Preventing Online Sexual Victimization of People with Developmental Disabilities

By Barbara Coppens, Advocate Assistant with Disability Rights New Jersey, and Leigh Ann Davis, Director of Criminal Justice Initiatives at The Arc of the U.S.

All people, including people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), are sexual beings and often seek close, intimate relationships. People with IDD have a right to good sexual health and well-being, and this right extends to their online community. While access to the internet and social media can open up the possibilities of having an extended community and potentially larger circle of support, there’s also concern about how easily victimization can happen too.

We already know that people in the IDD community experience sexual violence at higher rates than the general population. One article cites data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics that found people with intellectual disabilities experience sexual violence at seven times the rate of those without disabilities. Another data source reveals that 60% of people with IDD who are in romantic relationships have experienced interpersonal violence or abuse, and 40% of them did not seek assistance.

The Lack of Sexual Health Education

In order to make safe connections in person or online, it is widely recognized that access to comprehensive and accurate sexual health information and education is essential. However, the IDD population, which includes 7.38 million Americans, is often overlooked and even excluded. Even more troubling, they are very likely to be excluded from school-based sex ed: 46% of people with IDD with low support needs and 84% of those with high support needs don’t receive any sex education. One can only imagine the damaging impact this can have on people with IDD when trying to navigate an online world that can seem very welcoming, accepting, exciting and fun, but also confusing, secretly manipulative, and even abusive.

There is too little discussion or sense of urgency to address this dilemma, and education for people with IDD and their families is not keeping pace with advancements in technology. One international study found that people with disabilities were more likely to be manipulated, coerced, or pressured into sexting than those without disabilities. This is a growing issue of concern within the IDD community — the susceptibility of people with IDD being labeled offenders, while at the same time not being provided basic education about illegal acts online and their potentially life-altering consequences.

Complications of Online Sexuality for People with IDD

At The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability (NCCJD), we respond to a steady stream of information and referral calls related to people with IDD being accused of online sex offenses, such as viewing child pornography. An image may pop up on a person’s screen and the person is drawn in and curious; one click can lead to another, and individuals find themselves on websites they don’t fully understand nor can they appreciate the fact they could be arrested for viewing. If arrested, they are placed on a sex offender registry, most likely for their rest of their lives, which has grave consequences for them and their families.

Consistent use of the internet can increase risk of cyberbullying, exposure to inappropriate materials, interaction with online criminals, and possibly revealing too much personal information — all things that can lead to sexual victimization. Sexual cyberbullying happens when someone uses forms of technology including cell phone messaging, social media, and other online tools to harass another person in a sexually explicit way, or to coerce someone into providing private sexual information or engage in sexual activities. This type of cyberbullying is a real threat to those who already have a predisposition to being easily manipulated or coerced — not inherently due to their disability- but due to a lack of opportunity to learn about online risks and sharpen skills of discernment.

For example, as a person who has an IDD, I (Barbara) have had to be very careful when I’m in chat rooms. One time a person said they thought they knew me and he found pictures of me through my Facebook page. I realized he was only pretending to know me, but I didn’t know him at all. Now I have a plan if someone tries to get to know me online but they are a stranger, even if they act like a friend. I tell them up front that I’m not interested and get offline as quick as possible. I know I can reach out to a trusted friend about online conversations that make me feel weird, scared, or uncomfortable. The risk is too great to take any chances.

Advances of Online Spaces for the IDD Community

To be sure, the internet can offer wonderful advantages too. It can increase freedom for people with IDD in many ways: freedom from feelings of isolation, freedom from immediate identification as a person with a disability, freedom from constraints of daily life (strict schedule, parental influence, lack of privacy/obtrusive housemates, etc.), and freedom to create one’s own persona and to explore the world, areas of individual interest, and relationships with others. Lack of transportation is a major issue that prevents many adults with IDD from exploring social or recreational venues in their communities, and the internet is a useful tool to create social connections. In order to fully enjoy the benefits, it’s important to prioritize safety considerations too.

People with IDD and those who support them are working to educate the IDD community about the critical importance of online safety. The Arc of New Jersey’s Self-Advocacy Project offers webinars on this issue and provide the following suggestions:

  • It’s important for people with IDD to discuss what kinds of things can potentially happen while using social media (specifically related to sexual harassment or victimization) with someone they trust.
  • People with IDD may need help understanding that social media is a reflection of who they are. Simply deleting a photo or comment does not completely remove it from the internet.
  • It’s important to limit the amount of personal information shared online and to manage privacy settings to make sure a person’s location isn’t being shared.
  • Another key reminder is to never accept “friend requests” from strangers. Just because someone says they are a friend online doesn’t mean that is true. It’s too easy for people to be manipulated and lied to online.

During Sexual Assault Awareness month, let’s consider ways we can work together to educate people with disabilities, their loved ones and the technology industry about the importance of online safety in the disability community. While it’s important that people with IDD have equal access to technology that can broaden their community and social lives, it’s equally important that they are proactively supported to use tools and strategies to prioritize their safety.

Barbara Coppens is with The Arc of New Jersey’s Self-Advocacy Project and Leigh Ann Davis is Director of Criminal Justice Initiatives at The Arc of the U.S.



National Sexual Violence Resource Center
Sexual Assault Awareness Month 2021

NSVRC provides research & tools to advocates working on the frontlines to end sexual harassment, assault, and abuse.