People with disabilities in this nation – and indeed in the world – have many more problems than just simply the disability they are coping with, however difficult life is with a disability.
About 54 million Americans live with a wide array of physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities. Crime victims with disabilities and their families are even less likely to reap the benefits of the criminal justice system.
Sixty-eight percent to 83 percent of women with developmental disabilities will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, which represents a 50 percent higher rate than the rest of the population. And in many instances, crime victims with disabilities do not have physical access to services. More than the physical access, they also may not have access to representation – either legal or emotional.
Attitudes toward the person with a disability are as important as or more so than physical accessibility. A crime may go unreported for many reasons: mobility or communication barriers, the social or physical isolation of the victim, a victim’s normal feelings of shame and self-blame, ignorance of the justice system or the perpetrator is a family member or primary caregiver.
Reporting agencies often fail to note that the victim had a disability, especially if someone other than the victim reports the crime. Sometimes that may be the error of the reporter, and at other times it may be that the disability – especially if it is mental – may not be recognized.
Assumptions and prejudice about the reliability of the testimony of victims with disabilities can deny them access to justice in the courts. How often will a jury believe someone’s testimony when that person has a mental disability?
Many people with disabling conditions are especially vulnerable to victimization because of their real or perceived inability to fight or to flee, notify others and/or testify about the victimization. The person committing the crime simply sees that person as helpless. And there are prisons filled with men and women who commit crimes against the helpless.
Additionally, the victimization may worsen existing health or mental health problems. This may make it even more difficult to seek help, or make it more difficult to be helped if it is sought.
Many offenders are motivated by a desire to obtain control over the victim and measure their potential prey for vulnerabilities.
People with disabilities are also vulnerable to abuse by the very professionals and other caregivers who provide them with services. Approximately 48 percent of the perpetrators of sexual abuse against people with disabilities had gained access to their victims through disability services.
It is not just individuals with developmental disabilities who suffer very high rates of victimization. A study of psychiatric inpatients found that 81 percent had been physically or sexually assaulted.
The Colorado Department of Health estimates that upward of 85 percent of women with disabilities are victims of domestic abuse. This compares with, on average, 25 to 50 percent of the general population. Why the greater amount? Because of a disabled individual perceived inability to fight back? Or is it because of the inability of the abusing spouse to take the disability into consideration in the relationship itself?
A crime victim with a disability or a person who becomes disabled due to crime may not have the resources or the physical stamina to cope with the many delays and hurdles that typically occur in the criminal justice system. First they suffer the crime, and then they have to suffer the problems with the system.
Generally, individuals with disabilities are far more likely to suffer greater problems than their disability conveys upon them. In other words, the disabilities are far greater than are ever apparent. And the problems keep growing, money becomes ever scarcer to help the individuals, and society too often looks the other direction.
How is this possible? How can a civilization look away? More than that, how can people look away?
Part of the “looking away” problem may come because of fear, or inability to cope, or just overload. We may become so overloaded with things we should do, things we must do, things we know we need to do, that after a while it becomes easy to look away.
How many times have you looked away as you stop at a light and someone is on the corner or median asking for money or food? How many times have you looked away – or walked past – someone at the entrance to a story you’re going in? How many times do you look away? How many times do I look away?
When will we stop looking away?
All statistics, unless otherwise noted, are from: U.S. Department of Justice, Office for Victims of Crime Bulletin. (2001).