College campuses are ignoring sexual assault survivors with disabilities, report says

Students with disabilities are not "on the radar" of colleges.

Katherine Davis, who volunteered with the University of Michigan sexual assault prevention and awareness center, before graduating in 2017, attends a rally for survivors of sexual assault and their allies, outside the Department of Education. CREDIT: Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty Images/Diana Ofosu
Katherine Davis, who volunteered with the University of Michigan sexual assault prevention and awareness center, before graduating in 2017, attends a rally for survivors of sexual assault and their allies, outside the Department of Education. CREDIT: Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty Images/Diana Ofosu

Female undergraduate students with disabilities suffer from sexual violence involving physical force or incapacitation at almost double the rate of female undergrads without disabilities, but few colleges are addressing the needs of survivors with disabilities.

A new report by the National Council on Disability (NDC) found that “students with disabilities are not ‘on the radar’ of colleges in their sexual assault prevention efforts, policies, or procedures for response and support after an assault.” This, despite the fact that 31 percent of female undergrads with disabilities are survivors of sexual violence compared to 18.4 percent of those without disabilities, according to a 2015 Association of American Universities reportEleven percent of undergraduates in the 2011-2012 school year reported having a disability, according to Education Department data.

The NDC report, released Tuesday morning, is the product of interviews with 34 informants who were college officials and staff, Title IX coordinators, sexual assault services administrators, and experts on sexual assault and disability rights. The NDC also sent out two national questionnaires, and received 100 responses from college professionals and students with disabilities. They found that college campuses’ sexual assault prevention and education programs were not inclusive to students with disabilities and that college staff had a lack of awareness of the needs of students with disabilities. Federal research on campus sexual assault excludes disability and the Clery Act, which requires colleges to provide information about crime on or around campus, doesn’t require colleges to keep track of the number students with disabilities who are sexually assaulted.

The report also highlights the ways campus sexual assault resource centers fell short of providing information to students with disabilities. Those with visual disabilities lacked access to print information that adheres to “universal design,” or design that is accessible to both students with disabilities and students without disabilities. Students with mobility disabilities had trouble accessing resource centers because they were on the edge of campus or on an above-ground floor of a building.

Furthermore, American Sign Language interpreters were not readily available, according to college professionals from nine campuses. Colleges often don’t have these interpreters on campus and even when they do, interpreters may not be trained to speak to sexual assault survivors in a way that minimizes trauma, since they may primarily interpret for academic settings.

One student who provided feedback said that schools would do well to provide examples of accommodations for students, such as interpreters, “instead of making it seem like a weird edge case.” Only one staff member said their campus proactively told students about their right to request accommodations during the conduct process.

Many educational programs on sexual assault left out students with disabilities. There were three colleges that provided tailored programming. Examples include a disability services director who facilitated a disability-only space for students to ask questions about consent and sexual assault. One disability services director focused on chatting with students with autism to discuss what is appropriate behavior and explain how people may perceive specific behaviors.

Students with invisible disabilities, such as a mental health or medical condition, may also be at disadvantage, the report noted. The school’s disability services may not be aware of the student’s disability and the student may not be aware of the process for requesting accommodations. Too often, staff who provide services for survivors and services for students with disabilities are not communicating with one another and don’t have policies and procedures in place to improve the situation.

Survivors with disabilities typically have different experiences from those without disabilities, and this needs to be recognized by university staff, one expert on sexual assault told NDC. Survivors with disabilities are more likely to have experienced a longer duration of sexual abuse, and often at the hands of a friend or family member. Thirty-three percent of abusers are family members, 33 percent are acquaintances, and 25 percent of are other caregivers and student providers.

The expert explained, “In terms of how students are impacted by violence, the research seems to be that we are talking about people that [sexual assault] is not their first traumatic event. What does this mean, a layer of trauma that is on top of previous experiences?”

With a lack of federal research on the subject of sexual violence against people with disabilities and recognition and guidance from federal agencies and Congress, campuses are struggling to provide necessary services for students with disabilities.

Even schools that were designed with student disabilities in mind have failed students with disabilities. A 2015 Al Jazeera investigation into Gallaudet University, the only liberal-arts institution in the United States designed for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, found that the university received 18 reports of forcible sex offenses in 2012, which made their sex offenses rate the highest per capita of any federally funded university with more than 1,000 students. After Al Jazeera obtained information from its survivor services group, DAWN, it found that 42 percent of students who sought help for sexual assault, dating violence, or stalking between January 2013 and June 2014 were people of color.