Barriers to justice when rapists attack women with disabilities: Australian report

[This post was originally published on October 3, 2008 at Hoyden About Town.]

*trigger warnings apply to this post: descriptions of abuse and sexual assault against women with disabilities**

“This young woman [“Caroline”] has cerebral palsy, is wheelchair bound, totally dependent on carers for her personal and daily living activities, and non-verbal. Cognitively very aware, she depends on assisted communication to enable her to communicate … Caroline was sexually assaulted by the taxi driver who picked her up from home and drove her to school …

Caroline uses a communication book to communicate, but her communication book did not have the vocabulary she needed to describe what had happened to her. Her communication book did not include words such as “penis” or “rape”, and police would not allow these words to be added after the incident, because as the police explained, in court this would be seen as leading the witness. (Excerpt from an interview with a support worker cited in Federation of Community Legal Centres, 2006, pp. 7–8).”

Suellen Murray and Anastasia Powell of the Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault have just released a new report: “Sexual assault and adults with a disability enabling recognition, disclosure and a just response” [PDF].

This report starts to fill a huge gap in our knowledge of sexual violence in Australia. Although data in North America has shown that women with disabilities (WWD) are far more likely to experience sexual violence than those without, up until now there has been little or no systematic research into what is happening with WWD in Australia:

Despite being the major national data collection regarding the status and experiences of adults with a disability, the ABS Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers, does not invite participants to report on their experiences of violence or abuse.

Similarly, the ABS (2006) Personal Safety Survey report, which specifically investigates experiences of violence, does not identify the disability status of participants, and the International Violence Against Women Survey (IVAWS) specifically excluded women with an illness or disability from the sample for the survey (Mouzos & Makkai, 2004).

Therefore, despite evidence that approximately 20% of Australian women, and 6% of men, will experience sexual violence in their lifetime (ABS, 2006), there is no standard national data collection that includes the experiences of sexual violence amongst adults with a disability, or more specifically, the experiences of women with a disability.

There is one smallish South Australian study showing that adults with intellectual disabilities are over ten times more likely to have been sexually assaulted.

Particular risk factors include being female or being in residential care. This report recognises the spectrum of disability and victimisation, but concentrates on women with intellectual disabilities or severe communication or psychiatric disabilities, because of their particular vulnerability and difficulty in reporting.

The authors found that women in residential care are most likely to be sexually assaulted by male residents. Staff are another key perpetrator group. Women in their homes are mostly likely to be sexually assaulted by family members and partners. Family violence and paid-carer violence have been particularly ignored in the research literature.

Barriers to disclosure are a major problem. They include:

1. Ideas about WWD being particularly asexual, undesirable, dishonest, or promiscuous.

2. Inability of victims to identify their experience as grooming and sexual assault, due to lack of protective-behaviour and sexual education. (Issues of sexual agency are also touched on in the report.)

3. Punitive institutional responses to reports, including moving the victim rather than the assaulter, or locking victims in their rooms.

4. Dependence on perpetrators can leave victims unable to disclose because their care needs will no longer be met.

5. Communication difficulty, both practical and situational, related to disability or to physical and social isolation. Family carers or residential management act as gate-keepers and decision-makers, taking the power to report out of victims’ hands. Carers and workers lack training in appropriate responses to reporting.

The “gate-keeper” problem can lead to deliberate collusion, or to concealment in the name of “discretion”. Sexual assaults tend to be labelled as “incidents” rather than crimes. Forensic investigation can be delayed to the point of uselessness. Victims are often denied support, assistance, and counselling.

Solutions to disclosure barriers and to inappropriate and abusive responses to reporting can only work if they are pervasive and society-wide. At the moment, policy frameworks and procedural guidelines are patchy, resources are inadequate, and services are uncoordinated.

The authors have a series of recommendations for future practice and research, both general and specific. They examine issues around mandatory reporting, and discuss law reform at a number of levels from support agencies through police and court procedures. You can check out the rest of the report here.


  1. The “gate-keeper” problem can lead to deliberate collusion, or to concealment in the name of “discretion”.

    I’ve also seen this presented as ‘we want to protect the privacy of the alleged victim.’ It is evil and infuriating, using the woman who has been raped to shield her rapist from even administrative discipline.

  2. As Amanda Baggs writes in If this is how they handle abuse, why should it be surprising it’s everywhere?

    Here we’ve got a staff person who knows what she did was wrong, feels horrible about it, was considering quitting her job, is very honest, and wanted to stop doing this. She reported it to her boss. Expecting whatever consequences she might get. Knowing that she’d misjudged a power situation big time.

    And they told her they are doing nothing about this at all, that it’s not even a problem, essentially.

    Caroline’s communication book not having the vocabulary for her to report her rape reminds me (in a very small, much less heinous way) of an autistic woman who wanted more swear words in her PECS vocabulary. All the words she tried entering into the PECS software were “too naughty” as she says, or the software did not have pictures for them. Her staff were able to make her a card with the signs for “up” and “yours.” 🙂

    The autistic woman (Kingdom of Rats) wrote about this (and posted pictures!) in PECS.
    .-= Tera´s last blog ..Rosemary =-.

  3. It’s practically the definition of infantilizing, innit? Adaptive technology that doesn’t provide an adult with access to adult language?

    Some days I almost think it’s the little things that get to me most. And then I remember the big ones. Like a state’s entire youth crimal justice system being intrinsically abusive. Given how many children are in that system due to mental health issues that the state won’t treat until there’s been some contact with the criminal justice system, there’s just a whole shitpile of intersectionality. These are some of the most vulnerable people around, and it shows: people keep assaulting and abusing them.

    I wish it was just Texas. I could deal with just hating my state. I’m a lefty in Joe Barton’s congressional district; I’m used to it.

  4. Silvia Teresa Osorio

    This entire article excludes the mentally ill women who get raped on a regular basis. You failed to identify the crime for what it is. For example whe you stateon section 2: “Inability of victims to identify their experience as grooming and sexual assault, [due to lack of protective-behaviour and sexual education].

    The crime of rape has no excuse whatsoever. No means no, and even body language of rejection means also “no”. So, don’t blame the victim by giving the umbrella to the rapist claiming the victim was raped “due to lack of protective-behaviour and sexual education”.

    I was perfectly very well sexual educated by my brilliant mother. And very well taught how to say no to men hitting on me. Yet, I have been raped over one hundred times. It is because of people like you catering the crime and always finding an excuse for the rapist to get away with this garbage. No wonder why the crime of rape will never end in this world with people like you and the kind of police who covers the rapist!

    The crime of rape exists because there are rapists, not because there are victims. You need to get it together first, then talk about the issue.

  5. Silvia Teresa Osorio: I think you may have skim-read this article. The report lists lack of education as a barrier to disclosure for some victims, not as a cause of rape, nor as an excuse for it.