Autism. Intellectual disability. Deaf. Blind. Wheelchair user. These words carry with them so many definitions and connotations but are all common in one way: They change how we as Rape Response Services advocates respond to a call.
Yes, there’s still a victim, and a crime was still committed. But, as I sat in class listening to Wendy Gilbert, a RRS advocate who works professionally with people with intellectual disabilities, I couldn’t help but think how these words would make a call a little bit harder — and that much more important.
The statistics are staggering.
In a study by the California-based Disability and Abuse Project, of 1,200 adults with disabilities, 62 percent of them reported they had been abused. Another study cited in Gilbert’s presentation found that 97-99 percent of abusers are known and trusted by a victim with an intellectual disability. Of that majority, 32 percent are family and 44 percent are people who have a relationship with the person because of their disability, such as caregivers, group home supervisors or drivers.
Our preconceived notions that people with disabilities may not know what is going on in their lives can also lead to doubt if they try to report sexual assaults. This means that if they report a sexual assault and are not believed, it increases future risk because perpetrators will believe they may not be caught or prosecuted.
“I feel that people with intellectual disabilities have a lot to offer, but unfortunately they get exploited very easily because they are very forgiving and trustworthy,” Gilbert said.
In addition, because these individuals often put themselves at risk to “fit in,” or do not recognize social cues, it can make them an attractive victim to a perpetrator. In some cases they may not even realize they have been assaulted.
Because of this, Gilbert said it is important for advocates to determine the individual’s function and communication levels, and find a common ground to discuss fears and challenges.
“You may be working with someone who is 50 years old, but intellectually they may be three or four years old,” she said. “You have to figure out that information and some of the things they like or feel, so you can find a common bond.”
That being said, it is important for advocates to recognize there may still be barriers. Victims may shut down, scream, cover their eyes and ears, or fight the advocate, particularly if they feel stressed or out of control.
In addition, as many as 40 percent of individuals with autism spectrum disorder are nonverbal, which can make it difficult to advocate for a victim but no less important.
People with autism are four to 10 times more likely to be victims of crime, a startling statistic considering that, according to Gilbert, people with autism are taught to comply with directions given to them and to trust people who say they are in charge.
Victims may also be Deaf, hard of hearing or use the Picture Exchange Communication System to express ideas. Regardless of the victim’s language, if advocates are called to work with someone who does not speak our language, we are trained to ask the individual if he or she wants an interpreter.
This person must be professionally trained, and we are reminded to stay aware of the fact that the Deaf culture is very small, and victims may not feel comfortable with someone from Maine interpreting for them. However, the option of calling in someone in from another state is always available and free to the victim.
But helping these individuals is not just about finding ways to respond to reports; it’s finding a way to prevent them before they happen.
Gilbert said she feels that the state, local law enforcement and advocacy have made great strides in working together, but there’s more to do. This is especially true when it comes to training and support for organizations such as Rape Response Services or Mert Enterprises, where she works.
First, agencies that support these individuals need more funding. Budgets that pay for housing, providers and crisis centers have been cut, making it difficult to find a safe place for victims to stay after they report.
In addition, training for not just advocates but the general public as well could go a long way in starting discussions about these issues and how to help individuals who have been hurt. Groups geared toward healthy relationships for adults and discussions of “good touch” and “bad touch” for children can all play a role in active prevention, Gilbert said.
“These types of groups give individuals a chance to talk about things like this,” she said. “A lot of them have had some form of trauma.”
Natalie Feulner of Bangor is the BDN newsroom administrator.