Preventing and Addressing Sexual Violence Against People with I/DD

To close out Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), we share this letter from Alison Barkoff, who heads ACL, Jeff Hild, who heads the Administration for Children and Families, and Admiral Rachel Levine, Assistant Secretary for Health at HHS, who was written to improve support for people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities who experience sexual violence and prevent it from occurring.

The letter and the list of recommendations it references were sent to HHS-funded programs, including rape crisis centers, behavioral health programs, violence against women health program initiatives, and those serving people with I/DD and are now posted on the ACL website (as a combined PDF).

Dear colleague,

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) and a time to renew our commitment to preventing sexual assault and supporting those who have been victims.

This April, the Administration for community lifethe Office of the Undersecretary of Health and the Administration for Children and Families are issuing this information memorandum on sexual violence against people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). This letter aims to raise awareness about the disparities that people with I/DD experience that may put them at greater risk for sexual assault and provides guidance and resources that help advocates and other care providers recognize sexual violence and improve services for survivors.

According to the CDC National Survey on Sexual and Intimate Partner Violence, more than half of women and almost a third of men have experienced or will experience some form of unwanted sexual contact in their lifetime. While statistics vary, a higher prevalence of sexual violence against people with disabilities is well documented, and it is estimated that 2 out of 5 women are victims of rape They are reported to have a disability at the time of the assault. A recent study of American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that women with I/DD experience approximately double the proportion of sexual violence experienced by women without disabilities, and that the prevalence of physical violence is approximately three times greater for women with cognitive disabilities and four times greater for women with cognitive disabilities. women with multiple disabilities compared to non-disabled women. women. Similarly, disabled men They are more likely than men without disabilities to experience sexual violence in their lifetime, including attempting or engaging in non-consensual sexual relations.

The impact of sexual violence is distressing for anyone. However, because people with I/DD experience a wide range of additional disparities (e.g., health, economic, educational, social) and face barriers to accessing services and supports, including those for survivors of sexual violence, The experience can be much more traumatic..

People with I/DD may be afraid to report sexual violence, especially if it is perpetrated by a caregiver or authority figure, because it could have negative consequences related to accessing care that supports their independent living. People with I/DD may not be believed when they report or disclose a sexual assault due to incorrect assumptions others made about their abilities. People with I/DD and people with communication disabilities may have trouble understanding or conveying what is happening to them and may not be able to clearly communicate non-consent. People with I/DD also do not typically receive sex education, and if they do, it may be inadequate. As a result, people with I/DD may have difficulty recognizing that they are being abused and therefore may not report it when it happens.

Survivors with I/DD may face additional challenges when receiving crisis support services because many service providers lack adequate training to support victims with I/DD, including training on survivor-informed care. As a result, they do not have the information and knowledge necessary to plan care for a diverse population with accessibility needs. For example, rape crisis centers may not have accessible buildings or services, such as victim advocates, that can effectively support people with I/DD with different communication needs. Without proper planning and protocols, they may not know how to support victims with I/DD who report abuse.

Sexual Assault Awareness Month challenges public health and human services professionals to reflect on these barriers to care and recommits us to our obligation to send a lifeline to all who need it, including people with I /DD. HHS programs and Department grant recipients are often the first stop for people who need assistance. HHS-funded organizations include rape crisis centers, domestic violence organizations, Centers for Independent Living, Protection and Advocacy Systems, University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, State Councils on Developmental Disabilities, and Centers for Community Services and Treatment, all of which provide critical resources that help victims with I/DD live healthier, more fulfilling lives.

Creating and maintaining collaborations between the federal government and national and state networks working on these issues is critical to improving outcomes at the individual and population levels. We recommend that health and human services professionals improve their ability to care for survivors with I/DD by:

  • Build relationships between domestic violence programs, sexual assault programs, tribes, culturally specific organizations, and disability organizations to facilitate collaboration and training;
  • Learn what works for sexual assault and domestic violence prevention;
  • Provide technical assistance to ensure programs comply with relevant disability laws and best practices in sexual violence response services;
  • Develop advocacy and case management protocols that ensure designated staff are available to assist survivors with I/DD whenever possible;
  • Develop trauma-informed facilities and services for people with disabilities; and
  • Involve survivors with lived experiences in designing services to meet their needs.

We are pleased to share a list of sexual violence prevention and response resources, some of which are specific to people with disabilities, to help your organizations build these critical collaborations and learn more about this topic. We have organized these resources by recommendation.

We encourage you to use these resources and recommendations to start conversations within your organizations about this critical topic.

Thank you for all you do to support victims of sexual violence and people with I/DD not just this month, but all year long.


Alison Barkoff
Administration for community life

Jeff Hild
Administration for Children and Families

Admiral Raquel Levine
Undersecretary of Health

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