Editor’s note: This report includes graphic and disturbing descriptions of sexual assault.
In the sex education class for adults with intellectual disabilities, the material is not watered down. The dozen women and men in a large room full of windows and light in Casco, Maine, take on complex issues, such as how to break up or how you know you’re in an abusive relationship. And the most difficult of those issues is sexual assault.
Katy Park, the teacher, begins the class with a phrase they’ve memorized: “My body is my own,” Park starts as the rest join in, “and I get to decide what is right for me.”
People with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted at a rate more than seven times that for people without disabilities. NPR asked the U.S. Department of Justice to use data it had collected, but had not published, to calculate that rate.
At a moment when Americans are talking about sexual assault and sexual harassment, a yearlong NPR investigation finds that people with intellectual disabilities are one of the most at-risk groups in America.
“This is really an epidemic and we’re not talking about it,” says Park, a social worker who runs arts and wellness programs for Momentum, an agency based in Maine that provides activities in the community and support services for adults with intellectual disabilities. Those high rates of abuse — which have been an open secret among people with intellectual disabilities, their families and people who work with them — are why Park started this class about healthy relationships and healthy sexuality.
Because one of the best ways to stop sexual assault is to give people with intellectual disabilities the ability to identify abuse and to know how to develop the healthy relationships they want.
“Let’s talk about the positive parts of being in a relationship,” Park says, holding a marker while standing at a whiteboard, at the start of the class. “Why do we want to be in a relationship?”
“Romance,” adds a woman.
From working with the men and women here, Park realized they want to have relationships, love and romance. They see their parents, siblings and their friends in relationships. They see people in relationships when they watch TV or go to the movies. They want the same things as anyone else.
But it’s harder for them. When they were in school, most of the adults in this room say, they didn’t get the sex ed classes other kids got. Now, just going on a date is difficult. They probably don’t drive or have cars. They rely on public transportation. They don’t have a lot of money. They live at home with their parents or in a group home, where there’s not a lot of privacy.
And then there’s the one thing that really complicates romance for people with intellectual disabilities: those high rates of sexual abuse.
“Oftentimes, it actually is among the only sexual experience they’ve had,” says Park. “When you don’t have other healthy sexual experiences, how do you sort through that? And then the shame, and the layers upon layers upon layers.”
This class, she says, is about “breaking the chain, being empowered to say, ‘No. This stops with me.’ “