By Lucy Berrington, MS
Students with disabilities are at heightened risk of sexual assault and abuse, and are less able to access support services and legal justice, research shows. The same is true of students with emotional health conditions, although they may not identify as disabled, sexual violence prevention advocates say—an issue explored in Unseen survivors: When sexual assault goes under the radar. But students’ experience of disability and mental illness is highly variable, and while these students are numerous, they are not an organized or visible group on campus. How can colleges help prevent students from being targeted and support those who have experienced sexual assault and abuse? These five strategies can help:
1 Conceptualize disability broadly
Around 11 percent of US undergraduates identify as disabled, according to the Department of Education. This proportion largely excludes students who are experiencing severe loneliness or anxiety, depression or chronic illness, or past trauma. Any disability can increase students’ isolation and vulnerability to sexual assault, experts say. “It’s a societal judgment about status: who gets targeted, who is granted the power to advocate for themselves, who is seen as a legitimate self-advocate,” says Dr. Melanie Boyd, assistant dean of student affairs at Yale University, Connecticut.
2 Ensure that sexual consent policies are inclusive
Colleges can help build a culture in which everyone’s bodily autonomy and communication is respected. Sexual assault policies should recognize every adult student’s right to consensual sex, and the right to be heard and presumed competent, with or without disabilities. A societal bias toward “desexualizing” people with disabilities exposes them to greater risk of sexual exploitation, research shows. “For several reasons, it is unwise for university sexual misconduct codes to isolate disability as a special category,” says Dr. Joseph Fischel, associate professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University.
3 Guide students in establishing inclusive social norms and practices
“How do you address people’s vulnerabilities without reaffirming those in some way? Build structures and practices that accommodate them without calling them out,” says Dr. Boyd, who oversees Yale’s Consent and Communication Educators program. This can mean helping students reconsider the social accessibility of experiences they may take for granted, such as school dances, half-time at the big game, and initiation rituals. (For a guide to structuring this discussion, see the full article.) Inclusive cultural norms support all student populations.
4 Keep disabled survivors’ needs in perspective
Sexual assault survivors with disabilities have largely the same needs as those without disabilities, says Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center, a legal service in Massachusetts dedicated to meeting the needs of sexual assault victims. “Any sexual assault victim likely has suicidal ideologies and thinks they are to blame,” says Bruno. Skilled advocates and health care providers can help meet students’ disability-specific needs (e.g., HIV prophylaxis treatment following a sexual assault may interact with other medications).
5 Build supportive networks for students with disabilities
Mentor relationships and disability-informed support services can be protective against sexual assault and improve students’ access to resources. Support networks should include designated faculty and advocates who have lived experience of disability, office hours and spaces where disabled students can access confidential support, disability-informed counseling services, and organized representation in student government.