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Individuals with Disabilities at High Risk of Sexual Assault

April 9, 2021 by Alexa Hornbeck
Dr. Nora Baladerian. (Photo via YouTube)

The Bureau of Justice Statistics issued a report stating those with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted at a rate seven times higher than those without disabilities. 

“Persons with developmental disabilities are at highest risk of sexual assault in this country,” said Nora Baladerian, the founder and director of the Disabilty Without Abuse Project.

Baladerian said this was the case for Natalie Newman, a non-verbal individual with low levels of intellectual ability, who wasn’t able to report her sexual assault. 

Her sister, Julie Newman, noticed changes in Natalie’s health and behavior, and brought her to the hospital. 

“A visiting doctor thought to swab her,” said Newman. 

The physicians advised Newman that her sister had contracted gonorrhea. 

“Among these hundred families I served, I noticed that all of them had taken their kid to the doctor because their behavior had changed. Not one physician suggested that it could be abuse,” said Baladerian. 

Baladerian and her team conducted a survey which found over 90% of practitioners did not have adequate training to care for those with intellectual disabilities, signaling gaps in the skills and knowledge of signs of abuse and reporting obligations. 

To try and close the gap, Baladerian designed a program called the Rule Out Abuse Physician Education Campaign, to provide training to physicians on the different signs and symptoms that might indicate a person with intellectual disabilities has suffered abuse. 

Baladerian identified 126 behavioral and health changes that an individual with disabilities might experience after a sexual assault, like not being able to swallow, frequent agitation, changes in menstruation, aggression, or self-injury. 

Dr. Susan Abend, the chief executive officer for the Right Care Now Project, collaborated with Baladerian to adapt her indicators to develop algorithms which can detect patterns of abuse from information about a person’s function and health. 

Abend founded the nonprofit Right Care Now Project, in partnership with eClinicalWorks to create an information transfer tool that gathers data from close caregivers by questionnaire and processes the information to detect over 65 health and safety issues often overlooked in those with intellectual disabilities, including possible sexual abuse. 

Abend is studying the possibility that bringing in additional nonverbal information to the detection algorithm for sexual abuse, such as data acquired from wearable sensors, will enhance the ability to detect possible abuse episodes. 

“It might look like a regular Fitbit TM, with GPS, which measures changes in biometrics,” said Anbend.

“It’s the first time we would be able to have hard evidence that something happened,” said Baladerian. 

“Prosecutors are leery of witnesses who have difficulty speaking or providing details, and they often do not comply with ADA by providing communication support, so convictions are rare,” said Baladerian. 

A study examining the patterns of sexual assault found that, “49% of people living with disabilities will experience 10 or more abusive incidents.” 

“These predators are often repeat offenders because they are never caught, just disrupting that will decrease the number of sexual abuse offenses, hopefully,” said Abend. 

Newman believes that a device like this could have prevented her sister’s sexual assault. 

“I imagine getting notifications at work that says ‘Natalie’s pulse has changed’… that’s forensic evidence. It’s technology advocating for people who can’t advocate for their health care needs,” said Newman. 

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