Sexual Assault of the Intellectually Disabled

Intellectually disabled persons are sexually assaulted and/or raped at a rate seven times higher than those without disabilities according to crime data from the Justice Department. Despite this, there is little recognition of the rape, assault and abuse of those with intellectual disabilities in our society. This issue should be concerning as it makes them one of the most at risk demographics in our nation.

To make measures worse, the statistic seven times higher is likely a dramatic underestimate for 2 reasons: 1) the JD’s data does not include people living in institutions and group homes, and 2) many people with intellectual disabilities find communicating verbally difficult or cannot verbally communicate at all, making it impossible for them to report crimes committed against them.

Intellectual disability is described as being, “characterized by significant limitation in both intellectual functioning and in adaptive behaviors … originating before the age of 18.” (American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities). This can include social skills like rule following and social interaction as well as practical skills, such as working and taking care of one’s self.

Intellectual disabilities fall under the umbrella of developmental disabilities – however, a key difference in differentiating developmental disabilities from intellectual is physical impairment, which would classify a person with Down Syndrome developmentally and intellectually disabled but a person with autism only as intellectually disabled. Because an intellectual disability must originate before the age of 18, disorders such as Alzheimer’s are not classified as intellectual disabilities.

Types of intellectual disabilities include:

  • Fragile X Syndrome
  • Down Syndrome
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
  • Apert Syndrome
  • Williams Syndrome
  • Prader-Willi
  • Phenylketonuria
  • Cerebral Palsy

“Perfect Victims”

There are characteristics that, in experts’ eyes, make intellectually disabled persons the “perfect victims” and easy targets for predators. The most obvious reason they are targeted is their inability to verbally communicate effectively. People with intellectual disabilities often have trouble effectively communicating verbally, and others cannot speak at all, leaving them with no voice. They also can have difficulty understanding time sequence and with explaining details which makes it hard for others to fully understand what events may have occurred.

Other reasons predators target the intellectually disabled:

  • Predators know they can easily manipulate victims with an intellectual disability.
  • People are not likely to believe victims, blaming the disability for causing them to “imagine” the assault/rape or using the disability to deem them not credible.
  • Many with intellectual disabilities are taught to be compliant, making them easily coerced into something they may not want to do.
  • Reliance on and trust of caregivers is usually a norm for intellectually disabled persons and they begin to think of caregivers as friends which can blur the lines of right and wrong.

All of these circumstances create an environment for predators to victimize and harm people without fear of being caught.


As is the case with all assault and rape, the majority of assaults and rapes against individuals with intellectual disabilities is committed by a person the victim knows. However, only 14% of rapists of women with intellectual disabilities are strangers compared to 24% for women without disabilities. That means 86% of the time assaults against women with intellectual disabilities are committed by someone that they know, trust and possibly even love. Often they are victimized more than once.

Half of assault and rape against those with intellectual disabilities take place during the day (compared to 40% for people without a disability), making them vulnerable everywhere – even places where they should feel safest such as their homes, work, school, and public places.

While 42% of offenders of reported assaults are others with an intellectual disability, 37% of offenders are caregivers or others close to a victim – 14% of those are staff at group homes and institutions meant to take care of their residents. Given that caregivers have a power role in the lives of the intellectually disabled – often taking care of people in extremely intimate settings where they may be partially or fully dependent on them, such as bathing, dressing and using the bathroom – is overwhelmingly disheartening.


Finding Justice

Prosecuting cases of assault and rape against intellectually disabled persons can prove difficult – but it is not impossible. As with any case there are barriers to justice. However, there is a precedent of juries siding with victims in these types of sexual assault cases. It is important to remember that often people with intellectual disabilities cannot act independently so caregivers and loved ones have to act as their advocates. As an advocate, a person should educate their loved ones about abuse and rape, support and believe them if they speak out and document anything that could help bring justice to those who commit assault.

If you or someone you know with a disability has been abused, raped or sexually assaulted, please contact Smith Mohlman Injury Law at 816-866-7711 for a free consultation. We care about you and your loved ones and we work to provide justice for victims.

Phone: 816-866-7711
Fax: 816-994-5041

4600 Madison Ave., Suite 711 Kansas City, Missouri 64112