NPR report shows people with intellectual disabilities face higher risk of sexual assault. Locally, the FISA Foundation is already working on the problem.


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In the middle of this #MeToo moment, NPR has released a report showing that people with intellectual disabilities face a much higher risk of sexual assault. Their series includes the voices of people who have been victimized.

NPR report uncovers sexual assault epidemic among people with intellectual disabilities


In January, NPR did a series of reports on a largely hidden epidemic of sexual assault against people with intellectual disabilities. Previously unreleased numbers obtained by NPR from the U.S. Department of Justice show that the rate of sexual assault against people with intellectual disabilities is seven times higher than against people without disabilities—and most often, it is by someone they know.
Why is this population so much more at risk? NPR talked to experts who explained.
  • People with intellectual disabilities may come into contact with many people in the course of their day—aides, teachers, drivers, therapists, family members—and they’re accustomed to being cooperative and trusting of these people. This leaves them open to being manipulated.
  • In many cases, people with intellectual disabilities have not received any sexuality education, including learning about touching, privacy, and what is and is not appropriate. So while they may be traumatized by what’s happening, they may not know that they are being victimized. 
  • Some people are non-verbal and can’t tell anyone what is happening. Those who can speak up are often dismissed or misunderstood.
  • Prosecuting these cases in court can be challenging and people with intellectual disabilities are often not seen as reliable witnesses. This leaves predators free to victimize others.
Before the deinstitutionalization movement of the 1960s, people with disabilities often faced horrific abuse and neglect in the state hospitals that they lived in. The move to community living was a huge step forward, so it’s terrible to see these sexual assault statistics in 2018. People with disabilities and those who work with them are not unaware of the issue, but the extent of the problem still shocked many of them. 
Locally, the FISA Foundation has been working for years to address these issues. Their mission has long been to improve the lives of three groups: women, girls, and people with disabilities in southwestern Pennsylvania. Preventing sexual assault and ensuring that individuals with disabilities have access to needed services is a big part of their work. 
FISA has recently engaged the Vera Institute of Justice to lead a learning cohort of representatives of nearly 20 local agencies—both service providers to people with disabilities and organizations that work with victims of sexual violence—for monthly meetings to build relationships, raise awareness, and improve services to survivors with disabilities in the region.
According to Shani Lasin, program officer at FISA, prevention is one goal, but ensuring that survivors can access services is also critically important
“If you raise the issue and you uncover the fact that so many people with disabilities have been victimized—then you also need to provide accessible and inclusive support and services,” she said. Building connections between these two formerly separate groups has raised awareness for both types of organizations and opened up new resources for those who need them.
The Pennsylvania Keystone Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society used a FISA grant to develop the REACH (Relocation & Safety, Education, Awareness, Change, and Hope) program when they realized that many of their clients were victims of domestic violence and abuse. The program screens people with multiple sclerosis for domestic abuse and helps them develop safety plans. Learn more about that program here
Another FISA grant funded a sexuality education program offered by ARC Human Services in Washington County to people with intellectual disabilities. Sex education is important because it gives people with intellectual disabilities the knowledge to know what’s appropriate and what’s not, along with the resources to talk about it. The program also addressed agency policies and procedures related to abuse prevention and reporting and trained staff to recognize and prevent abuse. Read more about the program here.

FISA staff also meet regularly with medical students to teach them how to recognize signs of abuse and what steps to take when abuse is revealed. 
If you want to learn more: 

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March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month


Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month IllustrationMarch is National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month. This year's theme is See Me For Me. You can follow or post related news and events on social media using hashtag #ddawareness18. 

President Ronald Reagan first established March as National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month in 1987. Read his original proclamation. Also check out Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf's 2018 proclamation.  

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