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One in Three Disabled Women Are Sexually Assaulted on Campus—And Colleges Aren’t Paying Attention

s.e. smith

Many campus officials haven't considered disability issues when administering sexual assault response programs.

In the midst of #TimesUp and #MeToo, a new report on campus sexual assault in the disability community is serving as an indictment on the state of access at every level of this issue, from mandatory preventive training to support through Title IX hearings.

The National Council on Disability, a nonpartisan independent federal agency, released the report, “Not on the Radar.”

The starkest finding? Nearly one in three disabled undergraduate women experiences sexual violence.

With some in the disability community feeling excluded by conversations about sexual harassment and assault, this study highlights that the epidemic of sexual violence is a serious issue for disabled people. This report was in part developed in response to frustration with having little to no data about campus sexual assault among disabled students, even after pushes by the Obama administration to improve the quality and quantity of data collected on campus sexual assault. Despite the administration’s “It’s On Us” program, disability wasn’t a required reporting category for federal data, and many colleges weren’t collecting it independently.

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“Disability is a bipartisan issue,” Wendy Harbour, one of the political appointees on the Council, told Rewire. She stressed that the glaring findings in this report are, in many cases, easy to address with some simple, proactive steps. Most don’t require additional legislation or rulemaking; there’s no reason the government, and colleges, couldn’t start implementing the council’s recommendations. And there’s no reason politics should get in the way.

This study has shortcomings, which Harbour addressed. It focuses on undergraduate women who have experienced sexual assault, leaving bigger questions about undergraduates of other genders as well as graduate students, faculty, and staff. Moreover, it doesn’t delve into the cases of disabled people who are accused of assault and may face accessibility obstacles to due process, like not being able to enter rooms where hearings are held or being denied access to interpreters.

Their research drew on a mixture of interviews with college staff and experts and a survey administered across several regions, along with a literature and policy review. The team wanted to determine the state of sexual assault services for disabled students in addition to developing recommendations on the basis of the responses. What they found was a systemic pattern of inaccessibility and failure.

Larger issues with lack of compliance are a big issue on campus, something Harbour hears about frequently in her role as Director of the National Center for College Students with Disabilities at the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD). The Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 both provide guidance on accessibility, but Harbour noted that many colleges seem to think of accessibility as something a campus disability services office will handle, not as part of campus diversity.

That means that when sexual harassment and assault policies are developed, they may not involve input from disabled stakeholders. The researchers found that some mandatory web trainings were inaccessible, with disabled students punished for failing to complete trainings they couldn’t use. Buildings may be inaccessible or interpreters may not be readily available—deaf and hard of hearing students assaulted on a Friday night, for example, could be forced to wait until Monday to report.

Some respondents indicated they hadn’t considered disability issues when administering sexual assault response programs like cultural competency training to prepare staff for responding to reports of sexual harassment and assault. Few colleges developed training on disability issues and program materials targeting disabled students.

If one in three feels ominous but abstract, Harbour ran the numbers and looked at campus populations and known data about disability. She estimates that some 450,000 disabled women undergraduates have been subjected to sexual violence, and many may experience hardship if they choose to report.

“Think about a student with a disability who’s in a moment of crisis, and the idea that on top of that, we’re going to give you the additional burden of having to tell us you have a disability, ask for accommodation, and have us not give it to you,” Harbour remarked. It’s a problem painfully familiar to some disabled students who struggle for access and inclusion on campus.

But “Not on the Radar” argues that some concrete steps could shift the story on sexual assault and disability on campus. The publication’s key policy recommendations include conducting more research and explicitly including disability in campus sexual assault studies; taking a victim/survivor-first approach to campus services to meet the needs of disabled students; improving accessibility of campus policies and services; and updating guidance from agencies like the Department of Education and Department of Justice on disability issues in campus sexual assault contexts.

Campuses and government agencies aren’t the only ones who can take action. Organized action by students can have a profound effect on campus policies. “Students with disabilities need to find each other,” said Harbour, “whether it’s sexual assault or anything else.”

Campus organizers can push for better accessibility and clearer policies and procedures with respect to disabled students, while calling for more comprehensive data collection. Student-led anti-rape organizing often involves a focus on non-disabled students. Integrating disability rights and anti-rape groups could yield effective and persuasive results.  

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