Increasing Access for Survivors of Sexual Violence with Disabilities

By Taylor Rapalyea, BARCC Marketing & Communications Coordinator

This post originally appeared on the BARCC blog on December 1, 2017.

Members of MASS Collaboration pose for a photo during the launch of an MBTA public awareness campaign in 2016.

Making the initial call to a rape crisis center can be difficult. It takes bravery to acknowledge trauma and take steps to heal. For survivors with disabilities, there can be even more obstacles to accessing services, from making the first phone call to getting to the organization’s location, to arranging interpretation services.

The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC) has worked for years to better understand accessibility needs and increase access to BARCC services. The term “accessibility” covers a wide range of considerations, like whether people can read your organization’s fonts clearly, whether your confidentiality forms are easy to understand, and the level of awareness among staff about sexual violence against people with disabilities.

Since 2011, BARCC has partnered with the Boston Center for Independent Living (BCIL), the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), and the MBTA Transit Police through the MASS Collaboration (Movement for Access, Safety, and Survivors) to make changes in each organization to increase accessibility for survivors of sexual violence.

“This collaboration has really caused everyone to think about accessibility,” said Shelley Yen-Ewert, BARCC’s director of organizational development and learning. “It’s become more of an organization-wide dialogue.”

As a result of this dialogue, BARCC has been working to increase accessibility throughout the organization. That means that we want to make our services available to everyone: from able-bodied folks, to Deaf people, and people with all kinds of disabilities. BARCC also seeks to make our offices accessible for all employees and volunteers, and our events and trainings accessible for all attendees.

“Through the Mass Collaboration, BCIL has been able to connect our staff to the pervasive reality of sexual assault in our society,” said BCIL Director Bill Henning. “We can better work with people who identify as victims, and we also can apply our learnings to consumers in other difficult situations. In return, we’ve helped BARCC to look deep at access concerns, something they’ve embraced. That job begins by examining barriers that might exist. Are your services physically accessible? Can you provide accommodations such as interpreters? Do you actually have the hidden barrier people have often been conditioned to have: the unidentified bias of thinking someone with a disability in some ways is a lesser person? You might say improving access is a bit of introspection, and then a lot of action.”

“You might say improving access is a bit of introspection, and then a lot of action.”

In the six-year collaboration, Shelley said she’s noticed similarities in how people seem to instinctively treat people with disabilities and survivors of sexual violence.

“There’s this tendency to want to protect and make decisions for them,” she said. “But we want to empower survivors with disabilities as much as possible, and make it so they can make informed decisions and have people respect those decisions.”

BARCC recently wrapped up a working group with four other rape crisis centers, government agencies, and survivors with disabilities under the Improving the Well-Being of Persons with Disabilities through a Multidisciplinary Partnership grant. The group has spent a year and a half working to create guidelines to increase access for survivors with intellectual and developmental disabilities at all rape crisis centers in Massachusetts.

One focus of the working group was to develop guidelines to support staff in working with survivors who have guardians — to give them as much information and choice as possible while also following guardianship laws. In some cases, survivors need someone to call a rape crisis center on their behalf, and the working group developed guidelines for those circumstances.

BARCC Special Projects Coordinator Jeni Prater, who led the working group with BARCC Staff Attorney Patty McNamara, said some guidelines from the working group are beneficial to all survivors.

“We’re working on putting confidentiality forms in more clear language with illustrations where appropriate,” Jeni said. “And supporting our Legal Advocacy program to make tools to explain civil and criminal justice matters in plainer language.” The team is also working on a picture guide for BARCC’s medical advocate volunteers to bring to the hospital and better explain what procedures would be done for a sexual assault evidence collection kit.

Jeni said for those who want to be more aware of accessibility challenges, thinking of ableism as another form of oppression can be helpful. “You don’t see it because if you’re an able-bodied person, you don’t have to,” she said.

In addition to improving accessibility of services, people with disabilities have shared that it is helpful to proactively communicate information about access and limitations to access. BARCC now posts the dimensions of our doorways and elevators on our website, so people who use wheelchairs can determine what office to use, and we include a number to call with accessibility questions on all our flyers.

“It’s a continual learning process,” said Shelley. “We’re really trying to work toward universal access.”