Abuse Unspoken: Proactive protection of people with cognitive and developmental disabilities

I remember the day my then-17-year-old sister Kendra came home from school with three raised bleeding gashes on her right arm. Kendra could not tell anyone what had happened. Because she is autistic and nonverbal, my family primarily relies on the school’s daily records to learn about Kendra’s time away from home. On that day, the notes failed to mention anything about the deep scratches. Concerned, my mom called the school and transportation services for answers, but her questions were met with vague conjectures about playing near trees during recess.

The three wounds have long since healed, but my family still does not know what transpired. We are still unnerved by the ambiguity of the incident. Perhaps it really was nothing serious, but the truth is trapped in Kendra’s silence.

As her older sister, I have always seen it as my job to protect Kendra to the best of my ability. However, until I saw those angry red gashes, I had only understood her heightened vulnerability as a person with cognitive and developmental disabilities in an abstract sense. Logically, I knew that if anyone were to harm Kendra, since she is nonverbal, she would not be able to easily communicate the details of the episode. I also reasoned that certain people might be more likely to target her in non-fatal violent crimes because of her perceived inability to hold them accountable, putting her at greater risk for becoming what experts at The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability (NCCJD) call the “perfect victim.” Yet, it took the visceral sight of blood for me to fully realize this ever-present threat to Kendra’s well-being. Though I am thankful for this newfound awareness, it is fundamentally flawed in its reactive onset. 

Societally, we cannot afford to wait for the sight of blood to acknowledge the pervasively intentional victimization of those with extreme cognitive and developmental needs. We must strive to be proactive allies for these members of the special needs community.

As with most transgressions against bioethics and human rights, education is the key to the prevention of the concentrated mistreatment of arguably the most vulnerable individuals in our society. Simply reacting to potential physical signs of abuse is not sufficient in ultimately protecting people with cognitive and developmental disabilities.  The needs for this proactive public awareness and allyship are intensified by the dismal reality that these people with certain disabilities are less able to protect themselves from harm or advocate for themselves in the wake of harm. 

The facts directly  pertaining to the victimization of the special needs community are daunting and condemning.  One literature review cited in the NCCJD’s “Call to Action for the Criminal Justice Community” asserts that: 

  • People with disabilities are 4 to 10 times more likely to be victims of general criminal activity. 
  • Research demonstrates that children with any type of disability are 3.7 times more likely to experience non-fatal violence and 2.9 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than their nondisabled peers. 
  • According to a joint statement released by the National Council on Disability, recent studies also estimate that women with developmental disabilities  are 4 to 10 times more  at risk to be victims of sexual violence. 
  • Furthermore, approximately 15,000-19,000 people with developmental disabilities are raped in the United States each year.

It is especially startling to note that all the aforementioned statistics are deemed very conservative estimates. Because members of the special needs community often face additional hurdles in communication, they are even less likely to report incidents of abuse. Though the data as currently gathered is convincing enough, these numbers may only represent the tip of reality’s iceberg.

One of my deepest fears is that my sister Kendra is wrestling with an unknown and internalized trauma from a concealed episode of abuse that she cannot put into words. I worry that she has been harmed, is at present risk of being harmed, and may be harmed in the future without me or anyone else knowing. For the sake of well-being for Kendra and people like her, we cannot afford to wait for the sight of blood; nor can we be solely motivated by disturbing statistics. As women especially, we have to understand the nuanced intersectionality in addressing violence against women and people with special needs. In pursuit of allyship, we need to see the proactive protection of people with cognitive disabilities as an imperative. 

If you’d like to learn more about this allyship, here are some further resources: 

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