One way we can all fight sexual abuse towards people with disabilities

Lately I’ve been doubling down to work on the upcoming Disabled and Successful Course. I’ve been interviewing parents to find out what’s important to them and what their concerns are to make sure the course really addresses the issues that are important to you.

Last week I asked a mom what her greatest worry is for her daughter’s future. She told me that she’s worried about her daughter being taken advantage of or being hurt. I asked a little more and confirmed what I thought she meant. She's worried about her daughter being sexually assaulted.

I’ve heard this worry before. My mom has the same worry for my sister. So after hearing this, I started to wonder: How big of an issue is this really? And what is there to learn and teach parents about this subject? So I did what everyone does. I googled it.

A webpage on NPR's website of an article with the title "The Sexual Assault Epidemic No One Talks About"

I found this interesting NPR article that states people with disabilities are sexually assaulted at rates seven times higher than those who are non-disabled. (And as if the universe was trying to tell me I was on the right track, I scrolled to see who the author is, and it turns out it’s Joseph Shapiro, the same author of the book I happen to be halfway through reading right now, No Pity.)

One quote from the article really stood out to me. It was by a public figure and mother of a disabled child who was describing the many reasons perpetrators choose victims who have disabilities, one of which was, “[Disabled people] are generally taught from childhood to be compliant, to obey, to go along with people.”

It got me thinking, are we as non-disabled people contributing to this issue by telling people with disabilities throughout their lives that they have to be compliant and go along with whatever we say? Are we contributing to the problem by not letting them have a voice?

And then something happened. As I was driving between clients today, I received a phone call from a fellow physical therapist about a mutual client. She was explaining to me how this child screams when he doesn’t want to do something new (screaming is his only form of communication to say “no.”) So she makes him do it, lets him scream, and then over time he screams and cries less and less as he gets used to it. She thought I was being too easy on him and letting him get away with too much.

I rode around all day thinking about this. Was I being too easy on him? Was she being too hard on him? And then it came full circle for me. This is exactly what this mom was talking about in this article. This was a perfect example of teaching kids with disabilities to be compliant. This child doesn’t have the voice to tell his therapist why he doesn’t want to do it. He could be in pain, he could be anxious, he could be afraid. We just don’t know. But the message he was getting was that even if he speaks up for himself and says “no,” people won’t listen to him and respect him.

I know I have personally had this debate with myself often. It’s hard to weigh how much you push certain activities or procedures on a child because it will help them versus how much they don’t like it. But If we believe in the dignity, autonomy, and voice of people with disabilities, then we have to believe in respecting that voice. If we want to reduce the rates of sexual assault on people with disabilities, then we need to let kids with disabilities know their voice matters.

I want to know, what is one way that you can let your child know that their voice matters?

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