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Sexual Assault and Disability

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Sexual Assault and Disability

Adults and children with disabilities are assaulted at much higher rates than the general population. Disability can include a wide range of limitations such as hearing, sight, physical, cognitive, or developmental limitations. Some perpetrators will take advantage of people with disabilities. They think the assault won’t be reported, the survivor won’t be believed, or the survivor will have difficulty telling others about the assault.

Often, people who grow up with severe disabilities are never educated about sexuality, reproduction, or sexually transmitted infections (STIs) as part of their school experience.  Many have never been taught about boundaries and their own individual right to say no to unwanted sexual contact.  This lack of knowledge combined with perpetrator behaviors like manipulation, emotional pressure or physical violence may make a person with a disability more at risk.


Warning Signs

Below are some common warning signs that a person with a disability may have been sexually abused. If a person is showing these “signs” it doesn’t mean they have definitely been sexually abused.  It’s important to look for a pattern that may suggest someone is sexually abusing the person.

 Physical signs

  • Unexplained Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) or infection
  • Increased difficulty walking or sitting for a long time
  • Bruising of the genitals or inner thighs
  • Bleeding, irritation or pain of anus or genitals
  • Pain when urinating or moving the bowels
  • Bloody, stained or tattered undergarments

 Behavioral signs

  • Agitation, anxiety, inability to focus or abrupt change in mood
  • Withdrawing from family, friends or social situations
  • Anxiety or fears about bathing or using the restroom
  • Changes in eating habits or refusing to eat
  • Displaying symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Suicide attempts
  • Nightmares or other sleep problems. Those with disabilities may be more prone to sleeping disorders, so careful consideration of typical sleep patterns is critical in reviewing this warning sign.
  • Experiencing trouble swallowing or an unusual fear of objects near the mouth
  • New fear of specific places or people
  • Refusal to discuss events with others
  • Expresses sexual actions or images through varying media, such as drawings
  • Negative view of his or her body, especially the genital area
  • Having an unusual relationship with a caregiver that seems to have sexual elements involved

Finding Help

If you suspect someone is abusing you or someone you know, there is help. If you are helping a friend or family member, read the helping a special needs survivor (link) section of this web site to learn how to respond in ways that are healing and helpful.

 Local Sexual Assault Services Programs: Many Michigan communities have local sexual assault services programs that provide free and confidential crisis support, legal advocacy, medical advocacy, counseling, groups and/or therapy. Some of these programs also operate sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) programs or refer to nearby SANE programs. You can search for services in your local community online with an interactive map or you can call the Michigan Sexual Assault Hotline about these options in your community. 

Additional resources: Michigan also offers additional help and services to vulnerable adults through MDHHS.

MI Disability Resources: More information about services available in Michigan for people with disabilities is available at MI Disability Resources

Reporting abuse: You can report abuse of a vulnerable adult to the police. You can also report it to the Michigan Adult Protective Services by calling 855-444-3911. If you are a friend or family member, remember the survivor is an adult and should be part of any decision to report to the extent that she or he is able.

Reporting a health facility: You can file a complaint about a nursing home or certified health facility with the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs or by calling the toll-free Complaint Hotline at 800-882-6006.