Editor’s note: This report includes descriptions of sexual assault.
Somebody with an intellectual disability by definition has difficulty learning, reasoning or problem-solving.
But many often think deeply about the things that affect them — and the things that isolate them, like sexual assault.
As part of its investigation into the hidden epidemic of sexual violence faced by this group of Americans, NPR reached out to people with intellectual disabilities across the country to hear their voices, what they have to say about the sexual assaults they’ve survived, and how those experiences have affected their lives.
(NPR does not use the last names of survivors of sexual assault, unless they prefer their full name be used.)
Here’s what they said:
On why people with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted
“I don’t want to say easy target, but it is an easy target, because people try to work so hard to try to find friends and try to fit in our community.” — James Meadours, San Antonio
“It happens to people like us, and why is because we’re easy targets to take advantage of. We think that the people that we’re around, we can trust them, but you don’t know that by looking at ’em. You can’t judge a person by their looks.” — Cindy Whitaker, Austin, Texas
“We are taught to trust grown-ups more than anyone else would be. Because when you have a disability, people are always telling you, ‘Do as that person says,’ ‘Do as this person says.’ ” — Thomas Mangrum, Washington, D.C.
“People look at people with disability as, a lot of time, they look at us thinking that we don’t know no better. Because a lot of us is quiet and easygoing, they think that we weakling. And we not.” — Thelma Green, Washington, D.C.
On their own experiences of sexual assault
“I felt dirty. I just felt not clean. I blamed myself. And I felt powerless. I couldn’t even look in the mirror, because you see, all that comes back to you. It just does.” — Debbie Robinson, Philadelphia
“Yes, it’s happened to me. It was a staff person. It started out where he was buying pop for me and candy for me at, it was called, the canteen. … Then one time he asked me to come down in the basement. He wanted to show me something. And I trusted him. That’s where that happened.” — Sam Maxwell, Meadville, Pa.
“I have a friend who helped me call [an information line], and that information line told me to go to the SANE hospital, and the SANE hospital is the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner. And I met a wonderful lady named Miss Wanda. And Miss Wanda really took the time to examine me. And the key of it was that she worked with my pace, not her pace. And the police came and did step by step. And I remember early on during the exam, I say, I want to change the world. But Miss Wanda and the detective and a friend of mine say, ‘James, you need time to recover before you help others.’ ” — Meadours
On the lasting effects of sexual assault
“We do feel pain all the time. They’re ignorant that they don’t see that. They don’t want to see it. They close their eyes to it, close their mind to it. … But see, if you’re around me, you’re going to deal with it, because I’m going to keep telling you that we do have pain, and we do feel things, and you know, don’t tell me that it will go away.” — Carolyn Morgan, Philadelphia
“I still have problems with dark. I won’t go out by myself because I can’t stand dark. I have to cover my windows with curtains.” — Maxwell
“I had a lot of anger in me. I’d go to places, like to the grocery store, and I would think nothing of it, I’d steal a candy bar thinking that I could get attention this way. And then maybe they’ll see something’s wrong with me.” — Whitaker
“I still have flashbacks. I didn’t really deal with it. I was depressed. I didn’t trust nobody. … If somebody try to be nice to me, I make sure they couldn’t get close to me. I was very irritable. I didn’t want to be bothered with nobody.” — Theresa Proctor, Washington, D.C.
“I can remember everything. Even though I have a disability, I still remember it. … Sometimes I walk all day, just to try to help me. If I have things that bother me, I try to get the stress out of me, so I take a walk. I guess I start walking around 11:30 and I don’t come back until 4 o’clock.” — Kathleen, suburban Philadelphia
“It took a lot to make me be this brave to talk about this. It took me years to get this brave.” — Maxwell
On reporting and talking about sexual assault
“They think if you got a disability that means you lie, that you can’t really tell the truth or you don’t know what the truth is.” — Mangrum
“When you go through a good therapist, mine said you have to name what happened, call it what it is. You were abused, sexually. … I was thinking maybe it was a relationship, a bad one. I was just in denial. … I had to figure out that it’s not my fault. I had to go through all the memories and name it, and open up the box you really don’t want to open up, Pandora’s box.” — Robinson
“Some with disabilities are afraid to report it, because they’re afraid it will make them look bad, worse than they already are, because people already look down on you, because you’re disabled. It felt like the world was against me.” — Whitaker
“When I went down to the police station, they asked me did I know the man and did I ask for it. And I said, ‘No, I didn’t know the man, and I didn’t ask for it.’ … You keep on telling until somebody understands and listens.” — Morgan
“To believe is to really to hear the person. To hear the stories and to really, really be there. Because if no one believe you, you will be depressed, you’ll feel discouraged, or even worse, you may give up.” — Meadours
“We are not believed. Right away, the cops think you asked for it. So, you really do have to keep tellin’. They don’t even think that we’re reliable witnesses.” — Robinson
“I think it’s about time we’re talking about it. But now we need to take the next step to help not just people in Hollywood or people in white-collar suburbs but also the community. Help each person who have a story and help them to not be judged but to make them be part of the community and also to embrace them when they need to be embraced.” — Meadours