New research published in SAGE has found that individuals with disabilities are twice as likely to be the victim of sexual violence during their lifetime than the general population.

As well as discovering whether disabled individuals were at higher risk of sexual violence compared to non-disabled people, the researchers also wanted to see whether certain factors affected the likelihood of being sexually victimised. These factors included gender, age, type of disability and country of data collection.

The study filled a gap in research, as no previous meta-analyses had combined studies on sexual violence across the life span (i.e., childhood and adulthood, lifetime prevalence, and not just recent abuse) and included physical, intellectual, and sensory disabilities.

These limitations have previously led to concerns about the true magnitude of the risk of sexual violence for people with disabilities.

The results show that individuals with disabilities were 2.27 times more likely to be sexually victimised

The meta-analysis included 68 studies, with 84 independent samples and 12,427 participants. The results showed that individuals with disabilities were 2.27 times more likely to be sexually victimised compared to people without disabilities.

The study included both sexual violence in childhood and adulthood. The results show that persons with disabilities were at significant higher risk than those without disabilities to be sexually victimised both when they were minors and adults. However, the risk ratio was significantly higher in adult participants (2.84) compared with the risk in minor participants (1.40).

The researchers also wanted to decipher whether those with certain disabilities were at higher risk than others of being sexually victimised. They found that those with sensory impairment were at highest risk of sexual victimisation, at a rate nearly 4 times higher than that for other types of disability.

When considering the country of data collection, the results show that the odds of sexual victimisation among individuals with a disability were significantly higher in African countries compared to others. Contrastingly, odds in Western Europe were significantly lower than in the United States.

The differential effect between men and women could not be examined as most studies did not report the prevalence separately between genders. The researchers also hypothesised that there were significant differences across eras, but found no evidence to support this.

There were several potential limitations of this meta-analysis

The researchers also considered various limitations of the study. They found several, including:

  • Since not all authors have the same definition of sexual violence, the prevalence rates may vary according to the position taken by the researchers. For instance, some authors did not include non-physical contact in their definition of sexual violence, such as harassment or indecent exposure.
  • The same thing can be said for the definition of disability, with this varying across the studies analysed.
  • There has not been enough research done on particular types of disabilities (such as developmental, neurological, language, learning disorder, and autism) and so their risk rates cannot be accurately interpreted.
  • There could be other unreported and significant moderating factors which link disability and sexual victimisation, such as living conditions e.g. privately vs institutionally and independently vs with support.

Implications for research, practice and policy

This study provides a clear picture of the risks individuals with disabilities face, and highlights the need for their inclusion in violence prevention and intervention programmes.

For this reason, the researchers suggest that both school and general healthcare professionals should be aware of and better equipped to assess sexual victimisation of people with disabilities.

In this way, access to information and knowledge about available services for persons with disabilities should be readily accessible and sexual violence prevention should be placed on the education curriculum for this vulnerable group.

Nationwide publicity should also be provided and targeted at people with disabilities, in order to prevent any reluctance to disclose incidents of sexual violence.

The researchers also highlight the need for further research into the link between sexual violence and certain disabilities (especially autism and language impairment) and other moderating factors, both of which are hugely understudied and deserve further attention.