December 01, 2000

Violence Against Persons with Developmental Disabilities - Human Rights Magazine, Winter 2000

Invisible Victims:

Violence Against Persons with Developmental Disabilities

By Joan Petersilia

Crime in the United States is decreasing and is now at its lowest level since 1973. Despite this trend, Americans with developmental disabilities have not experienced greater safety. In fact, recent research and the anecdotal experience of those who work with persons with disabilities suggest that this population is experiencing a heightened risk of becoming victims of violence and abuse. One recent study found that more than 70 percent of women with developmental disabilities are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, which represents a 50 percent higher rate than the rest of the population (Sobsey and Doe 1991).

Generally speaking, a person with developmental disabilities is anyone who has a mental impairment that manifested itself before the person attained age twenty-two, is likely to continue indefinitely, and results in substantial functional limitations in three or more major life activities (e.g., self-care, language, learning, mobility, capacity for independent living). The major categories of developmental disabilities are autism, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and mental retardation. Such persons are also referred to as "mentally retarded," "intellectually handicapped," "developmentally delayed," or "severely learning disabled." They are estimated to make up 3 to 5 percent of the U.S. population (La Plante and Carlson 1996).

High Crime Victimization of Persons with Disabilities

While the scientific evidence is scanty, it is important and consistent. Studies from the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Great Britain consistently confirm high rates of violence and abuse in the lives of persons with disabilities. Sobsey and his colleagues reviewed the available literature and concluded that the best conservative estimate is that people with developmental disabilities are four to ten times more likely to be victims of crimes than are people without disabilities (Wilson and Brewer 1992).

The Australian Bureau of Statistics administered an appropriately modified version of their Victims of Crime survey to a sample of intellectually handicapped adults and found that differences in victimization rates were most pronounced for the crimes of assault (2.9 times higher), sexual assault (10.7 times higher), and robbery (12.7 times higher). Only auto theft was lower for the group with disabilities and that was likely due to the fact that few had cars to be stolen. This study also found extremely low reporting rates: 40 percent of the crimes against people with mild mental retardation went unreported to the police, and 71 percent of those against people with severe mental retardation went unreported (Wilson and Brewer 1992).

Certain economic crimes are also likely to occur more often. For example, many individuals with mental retardation rely on state and federal benefit payments to support themselves. Frequently, these payments are forwarded through third parties. A study by the Social Security Administration found that there were problems in 20 percent of the cases, where appointees had been accused of murder, larceny, and "slave trading," in which beneficiaries were being sold from payee to payee (Luckasson 1992).

Moreover, studies have shown that there is a high probability of repeat victimization. Sobsey and Doe found that 83 percent of women with intellectual disabilities in their sample had been sexually assaulted and that of those nearly 50 percent had been sexually assaulted ten or more times. Revictimization is frequent because a high percentage of perpetrators are care providers or family members, and certain disabilities can prevent a victim from verbally reporting, running from, or fighting the attacker (Sobsay and Doe 1991).

In a study for the Office on Child Abuse and Neglect, Scott B. Crosse, Elyse Kaye, and Alexander C. Ratnofsky (1993) found that children with disabilities were 2.1 times as likely to endure criminal physical abuse and 1.8 times more likely to experience sexual abuse than children without disabilities (Crosse, et al., 1993). Some authors suggest that children with disabilities exhibit behavioral characteristics such as tantrums and noncompliance that impact negatively on parents and caregivers, increasing their risk for abuse. Others argue that many children with disabilities and their families display characteristics associated with abuse in nondisabled populations, including poverty, poor coping abilities, and parental history of abuse (for a review, see Sobsey 1994).

Deinstitutionalization may also have adversely affected some persons with disabilities, throwing many into poverty and unsafe community settings where they become easy targets for criminal predators. (On the other hand, one must mention that rates of violence in institutions are often as high or higher than those in the community at large.)

There no longer can be any doubt about the fact that violence is for many what Waxman calls "the hidden truth about disabled people's lives" (Barbara Waxman 1991:66).

Cases are seldom pursued when the victim is cognitively impaired because such persons are assumed to have difficulty serving as credible witnesses in court. But the evidence does not support this stereotype. In fact, persons with autism and mental retardation often have very good memories. Research has shown that, after viewing videotapes or live staged events depicting crimes, persons with developmental disabilities were as competent as people without disabilities when it came to remembering details of the crimes (Henry and Gudjonsson 1999). Their testimony is sometimes more reliable because it is less subject to distortion. Yet, victims with mental retardation are often not allowed to testify in court because their testimony is automatically assumed to be unreliable.

What is confusing to the person with developmental disabilities is aggressive cross-examination. Repeated questioning causes stress, and over time the person with cognitive disabilities will try to appease the questioner and may change his or her story, thus undermining credibility. Also, since perpetrators are often well known to the defendant, openly confronting the assailant in court causes anxiety and intimidation.

A person with mental retardation usually receives no special accommodations in court to assist with testimony. There are usually no advocates, no specially trained police, no use of videotaped or closed-circuit television to substitute for live testimony. In short, there are no special protections to accommodate victims or witnesses with developmental disabilities. Special considerations are mandated in some countries, but they are not in any of our fifty states. England, for example, requires the presence of a legal advocate during police questioning of a person with an intellectual impairment. This person is usually someone close to the victim who will assist the victim to understand what is being asked during the investigation. Scottish courts have the option to clear the court of spectators when an adult gives evidence in rape cases, and they do so frequently when the victim has a disability. Procedures such as these are now commonplace in the United States with respect to the testimony of children, but they do not apply to adults with disabilities. Many argue that special procedures now in place for handling the reporting and prosecution of child abuse should apply to these cases as well.

When criminal convictions do occur, sentences for crimes committed against people with disabilities are lighter, particularly for sexual assault (Laski 1992). A number of possible explanations account for this: the difficulty of investigating these cases, the lack among the police of the special training required for these cases, and the negative stereotypes held toward this population. Some believe that because victims with disabilities may not fully understand what is happening to them, they suffer less. Persons with mental retardation and developmental disabilities are often described as incapable of feeling pain.

Offenders who have victimized people with disabilities rationalize their behavior by suggesting that the victims did not experience pain and suffering. Of course, this is absurd. Research shows that people with all kinds of disabilities suffer just as much emotional trauma, psychological injury, and just as many social consequences of abuse as other victims. In fact, some evidence suggests their emotional trauma is even more severe and long-lasting (Baladerian 1991).

What Explains This High Vulnerability?

A desire for acceptance often leads people with cognitive disabilities to acquiesce in behavior they do not like or do not want for fear of losing social contact. They often feel powerless to avoid painful or harmful experiences. When a person is dependent on another for food, clothing, shelter, and all social interaction, that dependency prevents him or her from resisting abuse. Most have little access to resources (e.g., transportation to the police station) and most do not receive sex education (surprisingly, special education students do not receive the required sex education courses that nondisabled students receive).

Additionally, victims with cognitive disabilities often lack the vocabulary to report the abuse. Even if it is reported, the victim is often not believed or is thought to be fantasizing, or to have merely misinterpreted what occurred. It is essential to realize that because of their difficulties with abstract thinking, most people with cognitive disabilities simply do not fantasize or fabricate.

Moreover, criminologists know that victimization risks for different groups-e.g., males, nonwhites, or those with low incomes-are attributed to differences in lifestyles or "routine activities" that enhance a person's exposure to risky places and potential offenders. In other words, the activities that we engage in, where we live, and how we move around the community create the opportunity for crimes against us. Offenders select targets that offer the greatest net rewards.

When one group is selected as a target for crime more frequently than another, it usually meets three conditions: (1) the group members are exposed more frequently to motivated offenders (proximity), (2) group members are more attractive as targets in that they afford a better yield to the offender (reward, e.g., easy sex), and (3) group members are more accessible or less defended against victimization (lack of guardianship or access to justice). Persons with developmental disabilities clearly meet all three of these conditions. Further, in our society, there is a high correlation between disability and poverty, and poverty is related to criminal victimization. Poor people with disabilities, living in dangerous neighborhoods, relying on others or on public transportation, and dependent on unscrupulous "friends," are thus at a higher risk of victimization.

Many aspects of our service delivery system also place persons with disabilities at risk. For example, one study found that 44 percent of all offenders against people with disabilities made initial contact with their victims through the web of special services provided to people with disabilities (Sobsey and Doe 1991). Other delivery system procedures integrate those who are unable to protect themselves with those who are dangerous to others. For example, the reclassification of drug addicts as people with disabilities led to subsidizing them to live in housing for people with disabilities. Although not all drug addicts are offenders and not all people with disabilities are vulnerable, the combination has been viewed as creating a high-risk environment (Green 1998).

What Can Be Done? What Must Be Done?

Most importantly, we must break the silence and raise awareness of this issue among potential victims, their families, disability service providers, and law enforcement. We must talk about the issue, write about it, and educate our community. Victims with disabilities are truly invisible, often unable to advocate on their own behalf for services and equal justice.

We also need to increase attention to this problem at the national level. Congress recently passed the Crime Victims with Disabilities Awareness Act of 1998, the first piece of national legislation in U.S. history to address the issue. The Act mandated a study by the National Research Council's Committee on Law and Justice to develop a research agenda on victims with developmental disabilities. This committee, which I am chairing, will summarize what is known about this topic and what needs to be done in a report delivered to Congress early in 2000.

There is no need, however, to wait for more study results. A number of activities deserve priority attention now.

New laws are needed that would entitle victims with developmental disabilities to distinctive legal protections from abuse and special accommodations in court, comparable to those now in place for children. Because the current system does not provide many (if any) added protections or court accommodations, advocates are beginning to discuss a class action lawsuit on behalf of victims with disabilities, alleging that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires the police to bring in an "appropriate adult" when questioning either a victim or suspect with developmental disabilities. This is analogous to the ADA requirement that a person who understands signing be present during interviews with persons with hearing impairments.

California recently passed two statutes that relate to this area. The first increases penalties for those who are convicted of crimes against the disabled, and the other allows special accommodations in court testimony, i.e., testimony by videotape for victims. However, since most of these cases never get that far in the system, and most of the victims in the system are unaware of these statutes, much still remains to be done.

We need to implement personal safety training for persons with developmental disabilities. We need to arm these persons with some of the skills they need to avoid, recognize, and report crimes when they occur. There are now some good personal safety training curricula to educate persons with disabilities on these issues. Simple lessons can mean a lot, e.g., telling victims not to take a bath after they have been raped. Many victims do so because they feel dirty, but this wipes away the physical evidence, which is particularly critical in sexual assault cases, even more so when the victim's credibility will be questioned.

Greater education is needed for those who work with persons with disabilities. Because the victims seldom report these crimes, care providers, family members, and others who work with this population must be able to recognize some of the indicators of possible sexual assault or abuse. The first warning of possible abuse is the altered behavior of the victim. Any dramatic change in behavior that cannot be accounted for-e.g., irrational fears, withdrawal, or increased aggression-should be investigated.

Justice system personnel also need training as most are unfamiliar with the special needs of persons with disabilities. Several professional organizations have developed materials to assist in this education. For example, the National Judicial College has developed a training curriculum for judges entitled "Defendants, Victims and Witnesses with Mental Retardation: An Instruction Guide for Judges and Judicial Educators." Similarly, the Arc of the U.S. has (formerly the Association of Retarded Citizens) updated a training package originally developed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police about how to interact with persons with mental retardation. An excellent investigational guide has recently been published by Walter Coles, an experienced sexual assault investigator in Canada. His guide and corresponding video, "Admissible in Court: Interviewing Witnesses Who Live with Disabilities," shows that while it is more time-consuming, investigating and obtaining convictions is possible even when the victim has a disability. (See

We must increase the accessibility of victims with disabilities to crisis services, victim/witness assistance, and appropriate survivor counseling. Most agencies providing crisis counseling for rape victims or serving battered women fail to provide programming and services appropriate to victims with developmental disabilities. Again, a few excellent programs deserve replication. For example, the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault has just published a training manual and video for care providers and others who work with crime victims with disabilities. (See

Research is sorely needed on the prevalence of victimization against persons with disabilities. As Ruth Luckasson noted, "the justice system cannot be expected to respond to challenges to improve the treatment of victims with mental retardation unless the need is proven" (Luckasson 1992:212). Simple changes to standard intake forms, police reports, and other data collection instruments would enable researchers and others to document the extent to which these problems occur. We need to better understand the various risk factors that are associated with their victimization. We specifically want to understand more about the personal and developmental characteristics of victims and perpetrators, the situational contexts and settings in which the crimes took place, and the impacts (e.g., physical and psychological) on the victim. We also need to know the extent to which crimes of different types get reported; to whom they get reported; how the judicial system handles these reports; what barriers exist to effective identification, prosecution, and sentencing of offenders; and how those barriers can be overcome.

Better understanding of the nature and relationships of risk and risk factors can help service providers that design and deliver programs to target them more effectively. Service providers need to know how victimization occurs, and how it affects persons with disabilities, to design targeted interventions and to conduct training programs and community outreach.

Such data should also be useful to victims and their families, who will learn of the factors associated with increased risk. A Louis Harris survey found that nearly 60 percent of all people with disabilities said they feared that their disabilities exposed them to high risks of crime, and they limited their life-functioning as a result (Harris 1986). This type of information will assist these persons in protecting themselves by organizing their lives so as to avoid unnecessary risks.


In many ways, the "movement" to address crimes against persons with developmental disabilities is very similar to those that have occurred over the past twenty years with other special classes of vulnerable victims-those of sexual assault, domestic violence, or elder abuse. Those who work in these areas argue for greater awareness, victim advocacy and education, special accommodations in court, and data collection and research. In each of these areas, we have made tremendous progress, and similar progress will likely be made with respect to victims living with disabilities.

Yet, even more so than with these other victims groups, persons who are mentally retarded have virtually no ability to organize and advocate on their own behalf. Therefore, the onus of responsibility on those of us having the capabilities to work to end the silence of victims with developmental disabilities seems ever more pressing.

Joan Petersilia is a professor of Criminology, Law and Society in the School of Social Ecology at the University of California-Irvine. She is a former president of the American Society of Criminology, and is currently vice-chair of the Law and Justice Committee of the National Research Council.


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