Missouri Schoolgirl Is Not Alone

Last week we covered the disturbing story of a 12 year-old girl in Missouri who was allegedly forced to write a letter of apology to the classmate she said raped her on school grounds.

When he raped her again (and both his own confession and physical evidence corroborated the new allegation), she was suspended. She’s now suing the school, whose attorneys have called her lawsuit “frivolous.”

While this may be an egregious example, it’s far from an isolated case. The victim is described in news reports as “special needs,” and while we don’t know the extent of her disability, it’s worth noting the increased extent to which women and girls with disabilities are subjected to rape and sexual assault.

The Justice Department’s first National Study on Crime Against Persons with Disabilities in 2007 [PDF] found that women and girls with disabilities aged 12 and over are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted as women without disabilities, with 47,000 incidents that year alone. In more than half of violent crimes against people with disabilities, the victim had two or more disabilities. And of course, those are just the cases that are reported, which may be as little as 3-5 percent of incidents.

In the case of women with developmental disabilities, researchers in 1995 put the number who had experienced sexual abuse at 90 percent, with almost half of those victims experiencing abuse on ten or more separate occasions.

Why are girls and women with disabilities so often the victims of sexual violence? As with able-bodied women, most disabled women are familiar with their attacker. But they may have the additional complication of being dependent on their attacker in some way (relying on them for care or transport, for example)–an unequal power dynamic which an abuser can exploit. Another factor is that, as the Missouri case has illustrated, rape victims with disabilities are not always taken seriously. Their accounts may not be seen as credible, perhaps because they experience communication or mental health difficulties, or because people with disabilities are often portrayed and perceived as unattractive and asexual, as if rape is some warped kind of compliment bestowed only on the physically “perfect” and sexually voracious. In fact, intersecting oppressions—being a member of more than one marginalized group—increase the likelihood that a woman will experience gender-based violence, including rape.

Clearly teachers, police officers and other authorities require more specialist training in order to better understand the needs of victims with disabilities and the prevalence of violent crimes against them.

But the way the justice system treats disabled victims of crime is just one facet of society’s problematic attitude towards people with disabilities—a continuum that runs the gamut from ignorance to violence. There’s a direct link between prejudice towards disabled people and crimes against them. Anyone who doubts ableism is still a very real problem needs to wake up and smell the coffee.

Photo from Flickr user Marcel Oosterwijk under Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. Thank you for drawing attention to the fact that the victim is special needs. I have been following this story and no one seems to have discussed this very important aspect of the case. One thing that this article implies but does not really address directly is the institutional abuse that special needs people are especially vulnerable to. Although the rape was not perpetrated by a school employee, it still illustrates the dynamic that allows this sort of thing to happen. When the very institutions that are supposed to serve special needs people do not take their clients seriously for the very reasons they are needed in the first place, it traps the client in hostile environment with no recourse, as they are also dependent on these institutions for their care. While this young woman has a parent who is fighting on her behalf, many special needs people do not have any family members or other people who can advocate for them. I really hope the school is held fully accountable for their actions in this case.

    • Hi Ann, you’re totally right, institutional abuse is a huge issue, as events in Hawaii last week have demonstrated — it happens too often, and is often covered up for a long time. I suspect that would make for a whole other blog post, but I agree that it’s something we all need to be more aware of.

  2. During high school, a teacher became hysterical that I was attempting to enroll in an Advanced Placement Government class despite taking special education-level math and having epilepsy. He was not going to teach the class and the AP teacher did not object to my enrollment because my disabilities would not be impacted by the course content, but he was still insistent that I did not ‘belong’.

    And on a senior class trip to Washington DC through the close up foundation (to see Bill Clinton’s innaguration) he attempted to push me out a hotel room window. I was really scared, honestly thinking that it was an attempt to kill me. I was so happy to see my family after the plane landed back home.

    He resigned shortly after, but I still have a hard time imagining that anybody could have done these things. It was definently a memorable ‘senior year’!

    • Oh Robin, that’s awful. Memorable for all the wrong reasons. It does show, though, that teachers need a much better understanding of disabilities, and that someone may cope fine in one situation but not another — but *that person* is often the best judge of that!

  3. Robin I am so sorry you were discriminated against in school. But unfortunately our school systems are not perfect in regard to people with disabilities. I am a firm believer in the inclusion movement, which is basically saying to get most special needs kids OUT of the special ed classroom and into the general education classroom. I believe special educational services (such a accommodations, one on one aide if needed, technology etc.) should be provided in the general classroom setting. Special education classrooms keep the discrimination going, and it needs to stop.

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