Disabled women are twice as likely to experience sexual assault – so why aren't police believing them?

·11-min read
Photo credit: Jaime Lee/Getty
Photo credit: Jaime Lee/Getty

Warning: This article contains references to rape and sexual assault. If you need support with any of these issues, please contact Rape Crisis, Rape Crisis Scotland or the organisations mentioned throughout.

Her head is blurry, her speech is slurred and she can’t sit up. Naomi* is blackout drunk in London’s Battersea Park* – and something doesn’t add up. She can only remember sipping on a couple of vodka cranberries. As her date, Daniel*, helps her to her feet, the 20-year-old should be safe. But Daniel isn’t the ‘nice guy’ Naomi thought he was and because she is blind, she is especially vulnerable.

Unbeknownst to Naomi, over the course of that cold September afternoon, Daniel had been pouring her increasingly stronger drinks. Inebriated and unable to find the cane that would help her to get a sense of her surroundings, Naomi lay frozen as Daniel sexually assaulted her for the first time. After the act, Naomi then had no choice but to allow Daniel to guide her to a more secluded car park. Here, he stripped her naked and sexually assaulted her again. “It was our second date,” she recalls.

What happened to Naomi in that park was, unfortunately, all too common for disabled women [referring to those with either, or both, physical or mental impairments that have a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ effect on a person’s ability to do daily activities, including physical impairments, like using a wheelchair, being blind or deaf, or being neurodivergent].

While the records show that 2.8% of nondisabled women have experienced sexual assault (defined as actual or attempted rape, or assault by penetration, indecent exposure and unwanted sexual touching) in the last two years, many estimate the true number is far, far higher. That official on-record figure almost doubles to 5% for disabled women – but again, who knows what the actual number is when so many are afraid to, or aren’t able to, report their experiences. Charity Rape Crisis also states that 30% of their service users have a disability of some kind.

There are multiple reasons why disabled people are scared to report assault, especially when you consider that the perpetrator could be a carer or adult in a position of power, someone on whom the victim might be dependent on in day to day life. Speaking up might lead to a restricted quality of life, putting the victim between a rock and a hard place.

For Naomi, the issue runs far deeper than her lack of sight - she says the emotions and stereotypes associated with being blind made her more susceptible to Daniel’s mind games. “As a blind woman, I’m desexualised and made to feel inferior. I’ve struggled a lot with body dysmorphia and disordered eating because I can’t see what I look like. Paired with a lack of attention from boys at school, I was in a vulnerable position,” she shares.

So, why is the rate of sexual assault so much higher for disabled women? And with statistics like these, why are disabled survivors left feeling ignored when they report the crimes?

Photo credit: Jaime Lee
Photo credit: Jaime Lee

“He bombarded me with compliments – three weeks later, he assaulted me”

At the beginning of their three-month relationship, after meeting on a course, Naomi says that Daniel would “lovebomb” her, despite him having a girlfriend. He’d tell her all the things she wanted to hear and behaved like a perfect gentleman. One evening after drinks with mutual friends, all of Naomi’s trains home were cancelled and Daniel took it upon himself to ensure she got home safely, calling her local station to ask what could be done to help.

“It was the kindest thing anyone had done for me, and my family thought he was amazing for that. Days later, he said he’d dumped his girlfriend and wanted to be with me. He began to overload me with messages and compliments,” Naomi says. “Then, three weeks later, he sexually assaulted me.”

Having difficulties with recognising the signs of a healthy relationship is something that made Joanne*, 27, a target for assault too. Living with learning disabilities, Joanne says that she doesn’t understand the world, and what happens in it, in the same way as other people. So when her godfather said he’d come over “for a cuddle” one evening while her parents were out of the house, she didn’t think this was unusual. Yet that night, he touched her inappropriately, taking advantage of her disabilities.

“I didn’t understand what was happening,” Joanne explains, with the support of staff from learning disability and autism organisation Dimensions. “Previously, he’d also touched me under the dinner table and he’d been messaging me inappropriately for years, but I didn’t realise it was wrong.”

Things came to a head for Joanne when a few weeks later, her sister saw a text from her godfather on her phone, telling Joanne he loved her. “My sister told me he didn’t mean it in the innocent way I thought. When she read all the other messages, where he’d call me his ‘second wife’, I started to cry,” she says. “My sister asked me if anything had happened with him, and after I told her, she explained that it wasn’t right. She also told me that it had happened to her before.”

For Cassie, 26, her assault happened quickly. While waiting for her boyfriend outside a Waitrose in Islington, Cassie’s wheelchair was grabbed by two drunk men. “They started saying derogatory things about my disability and race, then grabbed the handles of my wheelchair and pushed me towards the main road,” she recalls. “They said they were going to ‘show me a good time.’ When the lights turned red, they let go of my handlebars and I managed to push myself into a shop across the road.”

These three women all have different disabilities, but all three say the experience of reporting their assault to the police left them feeling mocked, belittled and disbelieved.

“Just because I have one less sense, it doesn't mean my version of events is unreliable”

Three months after that afternoon in Battersea Park, following Daniel’s suggestion that she change what she wore, give up her phone and move in together, Naomi realised that she was in danger of becoming trapped in an abusive relationship. Her ‘prince charming’ was actually displaying signs she now recognises as narcissistic abuse.

“During the first assault, I felt like saying ‘no’ would play into the stereotype that disabled women can’t be sexual,” Naomi says, recalling how that had a “massive” impact on her approach to relationships. “He also tried to distance me from my family, saying that they didn’t let me be independent and were exploiting my disability. His behaviour at the start of the relationship made it difficult to accept the abuse when it started because I thought he cared about me.”

After ending things with Daniel, and with her mum’s encouragement, Naomi built up the courage to report his behaviour - and the assaults - to the police.

At first, Naomi had a positive experience: “The initial officer who took my statement made me feel comfortable, so I thought things were going to be OK.”

But after that, it all went downhill: “I was assigned a case officer who asked me things like ‘why did you drink so much’ and ‘why didn’t you just walk away?’ It was classic victim blaming,” she says. When Naomi explained that she couldn’t just walk away, from the assaults or Daniel’s mind games, the police still didn’t seem to understand.

Naomi says she spent four hours in a cold interview room going over what had happened to her in detail – without any specialist support. “The officers even asked how I knew what happened, if I couldn’t see,” she says. “I couldn’t believe I had to explain to them that just because I have one less sense, it doesn’t mean my version of events is any less reliable. I know what’s happening to my own body.”

“I’ll never forget my case officer saying, ‘He’s clearly been inappropriate with you, but you have to kiss a few frogs before you find the right one.’ Another also implied that I just wasn’t aware of what constitutes a consensual relationship,” says Naomi.

The mishandling of the case left Naomi feeling suicidal, and she says that, to her, the police treatment was worse than Daniel’s assault “because they were the ones who were meant to protect me.”

When Cassie, who is mixed-Black, reported her assault, she felt like the police couldn’t see past her skin colour. “I’ve had bad experiences with that in the past, so why would my disability suddenly make them respect me?” The police very quickly told her that nothing much could be done: “There’s an implicit idea that disabled people could never be in relationships or be seen as attractive, so when I told the officers what the men had said, they joked that I should have taken them up on their offer. They said they’d look into my case, but I never heard from them again.”

With the support of her family, Joanne also called the police, who took a statement and asked her to hand over the clothes she was wearing that evening and to turn in her phone. Officers later told Joanne that if her godfather ever came near her, or her family, that she should ring the police – but due to no evidence being found on her clothing, dropped the case. “I feel like he’s just gotten away with it,” she says. “Afterwards, I didn’t want to do anything or see family and friends. It was the most disrespectful thing I’ve ever been through, for the police to say there wasn’t enough evidence despite having access to all the messages.”

Photo credit: Jaime Lee
Photo credit: Jaime Lee

Joanne feels like her learning disability, coupled with her age, meant that the police didn’t take her case seriously. At 26, she felt the police presumed she could identify a consensual sexual act and failed to grasp how her understanding of relationships differed. “People think that because I’m older, I understand what everyone else does, but I don’t. The police need to accept people like me with learning disabilities for who we are.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Dimensions, a charity providing support for people with learning disabilities and autism. Rachael Dodgson, CEO, says, “When people with learning disabilities and autism report their abuse, they’re rarely followed through the justice system with appropriate support. The reporting process may be too difficult or they may be considered an unreliable witness.”

Thankfully, there are organisations calling for change and better support for disabled survivors. Founded in 2010, Stay Safe East, is a user-led organisation supporting disabled survivors of domestic abuse, alongside Disabled Survivors Unite, who campaign for accessible support services, and DIVAS, a group of volunteers with the Women’s Centre Cornwall with learning disabilities and autism, are pressing for funding to roll out national training. They hope to advise the police, social workers and GPs on how to identify the signs of abuse and provide sensitive and specialist support for those with learning disabilities and autism.

Miranda Weston, Policy Officer at Stay Safe East, adds that Sex and Relationships Education should include accessible information for disabled people on healthy relationships and the signs of abuse, and Disability Rights UK also point out that refuges, designed to help those leaving abusive relationships, are rarely able to accommodate those with additional physical needs. The charity is calling for these issues to be tackled by the Domestic Abuse Commissioner and in the soon to be published Home Office Hate Crime Plan.

When asked what they’re doing to address the needs of disabled victims as a whole, a Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Committees spokesperson said: “Councils must make sure that the support needs of all victims of domestic abuse, including those with disabilities, who are in safe accommodation can be met.

“These duties came into force as part of the Domestic Abuse Act, backed by £125 million in funding. Councils will be required to report back to the government showing how they’ve met them.”

With her case still ongoing, Naomi hopes her experience can be a turning point for change. “I hope my speaking out gives a voice to other victims and exposes police failings. These crimes are more complex, and we face additional barriers, so we need statutory change - and fast.”

It’s clear that attitudes towards disability are extremely damaging to victims of sexual assault. But as more survivors tell their stories, and organisations like Dimensions and others push for a much-needed shake-up, these statistics become ever more impossible to ignore. As these three women prove, the time for change is long overdue.

*Names and identifying details have been changed

Thank you to Hollie-Anne Brooks, disability campaigner and Cosmopolitan's Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor, for her sensitive and thoughtful edits on this report.

For help with any of the issues discussed in this article, visit: Rape Crisis England & Wales, Rape Crisis Scotland, or Rape Crisis Northern Ireland. RASASC provides emotional and practical support for survivors, families and friends. For additional support with mental health, visit Mind.

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