Groups join forces to help prevent sexual assaults on people with disabilities

An advocacy group focused on the prevention of sexual and domestic violence is mobilizing a coalition of community organizations to stop sexual assaults on people with developmental disabilities.

The Nevada Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence (NCEDSV) held two virtual meetings last week to educate the public and create an advisory committee it says will focus on “prevention, support of survivors, improving access to services, and identifying and enhancing available resources.” Thirty participants from 15 advocacy organizations participated in the video conferences, sharing information on the different niches they occupy.

Judy Henderson, a training coordinator for NCEDSV, said the primary focus of the committee will be preventing sexual abuse of young people with developmental disabilities through education and increased community resources.

“The focus of the statewide advisory committee on preventing sexual abuse of young people with developmental disabilities is to identify the needs of self-advocates, parents, and service providers working on empowering youth with developmental disabilities with education and resources,” Henderson said in an interview with The Nevada Independent.

Children with disabilities are 2.9 times more likely to be victims of sexual abuse and violence, according to the World Health Organization. Other research has shown that 69 percent of people with a severe intellectual disability have been sexually abused at some point.  

In 2017 there were 47,368 incidents of sexual assault or domestic violence in Nevada, of which 336 victims were mentally or physically disabled, according to NCEDSV data.

People with disabilities who reside in assisted living facilities are especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation because they are typically assaulted by the very people they rely on for assistance, according to an NPR report that cited recent Justice Department data.  

Desert Regional Medical Center — a 48-bed facility for the developmentally disabled governed by the State of Nevada — did not respond to a question about the policies it has in place for the protection of patients. Recently, the state reached a $600,000 settlement after a patient with disabilities at the center died from injuries sustained in a fight. 

Anna Treacy, a sexual health educator at UNR, said that one of the best ways to prevent assaults is to educate the potential victims themselves.

“Many adolescents with disabilities lack the knowledge necessary to develop a sexual identity, and many don’t even know they’re being abused,” Treacy said.

Treacy added that there are limited resources for the sexual education of people with disabilities. The dearth of funding stems in part from the 14 classifications of intellectual disabilities in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — a federal law first enacted under the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 and reauthorized in 2004 — because each one requires different specialized resources for teaching. 

The lack of educational resources means people with disabilities and their families aren’t having informed conversations about mental and sexual health. People with disabilities who have had their sexual identities repressed can become “ideal victims for perpetrators,” Treacy said, because “lack of knowledge leads to the inability to distinguish what is and is not acceptable.” Ignorance about sexual norms can also cause people with disabilities to become unwitting offenders themselves, she added.

Henderson said there is sometimes also a general misunderstanding about sexuality. 

“People with disabilities are sexual beings… They are not asexual. They have desires, and it’s important to acknowledge that,” she said during one of the virtual meetings.

In 2016, the Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities gave Planned Parenthood Mar Monte $5,000 for their “Sexual Health Education for People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities” project. However, that funding has not been renewed since.

NCEDSV was founded in Nevada in 1980 and focuses on advocating for the prevention and elimination of domestic and sexual violence.