Beyond the Breakthrough: The Sexual Assault Epidemic More of Us Need to Talk About

The theme of the 2019 National Sexual Assault Conference—Beyond the Breakthrough—sought to inspire the collective movement to end sexual violence and build on the momentum of the #MeToo movement. Ms. was the media sponsor for the conference—and expanded the discussions happening on-site with this dedicated series. Click here to read more posts. You can also watch interviews and conference sessions from #NSAC2019 on the Ms. Facebook!

The Sexual Assault Epidemic No One Talks About.” That was the headline over the first story in my series for NPR, “Abused and Betrayed,” about the high rate of assault of people with intellectual disabilities. It wasn’t entirely correct that “no one” talked about it. Certainly, I knew, that people with intellectual disabilities did. 

They were the ones, after all, who told me I should write about it. 

(Sinn Féin / Creative Commons)

I’m a journalist with 30 years of coverage of disability issues—and almost any person with an intellectual disability I got to know would tell me a story of an assault. They talked about how they weren’t believed or taken seriously. They talked about how this was a problem that others didn’t talk about, but should.

I’ve also covered sexual assault issues on college campuses. In 2010, I worked with Kristen Lombardi and the Center for Public Integrity and published a series on the failures of school administrators to adequately investigate and punish cases of sexual assault. Our stories were credited with helping to lead the Obama Administration to issue its Dear Colleague letter and later action, and congressional passage of the Campus SaVE Act.

I knew from my previous reporting on disability that the Department of Justice likely collected data on the rate of sexual assault of people with intellectual disabilities, even though it wasn’t included in an annual report on crime against all people with disabilities.

I asked for that data, and it showed the high rates.

People with intellectual disabilities are assaulted at rates at least seven times those for everyone else. And that, we know, is almost certainly an undercount. The federal data does not include people living in institutions and group homes, where other research shows people are at high risk.

In the seven stories that made up the 2018 NPR series, I tried to make sure we heard voices of many people with intellectual disabilities themselves. The final piece in the series was told only in the voices (other than my own) of people with intellectual disabilities.

In my reporting, I’ve learned that people with intellectual disabilities—even though, by definition, they have difficulty learning or problem solving—often think deeply about the things that marginalize them, like sexual assault.

“I had to figure out that it’s not my fault,” Debra Robinson, who will join me at an NSAC plenary, told me. “I had to go through all the memories and name it and open up the box that you really don’t want to open up—Pandora’s Box.” 

Debra talked about how the assaults, when she was young, left her confused. She knew she didn’t like it. But she thought maybe this was a relationship, “a bad relationship.” Years later, she found a therapist who helped her heal. It wasn’t easy. She had to hide the therapy sessions from her family. They’d be angry, or feel guilty, she worried. But to get to therapy, she needed to find a friend who had a car and could drive her. 

When she finally did tell her mother, she then had to deal with her mother’s own feelings of failure and guilt. “That’s why people would get angry—is because we didn’t tell our own family members, buy hey, I’m telling a stranger which is a therapist. You know, that gets our families angry.”

Not everyone can speak. I also wrote about a woman, who can’t communicate with words, who was raped at a state institution. Sometimes—and these cases have been in the news more this past year—the rape is discovered only after the woman is pregnant.

People with intellectual disabilities know that crimes against them aren’t always taken seriously—by police and prosecutors, sometimes not by friends and family. In 2014, a judge in Georgia threw out a conviction because he said the woman with Down Syndrome didn’t “behave” like a victim; she’d waited a day to report the assault. In 2012, a psychologist for the Los Angeles schools said a 9-year-old girl who’d been assaulted by a boy at school was likely protected against emotional trauma by her low IQ.

Those stories infuriate Carolyn Morgan, who will also join us on stage. “We do feel pain all the time,” she told me. “Don’t tell me that it’ll go away.” 


Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent; he previously spent 19 years at U.S. News & World Report as a Senior Writer on social policy and served as the magazine's Rome bureau chief, White House correspondent and congressional reporter. He has received an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award, George Foster Peabody Award, George Polk Award, Robert F. Kennedy Award, Edward R. Murrow Award, Sigma Delta Chi, IRE, Dart, Ruderman and Gracie awards, and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Award. Joseph is the author of the award-winning book NO PITY: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement.