Disabled women are more likely to be abused, study says

By Jessie Burnside and Amanda Friz

An overwhelming majority of girls who have a disability are either physically or sexually abused before they reach puberty, according to a Utah State University special education and rehabilitation professor.

Julie Smart presented this fact, along with other statistics concerning society and women with disabilities, at a Center for Disability Services and Women’s Resource Center discussion on Thursday.

“The adult woman with a disability who has not experienced physical and/or sexual abuse is rare,” said Smart and USU doctorate student Sandy LeBlanc, a fellow presenter.

More than two-thirds of girls and one in three women with disabilities are abused, according to Smart. This figure is twice as high as it is for women without disabilities.

According to Smart and LeBlanc, abuse against women with disabilities starts earlier, lasts longer and goes unrecognized for longer periods of time than abuse against non-disabled women.

Multiple perpetrators also abuse women with disabilities more often.

The abuse also goes unrecognized for an even longer period of time because of fear of being without care. This reluctance to report is often coupled with a refusal to “believe that [a] woman with a disability could be assaulted,” Smart and LeBlanc said.

Causing more problems is the fact that until recently, caregivers were not given background checks, the presenters said.

The abuse can also take place because “girls with disabilities are often not given sex education, especially education that helps them to understand appropriate boundaries,” wrote LeBlanc and Smart in their co-authored presentation.

“Women with disabilities are subjected to the same types of physical, sexual and emotional abuse as…women without disabilities,” they said. “However, there are some forms of abuse [that] are unique to women with disabilities.”

The caregivers might withhold medicine, food, services or assistive devices until the woman complies with the abuser’s sexual demands.

LeBlanc and Smart said that because there are such high rates of sexual abuse in institutions, administrators often forced infertility upon the women as a way of preventing unwanted pregnancies.

Other solutions not involving sterilization have been enacted. For example, caregivers now have to undergo background checks.

Christine Anderson, of the U’s Center for Disability Services, said that increased awareness could help prevent the abuse.

“One reason why we have Disability Awareness Week every year is so that people can be informed about things like this,” she said.

Anderson said that creating discussion is important. Perhaps someone will learn about it and share it with someone else.

“It’s like throwing a stone in a pond and hoping that it reaches people,” she said.

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Places to go if you are being abused:

University Counseling CenterStudent Services Building 426581-6826

Center for Disability ServicesUnion Room 162581-5020

Women’s Resource CenterUnion Room 293581-8030

Center for Ethnic Student AffairsUnion Room 318581-8151

Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Resource CenterUnion Room 317581-7119

Dean of StudentsUnion Room 270581-7066