Sexual assault and adults with a disability

Enabling recognition, disclosure and a just response
ACSSA Issues No. 9 – September 2008


Adults with physical, intellectual or psychiatric disabilities face particular risks of sexual assault and exploitation. Research consistently finds that rates of sexual assault of people with a disability are much higher than the general population. In addition, victims of sexual assault face particular barriers to making a disclosure. If a disclosure is made, responses to this disclosure are often inadequate and may be harmful. A response to the sexual assault of an adult with a disability that is adequate is unfortunately still very rare, making addressing this issue a matter of continued urgency.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS, 2003) Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers states that one in five Australians reports a disability. The most common form of disability reported is physical disability (14.7%), which places limitations on the extent and range of movement or activity (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW], 2006). Individuals with a psychiatric disability1 comprise 2.2%, sensory or speech disability 2.1%, and an intellectual disability 0.8%. It should also be noted that 6.3% of the population have a profound or severe core activity restriction, with women experiencing a higher rate at 7.1% of the female population as compared with 5.5% for men (ABS, 2003). Recognising that adults with a disability are not a homogenous group, but rather represent a diverse range of abilities and potential vulnerabilities, is particularly important. Indeed adults with a disability may not all experience the same risk or vulnerability to sexual assault, and nor will the issues and barriers that they face be the same.

"Disability" is a contested term for which the meaning is socially situated, such that the conditions or diverse abilities included in formal definitions of disability can vary between societies and over time. Using a social model of disability, it can be understood as "the result of disabling social, environmental and attitudinal barriers" (Howe, 1999, p. 12). Therefore, it is the societal perceptions and responses to people with a disability that are more often responsible for the increased risk of victimisation that such individuals experience. Consequently, certain factors place people with disabilities at risk of sexual violence. These factors include social and physical isolation, dependence on carers, a lack of knowledge that violence is criminal, and communication difficulties (Goodfellow & Camilleri, 2003; Petersilia, 2001; Women with Disabilities Australia, 2007a). As noted by the Victorian Women with Disabilities Network:

Women with disabilities who experience violence find they have less information about what constitutes violence; experience high levels of social isolation and increased dependence on a perpetrator; they are often not believed when reporting; they have greater difficulty accessing support services and may experience lower self-esteem that results in "tolerating violence". (2007, p. 8)

This paper reviews current knowledge regarding the prevalence of sexual assault of adults with a disability, who the offenders are, and particular barriers to disclosure. It discusses the ways that individuals, organisations and society can enable the disclosure of sexual assault of people with a disability. The paper then considers the most appropriate responses post-disclosure, in terms of public policy, the service sector and the criminal justice system. Finally, good practice examples in responding to and preventing the sexual assault of people with a disability are profiled and directions for future research and practice considered.


1 When narrowly employed, the term “psychiatric” disability or illness refers to conditions that can be explained by a clinically diagnosed and biologically based condition of the brain (Szasz, 2004). While some researchers and clinicians distinguish this from “mental illness” which they use to describe psychiatric-like symptoms that can be explained by social or environmental factors (for instance Draine, Salzer, Culhane, & Hadley, 2003)—in practice the two terms are often used interchangeably. This results in a frequent blurring of distinction between psychiatric and mental illness or disability, and there is no consistent or universally applied definition (McCabe & Priebe, 2004).