How the war on reproductive rights hurts women with disabilities


With one of today’s articles on Feministing’s main page being Eesha Pandit’s coverage of the NC victims of eugenics sterilization being compensated, as well as the training I participated in for the organization I work for, I got to thinking about just how vulnerable women with disabilities are to sexual assault – and how the current war on our reproductive rights affects all of us, but especially those who have increased difficulty in speaking for themselves.

For a little bit of background: I currently work for an organization that provides services to people with Autism. While I work directly with children, the wide range of services that the organization provides includes extensive services for adults with autism, and beginning next year, other developmental disabilities including Down syndrome as well as physical disabilities. The biggest department we have that directly serves adults is our residential program – in which adults with autism live in “transition homes” where they are taught daily life skills such as taking their medications, cleaning the house, working with a group, finding jobs, etc. Most of these adults are on the “low functioning” end of the autism spectrum – meaning they have increased difficulty with communication, are often nonverbal, and need one on one support for most daily functions. The training that I mentioned in my first paragraph was Med Aide – a 16 hour class in which two certified nurses trained us – the employees, and the ones who provide the direct care in the homes I mentioned – to be certified to provide prescription or over-the-counter medications to the individuals in the homes (I, however, was taking the class to be able to provide medications to a 13-year-old girl that I work with in home). While this training may appear to be incredibly tedious for those who aren’t interested in science or nursing (like myself) it was actually quite interesting for me. I learned many techniques and was entrusted with many responsibilities in caring for people with developmental disabilities. However, as I mentioned, it got me to thinking just how delicate the rights of some of these individuals are – and how easily they can be violated.

When going over the types of observations that need to be made to ensure the health and safety of the individuals we serve, we were told that one particular area we need to focus on, for women, is their menstrual cycle, and whether it is “normal.” This is especially delicate, the class instructor told us, because these women are incredibly vulnerable to sexual and emotional abuse and, therefore, have a high risk of unplanned pregnancy. Also, they may have difficulty if they are pregnant by their own will in expressing this.

People often think of autistic individuals as being completely shut out from the “real world.” Because many are non-verbal, and because all have difficulty communicating their feelings or emotions, many people think that they don’t actually have feelings or emotions. (see this video). Stemming from this, is the common belief that disabled individuals are completely lacking in any sexuality or ability to make their own decisions. Therefore, it is very easy for disabled individuals to be taken advantage of, and have their basic human rights – such as access to proper sexual health education, the right to privacy, and the right to make one’s own decisions concerning sexual activity or reproductive rights – easily violated.

From the University of Minnesota Institute on Community Integration:

Women with… developmental disabilities are among the most vulnerable members of our society, experiencing a far higher rate of sexual assault and rape than other women, and experiencing this victimization repeatedly. While there are very few studies that have examined the victimization of women with mental retardation and other developmental disabilities, and far more work needs to be done to better assess this problem. The few studies that have been done provide a frightening picture of the world in which these women live. The existing studies reflect a rate of victimization for this population that may be as much as 10 times higher than that of the general population. One study found that more than 70% of women with developmental disabilities had been sexually assaulted, and that nearly 50% of women with mental retardation had been sexually assaulted 10 or more times in their lifetime (Sobsey and Doe, 1991). This represents a 50% higher rate than the rest of the population. Children with disabilities are also at greater risk. One study of children with disabilities found that they were 2.1 times as likely to be victims of physical abuse and 1.8 times as likely to experience sexual abuse as children without disabilities (Crosse, et al. 1993). Despite such high rates of victimization, few of these cases come to the attention of law enforcement.

While these numbers are staggering, it is important to note that societal awareness and acceptance of people with disabilities has tremendously improved in recent years and services for adults – while still lacking in many areas – have grown as well.

Now this brings me to the rights of these individuals to have control over their health and reproductive rights. The anti-choice movement often likes to focus on the abortions of fetuses who will be born with disabilities, and how their rights are being taken away with abortion. One thing they fail to see is that if a woman with a developmental disability is abused, she has a high risk of becoming pregnant, and may not feel comfortable raising a child due to severe cognitive deficiencies, lack of resources, and lack of support (although many people with disabilities are fully independent, many older adults rely on others completely for help in everyday activities – often times, this is not a member of their family but rather someone who works for them). So not only does the war on proper sexual education and reproductive rights hurt all young women, it is especially harmful to women who are vulnerable to the violation of their rights and already lack many options. Also, if a disabled woman feels she is unable to raise a child because she needs so much assistance in her own life, or because she was sexually assaulted, and the physical and emotional traumas of that along with a pregnancy are too much for an emotionally vulnerable woman to handle, an abortion may be the best option for her. Contraception, as well, is extremely important for a woman to prevent being in the position of being pregnant. And, as always, we need to continue to fight against sexual assault and be especially cautious when hiring someone to work with vulnerable populations.

Fortunately, organizations like the one I work for recognize the rights of the individuals they serve. Our policies are very strict and serious in protecting individual rights and making sure they are not violated. I am lucky to work for a progressive organization that recognizes that people with disabilities have the same rights as all people – and often these rights need special care. But the folks up in Washington and in our state capitals are doing their best to make sure no woman has these rights – including women with disabilities as well as women who have been sexually assaulted. The war on reproductive rights truly does hurt EVERYBODY.

For more information on confronting sexual abuse of disabled individuals see the Virginia Sexual Violence Awareness Fact Sheet on People with Disabilities.

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