Violence and Abuse
The topic was introduced by the facilitator and she discussed and distributed the ‘Power and Control’ wheel.
A 42 year old man with a disability who also works in the field and has attended many conferences, meetings, and workshops about disability related topics stated that this is only the second time the topic of sexuality has ever been discussed in a group setting and the first dedicated conference on the topic.
One participant stated that nine out of ten people with intellectual disabilities has been or will be abused at some point in their lives.
The signs of abuse were discussed. It was stated that it is important to address the underlying issue and not just the behavior that it may be causing. Some of the signs discussed include:
- Physical- bruises, scratches, etc.
- Behavior changes
- Changes in routine
- Changes in level of personal care and hygiene
- Signs of depression
- Sleep changes
- Increase in sexual behaviors
The question was asked- “How do you tell if a personal who is non-verbal/total care is being or has been abused?”
- New fears
- PTSD signs
Several participants warned against victim blaming. Avoid statements or questions such as: “Did you fight back? Did you say no? Did you put yourself in a bad situation?”.
It was discussed that it is important for people to know how to articulate that something has happened to them. If a person is never taught words such as penis, vagina, or rape, then they may not be able to state what has happened.
A participant brought up the sometimes dangerous prospect of ending a relationship. Sometimes people stay in unhealthy relationships too long because that think, “someone finally wants me”. Other times when a person does decide to end the relationship the other person can become violent.
The topic of lack of choices was introduced. The group discussed that many people with disabilities are not allowed to make many choices about their lives including the people with whom that interact. They are often not allowed to make choices about where they go when and with whom. This leads to a feeling of no control which can lead to an acceptance of abuse and violence.
The group discussed that people should be taught that only saying ‘yes’ really means yes. Not saying ‘no’ is not the same as saying ‘yes’ or giving consent.
Someone brought up the topic of culture change which led back to the topic of choices. The group suggested that limitations within institutions create a control imbalance. In most institutions transportation, activities, housing, and direct care staff assignments are control and dictated by the institution not the person receiving services.
The fact that abuse frequently occurs “client-to-client” not “caregiver-to-client” was introduced.
A participant proposed that people with disabilities view themselves as always being a target. They get caught in a cycle of abuse and blame themselves when abuse does occur. Because of this, some people develop a skewed idea of what a relationship is supposed to be. They might believe that abuse is part of being in a relationship, that all relationships are oppositional, and that you have to constantly prove yourself.
One person suggested that predators believe that a person with a disability will not report abuse.
The group then began discussing education as a possible remedy to the abuse and violence cycle. The following topics were suggested:
- Make sure people know that they have a choice;
- Dispel the myth that sexuality in the case of people with disabilities is always deviant;
- Discuss what safe sex means;
- Create a positive view of sexuality;
- Instill confidence;
- Provide information about what sex is and what is means physically.
Many relationships that a person with a disability has are with family members or caregivers. This limits the person’s access to potential partners. The internet was suggested as a means of providing access to other people. Perhaps internet safety should be included in education.
Caregivers need to react to trauma and signs of abuse. Trauma responses should be respected and acknowledged. A person who has been abused may not want to be around people who look similar to his or her attacker and may even want to avoid members of an entire gender.
Someone suggested that people with disabilities often want to be viewed as agreeable and easy to work with. Because of this, the person may tolerate abuse and/or fail to report it.
Action steps and best practices were discussed. They included:
- Having an open door for discussion of sexual issues;
- Listen to what people with disabilities say about the topic;
- Educate, educate, educate- top to bottom, bottom to top;
- The overall system is broken and major changes are needed;
- Agencies are afraid to address the issue;
- Find ways for people with disabilities to communicate with peers. It will allow them to learn by word of mouth and be educated in informal ways;
- Learn to ID body parts and learn how to talk about sexuality;
- Are rape crisis center, etc. accessible for people with disabilities?
- “Equality with Inter-dependence” wheel was distributed
- Kudos to HDI for starting the conversation. More is needed.
- March 28- Lexington “Take Back the Night” walk
Approximately twenty (20) people in the session.
Sally opened the session up by sharing an image of a wheel depicting power and control dynamics.
In terms of sexuality, one of the participants said that this was only the second time he had ever been to an event where they talked about sexuality and disability.
Abuse is wide-spread in the disability community, both physical and intellectual disabilities.
We talked about how those without means to communicate are particularly vulnerable.
This prompted a discussion about what the physical and emotional signs of abuse are…physical marks, changes in routine, loss of interest in things that used to spark interest, avoidance of certain people and/or settings, uptick in sexual behavior.
We tend to blame some of these signs on the victim….”he is acting out” rather than seeing them as potential signs of abuse.
Many people with intellectual disabilities may have poor social and communication skills which can put them at greater risk.
Complicating the matter is that sometimes a person with a disability (pwd) is just so thrilled that someone from the opposite sex is paying attention to them, they will put up with abusive behavior in exchange for the attention/”relationship”. Trauma becomes normal….”that’s how a boyfriend acts”.
The support system for people with disabilities, as currently configured, in inherently violent. Even the commute to work is violent…you wait for the WHEELS van until it shows up (even if it’s two hours after you were supposed to be picked up); you are taken all over town, picking others up, and then, you finally make it to your destination, by which time you feel like you’ve been beat up.
Beyond that, because so many supports are still segregated and the pay of direct service staff so low, the system is ripe for perpetrators.
PWD need places where they can learn what a good relationship is/what abuse is/looks like. Where are those places? Where can we learn what a positive experience/relationship is?
What about speed-dating as a strategy?
Sometimes a caregiver can be the perpetrator or maybe the perpetrator is one “client” against another “client”….”peer-on-peer aggression”.
One participant said that he just always remembers that he is a possible target and behaves accordingly.
The group also talked about how pwd were either seen as asexual or sexually deviant, with nothing in-between. This can cause pwd to feel that they are constantly being judged in terms of their sexuality and/or family members think they can make decisions for you.
Issues pertaining to sexual confidence also came up. Not realizing that a physical condition may take some accommodation and how to go about that?
Agencies that provide direct service must establish an open door policy so that people can talk about their sexual questions/concerns.
Some concrete steps we could take:
- Agency support staff needs a “script” to use if someone self-discloses to them.
- College of Direct Supports through BHDID…does this curriculum address sexuality?
- There must be much more professional development around this issue for support staff.
- Participate in “Take Back the Night” scheduled for 3/28, downtown Lexington.