​What works for people with disabilities

​People with disabilities are over-represented in sexual abuse statistics. Successful activities educate and empower both participants and their caregivers.

Why people with disabilities are unique

People with disabilities are over-represented in sexual abuse statistics, which researchers have suggested is because they're more likely to:

  • live in poverty 
  • be exposed to more opportunities for abuse if they need help with personal care 
  • lack access to information about sexuality or sex education 
  • be socially isolated, eg from peers, and lack access to outside assistance and support 
  • be less physically capable of resisting assault.

What works for people with disabilities

Activities for people with disabilities should:

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    Educate and empower participants

  • Why educate and empower participants

    People with disabilities often:

    • have less awareness and information about sexuality or sex education 
    • have poor knowledge of sexual abuse 
    • may not be believed if they report an assault.

    How to educate and empower participants

    Successful activities should:

    • provide clear, simple sexuality education that includes assertiveness training, and focus on practical skills around keeping safe, recognising healthy relationships, and seeking support 
    • encourage recognition and reporting of violence in residential care settings 
    • be tailored to the needs of participants — the activity should account for participants’ ages, communication abilities, care needs, cognitive functioning, and developmental levels 
    • be focused on skill development — the activity should offer practical tools that are relevant to real life for people with disabilities 
    • include follow up sessions. In general, the positive effects of prevention activities lessen over time without follow up. Participants with disabilities may need to attend extra ‘booster’ sessions.
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    Include caregivers, family and healthcare providers

  • Why include caregivers

    Most caregivers have the best interests of the people they care for at heart, but may consciously or subconsciously think or behave in ways that put their charges at risk of sexual violence, including:

    • objectifying them or not respecting their bodily autonomy due to a reliance on physical assistance 
    • perceiving them as asexual, promiscuous, child-like, or irrational (including parents, who may be uncomfortable with their children being sexually active) 
    • not believing them if they disclose violence.

    How to include caregivers

    Successful activities should:

    • involve all the systems and people that have a direct impact on the participants, eg carers, family, healthcare providers 
    • educate caregivers and parents about how to recognise and respond to suspected cases of violence, deal with disclosure, and promote healthy relationships.

    Evidence for including caregivers

    Guide for parents on protecting children with disabilities from sexual assault — New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs (PDF 351KB)

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    Challenge social issues

  • Why challenge social issues 

    People with disabilities can often be socially isolated and face discrimination because of their disabilities. 

    How to challenge social issues 

    Successful activities: 

    • work to prevent social isolation and marginalisation by strengthening communities of people with disabilities 
    • build partnerships between disability and violence researchers and providers 
    • work to change negative social attitudes towards people with disabilities. 


  • Incidence and prevalence of abuse and people with disabilities — Christine Wilson from SAM (DOC) 
  • What works in Sexual Violence Prevention and Education — Report for the Ministry of Justice (2008) 
  • The prevalence of sexual abuse among people with intellectual disabilities has been estimated at around one-in-four — Beail and Warden (1995); McCabe and Cummins (1996) 
  • A 2002 study of 169 women with physical disabilities (of whom 32 also had intellectual disabilities) found that 53% reported experiencing sexual abuse — Powers et al 
  • Sexual abuse of adults with learning disabilities — Journal of Intellectual Disability Research 39, 382-387, Beail, N., and Warden, S. (1995) 
  • Barriers and strategies in addressing abuse: A survey of disabled women’s experiences — Journal of Rehabilitation, 68, 4-13, Powers, L.E., Curry, M.A., Oschwald, M., et al. (2002) 
  • Sexual Assault Prevention for Women with Intellectual Disabilities: A Critical Review of the Evidence. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities — Barger, E., Macy, R., & Parish, S., et al. (2009)