The Abysmal Truth About Abuse And Disabilities

simonsBy: Jo Ann Simons

The Disability and Abuse Project released a report in early September that gives low grades to state and local agencies for failing to respond adequately to widespread abuse of children and adults with disabilities. The press release states:

“The Report — “Abuse of People with Disabilities: Victims and Their Families Speak Out” — analyzes the results of what may be the largest survey of its kind in the nation.  More than 7,200 people took the survey which inquired into the experiences of people with disabilities as victims of abuse and bullying. Family members, advocates, service providers and various types of professionals also responded.

Over 70% of people with disabilities said they had been victims of abuse.  More than 50% of these victims had experienced physical abuse, with some 41% having been victims of sexual abuse.  Nearly 9 of 10 respondents with disabilities had suffered verbal or emotional abuse. Most victims said they had experienced abuse on more than 20 occasions.

About half of the incidents of abuse were not reported to authorities.  When reports were filed, fewer than 10% of alleged perpetrators were arrested.

Only one-third of victims received therapy and fewer than 5% received benefits from victim compensation programs.”

Sadly, while I did not participate in the survey, my personal experiences support these findings.

My son, who is now a well-adjusted, employed, home owning man with Down syndrome, has been physically abused, sexually abused, bullied and verbally abused.  I have not kept track of the number of occasions that this occurred but I am sure that it is close to the 20 occasions that most victims reported.

I reported the most serious offenses to the authorities. Their reaction was mixed. The high school assistant principal didn’t care about calling out the classmate who shouted to us as we drove to school, “There goes the retard.” The middle school principal tried as best he could to figure out how Jon received all the scratches on his body after a gym class.

The local police department arrested the young man who sexually abused Jon as his transportation provider. They were very supportive in getting Jon’s story and believed the 8 year old with Down syndrome. Maybe it was because the perpetrator was known to them. The district attorney was very interested in the case but, eventually didn’t think they could get a conviction under the archaic system that would have required Jon to face his accuser in an adult court room.


We wanted the school system to be accountable. We questioned why they were still allowing the driver to transport other children, after pulling Jon from the transportation, since we presented evidence that he abused Jon and others were at risk. We faced a belligerent school system that preferred to bury their head in the sand and then hide behind their expert witnesses whose credentials included discrediting children as witnesses.

In the end, we settled, reluctantly.  We used the small sum of money, funds that could never begin to undo the damage, towards the fabulous celebration of achievement that was Jon’s Bar Mitzvah.

We all suffered. Our family was almost torn apart by this horrific abuse. Some of my family was in denial, others were as pained as I was. While we tried to shield our five year old daughter, her keen sense of hearing allowed her to listen to our quiet conversations with Jon. I have no idea how we found the explanation to answer her query: “The man driving him to school did that to him?” Somehow, we found the words, the strength and the love to move forward; though I am still haunted by the possibility that the abuser has found other victims.

So I regularly check the sex offender data base. Just to be vigilant. The abuse itself may have ended but its effects linger.

Jo Ann Simons is a Disability Advisor to the Ruderman Family Foundation and President and CEO of the Cardinal Cushing Centers

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Filed under Disabilities rights

3 responses to “The Abysmal Truth About Abuse And Disabilities

  1. Jo Ann, Thank you so much for writing this. I’m sure it wasn’t easy. Too many of us have been quiet victims of abuse, believing we have no recourse.

  2. Jo Ann, This could not have been easy to write. I applaud your courage.
    There is an organization in Israel called Bizchut which helped enact The Investigation and Testimonial Act in 2005 in Israel. The Act applies to police investigations and court testimony, in instances of serious crimes involving a person with a disability. The law requires providing comprehensive accommodations to people with mental and cognitive disabilities. A central tenet of these accommodations is the involvement of professionals from mental health and other therapeutic disciplines, whose role is to mediate between the disabled person and the law enforcement and justice agencies. Maybe it is time for Disabilities Rights groups to advocate for these type of accomodations in the American legal system.

  3. It was hard to write and remember-thank you.
    We are very lucky in Massachusetts, as the Disabled Persons Protection Commision was established in 1987, In response to the abuse in New York, New York now has very strong protection, enforcement and prosecutions measures in place. Jon’s abue was was many years ago and before sexual offender registries and before protections for children. In those days, children, regardless of disability, were not taken care of seriously. Also, to be an effective witness, we would have had to keep Jon in the process of revealing the abuse and delay the healing process.

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