We are encouraging passive participation in safety from the men and women who most need to take an active role.
As a company that supports people with developmental disabilities, abuse and neglect is an important issue, and something we take very seriously. I have no doubt that other agencies share our concern. With all this concern, a surprisingly high number of people with disabilities are abused at some time in their life. Reports suggest that as many as 83% of women and 32% of men with disabilities are victims of sexual assault.* Additionally, 49% of those victims will experience 10 or more abusive incidents.† It’s troubling that so much effort could go into something and still show the results listed above. What’s even more troubling is that 33% of the abuse comes from family or foster family members, and 25% are service providers. ‡ Most of the abuse comes from people who are entrusted with the safety and wellbeing of the victim.
If teaching people to recognize and report abuse has such poor results, it is necessary to reevaluate our practices. What can we do to better support people and prevent abuse? Are we doing anything now that enables or encourages abuse?
The only way we will be successful in reducing abuse is if we include the people who are most vulnerable in their own safety. Currently, we encourage passive participation from the people who most need to be active. Common practices, such as walking into restrooms or bedrooms without knocking, hugging, and touching strangers (i.e. new Direct Support Professionals), replace normal warning signs with a numb acceptance. When someone’s privacy is invaded, it is rare for that person to do the thing we most expect, such as yell and push the invader out of the room. If a person in supports were to scream and kick someone out of his/her room, it will not be congratulated, it will be ‘corrected.’ We are encouraging people to behave in ways that make them targets.
We need to take a serious look at our behavior and the detrimental effects we have on the safety of the people we support. We cannot keep everyone safe from everything; we must instead teach people to be safe and advocate for themselves as much as possible. We need to make sure people have a voice when they feel they have been mistreated. We need to make sure people don’t feel comfortable with strangers, touching them in ways that could lead to abuse. We need to recognize that our hugs could be desensitizing people from the fear of contact with abusers. We need to respect space and privacy, and encourage people to do the right thing when they are invaded.
Drew Johnson | Director of Training and Development
* Johnson, I., Sigler R. 2000. “Forced Sexual Intercourse Among Intimates,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence. 15 (1).
† Valenti-Heim, D., Schwartz, L. 1995. The Sexual Abuse Interview for Those with Developmental Disabilities.
‡ Sobsey, D. (1988) “Sexual Offenses and Disabled Victims: Research and Practical Implications.” Visa Vis, Vol.6 NoA.