Commentary Law and Policy

How Betsy Devos’ Title IX Actions Will Hurt Students With Disabilities

Robyn Powell

Title IX, and sexual assault more broadly, is not often viewed as a "disability issue." But it is.

Last month, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that the Department of Education was formally withdrawing some Obama-era Title IX guidelines, including the 2011 Dear Colleague letter that charged colleges and universities with taking “immediate and effective steps to end sexual harassment and sexual violence.” Survivors and their advocates are concerned that the changes regarding Title IX—which bans sex-based discrimination in schools—will lead to less reporting and investigations of assaults, especially among historically marginalized communities.

And given that people with disabilities are already far less likely to ever report their abuse and often encounter numerous challenges—such as inaccessibility of services, if they decide to disclose—the estimated 11 percent of U.S. college students with disabilities will almost certainly be disproportionately affected by DeVos’ actions.

Nationally, the rates of sexual assaults against people with disabilities are shockingly high, with some studies estimating that as many as 80 percent of people with disabilities have been sexually assaulted more than once. According to recent data from the U.S. Department of Justice, people with disabilities are more than three times as likely to be sexually assaulted than non-disabled people.

A recent study of college students with disabilities found that 22 percent of participants had experienced some form of abuse within the last year and nearly 62 percent had experienced physical or sexual abuse before the age of 17. Only 27 percent of students had reported the abuse. Another study focusing on Deaf students found they experience high rates of sexual assaults as well as inadequate supports for survivors. Moreover, for students with mental health disabilities, sexual assaults often exacerbate symptoms.

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Katie Rose Guest Pryal was raped while a graduate student at the University of North Carolina. Pryal has bipolar disorder and is currently a writer and attorney in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Pryal believes her disability made her more vulnerable, she told Rewire. “I was young and just learning how my medicine interacted with alcohol. I grew very intoxicated after not very much alcohol.”

Pryal did not immediately report her assault to campus authorities or the police. “I knew that I wouldn’t be believed, not only because rape victims tend not to be believed, but because people with major mental illnesses are rarely believed about anything,” she said.

Courtney Cole had similar experiences. Cole is a college student, writer, and disability activist in Seattle. She is blind and has a mental health disability. In 2016, during her freshman year of college, Cole was sexually assaulted. She too believes that her disability heightened her risk of assault: “Predators view people with disabilities as easier targets logistically because of the physical, mental, or emotional challenges we face. Some people also fetishize disability.”

“In addition, there is sometimes a belief that people with disabilities have no sexuality, so a predator may convince themselves that they are doing the person with a disability ‘a favor,'” she said.

Cole, too, chose not to disclose her assault to her university or the police. “In the beginning, my assaulter manipulated me to make me think that I had caused or wanted the assault, and I blamed myself. My mental illness made me afraid that I would not be believed, as I had already been discounted by some peers.”

“In addition, I worried that the university processes would be traumatic and harmful for my mental health. The idea of the information of my ordeal being spread was terrifying, and the pity that could have ensued because of my blindness further deterred me from speaking up,” she continued.

K Wheeler, an undergraduate student at the University of Washington, is a congenital amputee, born with one arm and no legs. Wheeler was sexually assaulted in high school by their long-term partner, they said: “He would do things that would definitely be categorized as sexual assault. He would also say things like, ‘Well, I’m probably the only one that’s going to love you [because you have a disability]. So, if you leave me you’ll be alone forever.'”

Wheeler believes that people with disabilities are more vulnerable to sexual assault and other types of abuse because they are viewed as “submissive,” they said. “If [an assailant] sees someone with a disability, they might think that they are less confident and an easier target.”

Wheeler never reported their sexual assault and feel that disability often stops survivors from disclosing abuse. “I definitely think people with disabilities are often viewed from the get-go as someone who is weak, or someone who is already victimized just by their circumstance of life. So, by admitting that you were assaulted, it’s kind of like you are justifying other people’s views that you’re already a victim.” Wheeler also believes that some people with disabilities are reluctant to report abuse by caregivers because they depend on that person.

Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston, told Rewire, “Students with disabilities can be more vulnerable. Whether it’s a physical disability or a mental health issue, these victims become targets for serial perpetrators because they are easy prey.”

As Pryal, Cole, and Wheeler mentioned, the difficulty of disclosing a sexual assault can be even more difficult for people with disabilities. Campus authorities and police may lack training on how to work with people with disabilities, especially people with intellectual or psychiatric disabilities. Moreover, programs for survivors, such as counseling services, are often inaccessible for wheelchair users or lack ASL interpreters for Deaf people.

Bruno, who has represented students with disabilities, agrees.

“If it’s a mental health disability, then people in our society are more judgmental because they believe the victim is not credible, that they made the rape up, or that they could not be a victim. It’s sad. You would think that more people would come to the defense of someone who has a disability, but unfortunately these people are more vulnerable to perpetrators and judged more harshly by society. So, a victim with a disability might be less inclined to disclose the assault due to the doubt that people have,” Bruno said.

Title IX, and sexual assault more broadly, is not often viewed as a “disability issue.” But it is.

The Obama guidelines—which applied to elementary, secondary, and post-secondary schools—recognized the unique needs of sexual assault survivors with disabilities, noting the need for greater accessibility as well as collaboration with college disability services offices. Not surprisingly, the new interim guidance makes absolutely no mention of students with disabilities. And they concern everyone that Rewire spoke with.

Under the new guidelines, colleges could choose to apply either a preponderance of the evidence or a clear and convincing evidence standard for reaching findings about alleged sexual assaults. This is notable because the Obama-era guidance instructed colleges to use the preponderance standard, which set a lower burden of proof for sexual assault cases. The new guidance also removes time frames for investigations and allows colleges to pursue informal resolutions—such as mediation—and to establish an appeals process for disciplinary sanctions.

According to Bruno, the guidance “will only hurt survivors, with or without disabilities.”

Although Pryal did not disclose her assault at the time, she ultimately chose to because of the Obama-era Title IX guidelines. Writing about her experience in 2014 for the Toast, Pryal explained that the new Title IX office at the University of North Carolina and “fiercer rules about information-gathering-no more hinterlands or burying of complaints … [made it seem] like a good time to say something.” Pryal did not pursue legal or university action against her assailant, she just wanted to “report being raped and have it recorded.” Without the guidelines, in other words, Pryal may not have ultimately reported her assault.

Pryal told Rewire that she is “deeply disappointed by the rescission of the Obama administration’s Title IX guidance.” She explained, “Under the former guidance, we were finally able to get a grasp on the scope of the campus rape epidemic. Schools finally had to shine daylight onto their reporting practices, rather than doing all they could bury reports.”

Echoing Pryal, Wheeler believes that the withdrawal of the Obama-era guidelines will “lead to less people disclosing or feeling like they can’t disclose.”

Cole also agrees that the recent actions will have devastating consequences. “Title IX was one of the resources that almost moved me to disclose. Having someone who dealt with these kinds of issues all the time was comforting, and I felt that I might not be judged. Removing this resource, I feel, would be detrimental to survivors, especially those with mental or emotional disabilities.”

Bruno, meanwhile, called the rescinding of the rules “nothing short of a travesty.”

“The new rules will undoubtedly have an effect on victims and other students all over our country. If schools follow the new guidance, then schools will be less safe. I truly cannot believe that the Education Department would roll back victims’ rights and pave the way to make it easier for perpetrators to stay in school and assault other people,” Bruno said. “There will be a hostile environment on many, many campuses if these rules are followed.”

“Luckily, there are a lot of schools who have worked too hard in the past six years to see it all destroyed,” Bruno continued. We are counting on the faculty, school administration[s], and the students to do the right thing for survivors, because we cannot rely on this administration for that.”

DeVos’ withdrawal of the Obama-era Title IX guidelines is a direct attack on sexual assault survivors. Along with her recent rescission of dozens of guidance documents about the rights of disabled students, apparent disregard to stand up for the safety of LGBTQ students, and continuing support of charter schools, it’s clear the Department of Education—and the Trump administration as a whole—is bent on showing complete disdain for the most vulnerable.

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