actually Reflects the Current Cost of Living  The amount that individuals receive on the Ontario Disability Support Program  leaves them at a poverty level.

The Challenges

Right now, setting up frameworks within communities where we can ensure that these five things are adequately addressed costs is taking a lot more time than it should. I believe it’s at least partly because educating governments about the importance of getting funding to help address these issues is taking a long time. It’s simply not high-priority.

And I think that’s partly because you can’t appreciate how vital these issues are until you’ve lived them.  I know from experience that it’s difficult to realize how frustrating it is not to be able to get into a favourite restaurant in a wheelchair until you’re in that position.

I didn’t know until a couple of days ago that International Day of Persons with Disabilities existed, and I hope it will bring some much-needed awareness to what still needs to be done.

On the lighter side, here are some people with disabilities whose accomplishments we really need to celebrate on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities:

  1. Rick Hansen
  2. Christopher Reeve
  3. Albert Einstein
  4. Terry Fox
  5. Stephen Hawking
  6. Michael J. Fox
  7. Helen Keller
  8. Ludwig Van Beethoven
  9. Thomas Edison
  10. Charles Darwin

More about the International Day of Persons with Disabilities:

http://www.un.org/disabilities/default.asp?id=1561

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Another Way of Looking at Group Home Closures

Group homes for adults with intellectual disabilities are closing across Canada and the group homesUnited States as a cost-cutting measure for agencies. For some families, losing group home support has already thrown them into a caregiving crisis as they adjust to having a family member who previously lived in a group home at home. But some of these crises are also opportunities for individuals, and families and agencies need to fight to make sure that governments see that and provide adequate support for individuals who have moved into other living arrangements. Because it was the assumption that people with intellectual disabilities couldn’t live in community settings that left them in institutions for so long, and we all know how wrong that assumption was.

Group Homes: Little Institutions

It wasn’t until I actually got some experience in a group setting myself through school that I realized how close they were, with no intention from staff or agency to them being that way, to little institutions themselves. When one or two staff is responsible for five or six people on a shift, there’s no way, in what each resident is supposed to consider his or her own home but has been declared to need staff assistance or supervision, lives on the agency’s schedule and the needs of the house. Dinner is what the staff makes and when the staff makes it. Bedtime is when staff says it is. Outings are when staff has the time. And, as we’ve seen in the recent investigations of the New York State group homes, it’s easy for abuse to go on in these environments.

But What to Do?

I’m not trying in any way to suggest that it’s easy to look after an adult child or sibling with intellectual disabilities full-time at home. There are issues involved with this: supervision (particularly when safety is an issue), care, and helping the individual to construct a meaningful day. But I think we need to ask ourselves, not just because group homes are closing more and more but because sometimes we make an assumption that a group is what the person needs when it may not be…is a group home the only option? Is there another living setting that could work?

For example, if the person doesn’t want to live at home but doesn’t quite have the skills to live alone yet, is there another family that they could pay room and board with, plus a little extra for some support with things that they find difficult to do (laundry or bill paying, etc.) Some agencies help families to set up placements like this.

Or if the person is living at home, what community supports are there to assist with caregiving? Some that may be of help are:

- nursing/supportive housing programs
- day support programs
- adult respite programs
- support workers
- informal support networks such as family and friends

Government funding for these sorts of things is unfortunately low right now right (at least in Canada. It’s a time to be creative, to network with other families, and to pool funding when possible to get the most out of supports. And a time to let your government know that if it expects you to have an individual in your family with a disability of any kind live at home with you, you need the support to make that happen.

The most important part of all of this is our attitude toward this. We can choose to look at people with intellectual disabilities having even closer ties to the community than group homes can give as a burden, or as something worth working toward. I told the teens with which I worked, “Assume the resources are there and that we just have to find them.” I’d rather look at the group home challenge this way, and hope that other agencies will as well as they plan to move people out of the group homes that are closing.

And, of course, that we’ll all continue to advocate for as much support for families as possible.

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The New York State Group Homes Situation

I found an awesome commentary on the New York Time’s “Abused and Used” series that I thinkNew York State group homes should be required reading for everyone. I think that you can get the message without having read the articles, but for those who like a bit of backstory: The “Abused and Used” series examines a review that the New York Times did on some previously unreleased data about the mortality rates in New York State group homes for people with intellectual disabilities. The Times found that in the last decade, 1200 deaths have in state and privately-run New York State group homes have been attributed to unnatural or unknown causes – that’s 1 in 6. And that number is the start of a story of abuse reports, poorly-trained workers, lack of safety protocols (and little or no review of safety protocols when a death happens) and little accountability for residents’ safety in New York State group homes that just made me feel sick.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/06/nyregion/at-state-homes-simple-tasks-and-fatal-results.html?_r=2&pagewanted=1

What the New York State Group Homes Situation Tells Us

There’s obviously something in our society that’s still very apathetic toward people with disabilities, or the situation in New York State group homes would not have happened – some governing body would have seen what was happening and snapped to attention long before it got to this point. I like Zoe Wool’s take on it (this is the required reading I was talking about earlier):

http://savageminds.org/2011/11/06/valuing-life-death-and-disability-sorting-people-in-the-new-york-times/comment-page-1/#comment-708957

The problem is (and the family of  one the residents who died also said this; see link to article in the first section) is that we don’t value people with disabilities in our society. Wool suggests it’s because we value people with disabilities relative to what kind of contribution they make (or made), rather than on their inherent personhood, to the point it determines how we speak about them.

Or whether we try to assist them to have a life or,  just try to keep them alive.

That sort of difference shouldn’t exist. Everyone with a disability should have access to the resources that they need to not only live safely and with dignity, but to have equal access to the community and opportunities to build the life that they desire that people without disabilities do. We don’t need further inequality lines within the disability community itself.

What to Do?

This is why we have to whole-heartedly support efforts by people such as Nicky Clark to stomp out disability hate speech. Because when you can call people with disabilities disgusting names, it’s not that much further to believing it’s okay to do things like slack off on those boring, inconvenient little things that you have to do in your job to keep them safe (like make sure food is cut up small enough so they won’t choke and then actually stick around to see that they don’t choke while they’re eating; see link to article in the first section), and just a bit further to justifying withholding food. I don’t know how people get to the point where they physically and/or sexually abuse residents, but apparently plenty of both was going on as well, rarely reported to police, and dealt with internally by moving the abusing staff to another home where they would abuse again.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/13/nyregion/13homes.html?pagewanted=1

And I don’t know why people like this even want to work in group homes, or how they get past the interview process, but obviously in the New York State group homes a whole lot of them did…and now we’re seeing what happens when they get shuffled from house to house instead of fired and when the system doesn’t have enough safeguards to make sure the damage they do doesn’t happen again.

It makes me wonder how many other states this sort of thing is happening in… :(

Archive of the “Abused and Used” series about New York State group homes:

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/nyregion/abused-and-used-series-page.html?src=tp

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Questions about Assault…

People with disabilities are much more vulnerable to assault, especially sexual assault than their non-disabled peers.

Stats Don’t Lie

After all, consider these 2006 statistics from the Disabled Womens’ Network Ontario:

  • The risk of sexual abuse of people with disabilities appears to be at least 150% of that of individuals of the same sex and similar age without disabilities.
  • It is estimated that only 20% of sexual abuse cases involving disabled people are ever reported to the police, community service agencies, or other authorities.

And this one from L. Stimpson’s and M. Best’s “Courage Above All: Sexual Assault Againt Women with Disabilities”, 1991:

  • 83% of women with disabilities will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime.

“When I was Young and Foolish…

Before the stroke, I  know I put myself in risky situations when there was no need.. I knew during university and college that I should use the Walkhome services, but I rarely did. At first I just couldn’t be bothered, but as the years progressed I really just didn’t want to feel like a victim. I told me friend Carol, “I’ve never been followed,”

“That you know of,” she said, and of course she was right. It still didn’t make me use the walkhome services any more frequently, though.

Reconsidering

After my stroke, I did start to get some unwanted attention from men. From one man, it was scarily unwanted, and forced me to start thinking about things like, “How far would you go if you felt threatened? What’s your safety plan?”

He wasn’t dangerous. He had issues, yes, but when I finally got the guts to firmly set boundaries with him about how I didn’t want him near me, and didn’t want him trying to talk to me or call me, and that I’d get authorities involved if he did, he left me alone.

I think that some of the attention I get from men definitely comes from a personality type that sees the cane and thinks, “There’s someone that needs me to take of her.” But I can spot that dynamic forming pretty quickly, and politely put the brakes on it – I don’t need someone to take care of me, and the man who’s not willing to look at me as anything more than that is just going to be disappointed by me anyway. But honestly, I think that the reason I get more attention from men now has very little to do with my disability:

I walk with a confidence now. I don’t look down anymore.

I look people (even men!) in the eye and smile.

I’m less shy. I like talking to people.

Before the stroke…self-confidence didn’t come so easily. I know it’s strange that now, with a cane and disabilities, it has…but maybe I’ll talk about that another time.

In Light of Stats on Assault on People with Disabilities…

I’m much more careful than I used to be about being in public by myself, particularly at night. I’ve heard enough statistics about women with disabilities and assault (and women and assault in general) that I don’t want to become one of them.  There’s making a point – and taking needless risk.  I don’t like to think that I live in fear, but I really was scared by what happened with that guy, and it was very mild as these things go…but it took me a long time to feel safe again.

So, lesson learned. Safety first. Take appropriate precautions for yourselves out there, and teach the young people in your life to do the same, especially ones with disabilities.

Because the stats I quoted are disturbing on several levels:

What is it about a person with a disability that makes the probability of he/she getting assaulted so much higher? Isassault it a perception that they are more easily overpowered? Is it a lower level of respect for their humanity? Is there a (apparently correct perception) perception that they are less likely to “tell”, or easier to bully into not telling? When I hear that that Johnson and Sigler’s research in 2000 reported that as many as 83% of women and 32% of men with developmental disabilities are victims of sexual assault, it makes me think it’s a combination of all of them, and that’s just not acceptable.

Why aren’t people with disabilities who have been assaulted telling the authorities about it? Are people not taking them seriously? Are they being properly educated on what assault is? Do they value themselves enough to tell? Do they have enough information on what would happen to separate the scare tactic of an assaulter from what would really happen if they went to the police?

Again, not acceptable. But it’s the way life is right now.  So we owe it to the people with disabilities in our lives to have these conversations abuse and assault so that they know exactly what they need to do if it happens to them. I’ve told youth that I’ve worked with to find one adult that they could trust to tell – a teacher, a parent, an adult, a worker –  and that the adult would help them with the decisions from there.  This approach won’t always work. But I believe that it works more often than not.

I got the statistics for this post from a sheet prepared by the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre: http://orcc.net/PDF/factsheets/Sexual-Assault-Statistics-FS.pdf

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Supporting People with Intellectual Disabilities: Difficult Conversations

Last night, as I was flipping through the channels I happened to catch an episode of “Law and Order: SVU” that dealt with intellectual disabilities. I’m always interested to see how the media portrays people with disabilities, so I decided to watch.

People with Intellectual Disabilities and Sexual Assault

“Law and Order: SVU” is always interesting, but it’s rarely easy to watch. Some episodes are easier for me to handle without wanting to burst into tears than others, but it’s the only show on television that makes me consistently ask myself, “Can I really handle this?” Last night was no exception; the show was about a young woman with Down’s Syndrome who was pregnant as a result of a rape, and the numerous issues that come out of that particular situation.

People with disabilities (in general, not just intellectual disabilities) are, unfortunately at much higher risk of sexual assault. The California Coalition Against Sexual Assault reported in 2001 that 15 000 to 19 000 people with developmental disabilities were raped per year (California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, “Serving Survivors of Sexual Assault with Disabilities”, 2001). I couldn’t find more current statistics, but I shudder to think what they are now.

The Importance of Having the Difficult Conversations

The statistics I quoted above scare me, but they also strengthen my resolve not to avoid difficult conversations. I’m not a mother, but I’ve had enough conversations about sex with people with intellectual disabilities, people operating at a teenage mentality or lower, to know that it’s not fun for anyone involved. It’s not comfortable to have to ask people if they know what sex is (and to sometimes have to explain) or ask if they’ve thought about birth control. But damn it, it’s necessary. The people I support may be, mentally, in their teens or younger. But they’ve got adult bodies, complete with adult sex drives. They need to be prepared for the possibility that they may choose at some point to have consensual sex.

They need to also be aware that not all sexual contact is good. They need to know the difference between “good” and “bad” touch, and what they need to do if someone ever touches them in a “bad” way. Because, as much as we’d like to be able to protect people with intellectual disabilities from all the bad that’s out there in the world, it’s just not possible to do so, or responsible to believe that it can be done forever. The harsh reality is that eventually the parents of these adults with disabilities aren’t going to be there to protect their kids. And while that doesn’t mean that the adult with disabilities is necessarily going to be out on the street, having as many skills and as much knowledge as possible – including at least a basic awareness of issues around sexuality and sexual safety – is going to make the transition to whatever comes next all that much easier.

It’s much easier to have these difficult conversations than to have to hear, as the mother on the SVU episode did, that your daughter with intellectual disabilities is pregnant as a result of a rape. In the name of their safety, people with intellectual disabilities need education appropriate to their developmental level (not just once, but again and again) about sexual safety just as much as people without disabilities do.

I’m not going to even get into right now some of the other issues that the “SVU” episode raised: competency and capacity assessment, the debate about whether people with intellectual disabilities can raise children, who should get to decide what when it comes to individuals with intellectual disabilities…but you can bet that I’ll revisit these things at a later date.

Please remember, though, that I don’t claim to have all the answers…when you get into questions like these, nothing is black and white and sometimes it seems like the “right” answers change by the day. If there’s ever anything that you’d like me to talk about in a more in-depth manner, or do more investigation into yourself, let me know; I’ll either do some more research myself or point you to resources where you can find out more.

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