The Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD), a national network of federally-funded university centers and programs working to improve the quality of life of children and adults with intellectual and other disabilities, commends NPR Correspondent Joseph Shapiro and his colleagues on the NPR investigations team for their reporting on the issue of sexual assault and other abuse against children, youth, and adults with intellectual disabilities.
Shapiro, who has covered disability rights issues with uncommon sensitivity and depth for decades, spent a year investigating the widespread nature of sexual assault and other abuse faced by many Americans with intellectual disabilities. What he found is extremely disturbing, and calls out for a broad public response.
As a national network involved in training professionals who work with children and adults with intellectual and other disabilities, conducting research, and developing programs that support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, parents, and siblings in their efforts to have full lives in the community; we will continue and redouble our work with policymakers at all levels of government, service providers, people with disabilities, and family leaders to put an end to sexual violence and abuse affecting this vulnerable population.
In the segments that have aired to date, Shapiro and his colleagues discuss some potential strategies to reduce instances of sexual assault and abuse directed at this population. We view this series as a call to action and encourage policymakers, school officials, service providers, and law enforcement professionals to take affirmative steps to address this overlooked epidemic, including:
- Ensuring that all children and youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities have access to age-appropriate sex education (including recognizing and preventing harm and abuse) on par with what is offered to their peers without disabilities, paying attention to the need to make the curriculum understandable and accessible for all students;
- Supporting adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in their desire for sexual health and healthy, loving relationships with other adults; and in their ability to recognize and take action to stop or prevent unwanted or abusive behavior from others;
- Collaborating with and listening to advocates with intellectual and other disabilities in developing strategies that empower people with disabilities to speak up for themselves and support each other when they encounter assault, abuse, or mistreatment;
- Improving the screening, training, pay, benefits, and working conditions of direct support professionals (DSPs) who are working with children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities;
- Ensuring that all direct support professionals are trained to implement safeguards designed to identify signs of and prevent sexual assault and other forms of abuse in all settings;
- Recognizing that adults, including adults with intellectual disabilities, have the right to self-determination and to make choices in their lives including the avoidance of solutions that infantilize them or give other people power over their lives;
- Recognizing that people with intellectual disabilities who are from low-income families, immigrant communities, or other marginalized populations are more likely to experience abuse and neglect, and less likely to have access to resources or supports that can help them report instances of abuse and have them addressed;
- Recognizing that assault, abuse, or mistreatment also occurs when one person with an intellectual or developmental disability uses unwanted or abusive behavior toward another person with an intellectual or developmental disability and ensuring processes identify and prevent these circumstances;
- Improving access to technology, therapies, sign language, and other evidence-based communication strategies, to help people with disabilities who are non-verbal find ways to communicate about what they want and do not want, including avoiding or getting out of abusive situations;
- Improving the training of law enforcement, first responders, judges, and others involved in the criminal justice system so that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are able to receive justice and be treated fairly when they experience, witness, or are accused of a crime;
- Recognizing that segregated settings increase the risk of abuse, and working to ensure that all adults with disabilities who need long-term services and supports are able to receive those services and supports in integrated, community settings that they choose for themselves and where they are not socially isolated and have relationships with friends, family, and community members who are not paid;
- Improving systems where individuals can report suspected instances of assault, abuse, or neglect and receive prompt follow up from professionals trained to investigate these allegations in a prompt and effective manner; and
- Improving data collection by the Department of Justice to include people living in group homes and other congregate settings, so that we can get a better sense of the scope and nature of the problems in these settings and include solutions that will be effective for people living in these settings.
The AUCD network has broad and deep expertise with these complex issues, including many of the individuals who were interviewed as part of the NPR series, and we look forward to sharing our experience and expertise with policymakers, people with intellectual and other disabilities, families, service providers, and the public as we seek to end the epidemic of sexual assault and other abuse directed at Americans with intellectual and developmental disabilities. We are grateful to Mr. Shapiro and his NPR colleagues for their exemplary reporting and attention to an issue that is a blot on our national character and requires immediate attention.