Societal myths and lack of protection services put sexual abuse victims with disability at an increased risk for ongoing sexual abuse. The disabilities these children face may require the use of crutches or a wheelchair; they may be blind; they may have a speech or hearing disability. The disability might not even be visible: heart conditions, diabetes, epilepsy, dyslexia or other learning disabilities are examples. It is not unusual for children and youth with disabilities to be labeled as having “behavior problems”, being “difficult”, “developmentally challenged”, “mentally retarded”, “mentally handicapped”, or having “psychiatric problems”. In order to better understand the risk children with disabilities face, it is important to be aware of the difference between Myth and Reality.

Sexual Abuse and Disability: Myths and Realities



Sexual abuse victims with disability are non-existent because people with disability are neither sexual nor attractive. Sexual abuse is primarily motivated by power and control. Individuals with disability may be easier to manipulate and less likely to report.
People with disability are either over-sexualized and unable to control their sexual impulses, or are asexual. Young people with disability go through similar stages of development as their peers without disability.
If young people with disability are protected and kept away from strangers, they will be safe from sexual abuse. Most young people are sexually abused by those they know and trust.
Young victims with disability don’t fully understand what is happening to them so they will not feel emotional pain when they are sexually abused. A young person with a disability may not have the same words to describe their pain, but their emotional anguish is very real.
Young people with disability are incapable of understanding and relating information, and they are prone to fantasizing and lying. They may process and communicate in different ways, but they are no less credible and truthful.
People with disability are child-like; they never really become adults, therefore cannot become sexual abuse victims with disability. While those with certain disabilities may not mature in the same manner or at the same rate as others, they do not remain children; therefore, they can indeed become sexual abuse victims with disability.
Adapted from The McCreary Centre Society, 19932

People with developmental disabilities are disproportionately at high risk for violent victimization, abuse, and neglect. (USDOJ, 2015)

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics 2015 report, Violent victimization for persons with disabilities was more than triple the rate among persons without disabilities, serious violent victimization for persons with disabilities was more than three times than that for persons without disabilities. The rate of violence for males with disabilities was 37 per 1,000 compared to 16 per 1,000 for males without disabilities; more than double the rate. The rate of violence for females with disabilities, was 35 per 1,000 compared to 12 per 1,000 for females without disabilities, almost triple the rate.

From 2009-2013 persons with intellectual disabilities had the highest rate of violent victimization, and among persons with intellectual disabilities, the average annual rate of serious violent victimization has doubled. The average annual of serious violent victimization against persons with self-care disabilities more than doubled, while the percentage of violent victimization against persons with disabilities in which the victim had multiple disability types increased for rape or sexual assault and robbery.

Research from Lang & Frenzel, 1988, reminds us that some offenders specifically seek victims with disabilities because they are perceived to be vulnerable, unable to seek help, and/or cannot or will not report the crime. Risk of victimization is likely increased if the offender believes the victim will not be able to successfully or credibly tell anyone about the crime.

The nature of the child’s disability may prevent them defending themselves, escaping from the abusive situation, or reporting the abuse; this may cause potential perpetrators to believe they can “get away with it”.

 The rate of violence experienced by youth with disabilities compared to youth without disabilities.

  • Ages 12 to 15:  More than triple the rate.
  • Ages 16 to 19:  More than double the rate. (USDOJ, 2015).

Children and youth with disabilities are more likely than children and youth without disabilities. (Hershkowitz, Lamb, & Horowitz, 2007)

  • To experience physical abuse resulting in bodily injury.
  • To experience serious sexual offenses including those involving.
    • Penetration
    • Repeated abuse
    • Use of force
    • Threats

In a five-year retrospective study of 4,340 child patients with disabilities in a pediatric hospital. (Willging, Bower, and Cotton, 1992)

  • 68 percent were found to be victims of sexual abuse
  • 32 percent were victims of physical abuse

It is important that we increase our awareness of the factors that make our children and youth with disabilities more vulnerable to abuse. Factors such as:

Powerlessness: children and youth with disability are not given the power to make choices for themselves; caregivers make decisions for them. Their dependence on caregivers also puts them at risk for becoming sexual abuse victims with disability. They are taught to obey their caregivers and compliance is reinforced.

Need for personal care: people with certain physical disabilities require someone to bathe them and help them using the toilet. They have little control over who touches their bodies, and in what manner.

Isolation: often times, children with disability are isolated from the rest of the community, which increases the likelihood that sexual abuse will take place, and it also increases the likelihood that the abuse will go undetected.

Physical defenselessness: physical, visual and hearing disabilities limit the child/youth from being able to physically protect him/herself.

Language, speech or vocabulary barriers: disabled children and youth may have difficulty protesting to offenders, asking for help, or disclosing abuse, which in turn puts sexual abuse victims with disability at risk for further sexual abuse.

Impaired or limited cognitive abilities: young people with intellectual disability may not understand an abusive situation and are more easily swayed and otherwise manipulated.

Lack of abuse prevention education: lack of information makes it difficult for children with disability to understand and recognize abusive situations.

Unprotective organizational structures and policies: organizational institutions that don’t have adequate screening of staff and volunteers, that have rigid routines, have a high child/youth-to-staff ratio, and lack clear abuse guidelines and policies put people with disability at greater risk for abuse.