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Sex abuse against people with disabilities is widespread — and hard to uncover

People with developmental disabilities become victims of sexual assault at a rate seven times higher than those without disabilities, according to a Justice Department figured uncovered by a year-long NPR investigation. Judy Woodruff sits down with NPR’s Joseph Shapiro and Nancy Thaler from the Pennsylvania Office of Developmental Programs to discuss why the problem has received little attention.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first- the MeToo movement has shed light on sexual misconduct across all industries and populations.

    Tonight, we take a look at a group that has received little, if any attention, people with disabilities, in particular with intellectual disabilities.

    NPR spent a year investigating this. According to one Justice Department figure they uncovered, those with developmental disabilities are victim of sexual assault at a rate seven times higher than those without disabilities.

    For more, I'm joined by Joseph Shapiro, the NPR investigative correspondent, and Nancy Thaler, a deputy secretary at the Pennsylvania State Department of Human Services. She runs the state's Developmental Disability Program, and she joins us from Harrisburg.

    Nancy Thaler and Joe Shapiro, thank you both for being here.

    Joe Shapiro, I'm going to start with you.

    As we know, there's been a lot of focus the last few months on sexual assault, sexual harassment, after the Harvey Weinstein revelations. But you were working on this well before that. What drew your attention?

  • Joseph Shapiro:

    I was.

    I have written about disability issues for a long time, decades now. And it's actually — people with intellectual disabilities have been telling me about this for years and talking about how — the past sexual violence in their lives and how it gets in the way of living their lives now, of having the relationships they want.

    They told me about this. It's important to them. And I thought it was time to write about it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You — Nancy Thaler, why — before we hear about more about what Joe uncovered, why is this particular group of people so vulnerable to this?

  • Nancy Thaler:

    Well, I think there are a lot of factors that lead to their vulnerability.

    And I think it begins early in life. As children, they are touched by doctors and therapists, and their privacy is invaded in a way that's greater than it is for typical children. And so they begin life not thinking they have control over their bodies.

    We teach compliance, to listen to adults and obey what adults say. And children with disabilities are more likely to follow that path than other folks are. They are easy to overpower physically.

    But I think the biggest factor is that they do not have the capacity to communicate. Oftentimes, there is no speech or people have speech that's difficult to understand. But even more problematic is that, when they do speak, people tend to not listen to them.

    And, finally, I think that families, caregivers, teachers are not anticipating this is a problem, so they don't even notice the signs and symptoms when there is abuse in the child or the adult's experience.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So much to consider there.

    Joe Shapiro, let's hear an audio excerpt from one of these powerful interviews you did over the course of the work that you did. This was a woman named Debbie Robinson.

    Just set this up briefly, and we will hear from her.

  • Joseph Shapiro:


    So, Debbie Robinson is a woman who, when she was in her early 20s, she was sexually assaulted by someone who was related to someone in the household where she lived. She says now she couldn't name what was happening. She knew that this was some kind of relationship that she didn't like, that she didn't want it, she wanted it to stop, it was supposed to be hidden.

    But this was somebody that she had been taught to trust. She had not gotten sex-ed in school. People hadn't spoken to her about sex or sexual assault, because it was assumed, as a woman with an intellectual disability, she wouldn't be interested in having relationships or sex.

    So, when this happened, she didn't know what it was or what to do.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, let's hear just a part of that interview.

  • Debbie Robinson:

    I felt dirty. I just felt not clean. I blamed myself. And I felt powerless. I couldn't even look in the mirror, because, you see, all that comes back to you. It just does. I had to figure out that it's not my — it's not my fault.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Joe Shapiro, how typical would you say either Debbie Robinson's comments were or the comments of others you talked to?

  • Joseph Shapiro:

    Well, I think Debbie's comments are common, because here she experienced this, and she didn't know what to do. She couldn't tell anyone.

    Eventually, years later, I think 20 years later, she was at a conference, someone was talking about sexual assault, it came back. She had sort of repressed it. She felt she had to deal with it.

    But then how do you find a therapist who can — who knows how to talk to someone with an intellectual disability? It took a long time. She found someone. Then she couldn't get to the therapist's office. She doesn't drive. Eventually — and she didn't want to tell her parents. She was afraid to tell her parents. She hadn't had these conversations with them. Eventually, she found a friend who she confided in, who took her every day.

    But — so I think what's common is the this happens a lot, and people are left on their own to deal with this. They don't have the same access to resources that other people do when they deal with sexual assault.

    Now, rape crisis centers around the country are starting to reach out to this population much more. There are more resources now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that's what I want to ask you about, Nancy Thaler.

    What can be done for these individuals? First of all, you have to know that it happened.

  • Nancy Thaler:

    Well, I think a lot can be done.

    And I think, you know, going back to childhood, I think teaching children that they have mastery over their bodies, asking permission to touch people when we're providing care to them, will give them a sense that they have control.

    I think that teaching people about sexuality, we have this myth that people are not sexual, when that's not true. They have the same feelings as everybody else. So, being open about that, so they understand how to have a relationship and what good touch is and what bad touch is.

    I think that, as a system, we need to be vigilant, our surveillance in detecting and acting quickly, making sure that people report it. And I think, above all, helping self-advocates find their voice and have a voice and feeling empowered through training and support groups, so we have to attack this problem from a lot of different angles.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Joe Shapiro, that means family members. That means medical professionals, educators, anyone who comes in contact with these folks.

  • Joseph Shapiro:


    And these are people who come in contact with lots of people. They rely on lots of people in their daily lives to — we're talking about not just family, but staff people, drivers. And it's one reason why they're so vulnerable, because they deal with so many outside people.

    You know, our numbers that we got from the Justice Department show that people with intellectual disabilities are much less likely to be sexually assaulted by a stranger.

    And for women in general, most people are — sexual assault is by someone you know. And for women in general, 24 percent of times, the person who commits the sexual assault is a stranger, 24 percent of the times. But for people with intellectual disabilities, 14 percent of the time it's a stranger.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Nancy Thaler, the fact that it is family or someone you know makes this all the much harder to deal with, isn't it — doesn't it?

  • Nancy Thaler:

    Harder to deal with and often hard to detect.

    No one wants to believe it's true about people that they're living with or people they know. So it does complicate the problem.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One other question.

    Is the MeToo movement making it easier to address this particular group of people?

  • Nancy Thaler:

    I don't think there has been much impact on this problem from the MeToo movement. And I think that's an indication of how disenfranchised folks with developmental disabilities are.

    They're not tweeting. And the people tweeting about the MeToo movement are not thinking about them. And when you're not thought about and you're disenfranchised, you're at risk.

    I will say, though, that it's created a context here, so that this story can be told, and it's more believable because it is in the context of the larger social issue that we're dealing with and confronting.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Joe Shapiro, that's a reminder of why it's important for us to look at this group of people with disabilities time and again, no matter what the issue.

  • Joseph Shapiro:


    I mean, here we are, this is a group that is at a much elevated risk of sexual assault. We're having this important discussion in the country. They should be included in it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Joe Shapiro, thank you.

    Nancy Thaler, joining us from Pennsylvania, thank you.

    And you can hear more of Debbie Robinson's story and others as the NPR series concludes tomorrow on "Morning Edition" and on "All Things Considered."

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