By Erin Vallely, ATI Advocacy Specialist

February 24, 2022



Trigger warnings: The following will discuss sexual assault, sexually transmitted infections and intimate partner violence.  

In the past decade there has been an increased effort to promote awareness and prevention of unhealthy and abusive relationships.  While efforts focus on teaching basic skills like communication, consent, and conflict resolution, many disabled individuals are left out of these critical discussions.  As a result, disabled individuals, especially those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, experience significantly higher rates of abusive relationships and sexual violence as compared to non-disabled people.

The Causes and Consequences of Abuse and Violence 

The exclusion of disabled individuals in these conversations is largely due to the many misconceptions surrounding disability, socialization, and mental capacity.  For example, people often assume disabled individuals do not interact with people outside of caregivers, have friends, or understand the differences between different types of relationships.  Others assume that a person’s disability prevents them from making their own decisions or understanding the consequences of their decisions well enough to be in meaningful, healthy relationships.  

The reality is disabled individuals find themselves in all the same situations as nondisabled people do.  They spend time with family, engage with coworkers, and have friends outside their immediate support system.  When people do not have the knowledge and tools they need to assess a situation or advocate for themselves:

Most abuse and sexual violence committed against disabled individuals are by a caregiver or close “friend” or family member they have learned to rely on and trust in their day to day lives.  Cases are not reported, or prosecuted, because individuals feel they cannot risk losing the relationship, are manipulated by the attacker into thinking the action(s) were acceptable, or because the victim is unable to give investigators enough information to build a solid case.  This allows the abuser to repeatedly harm the victim.  People with disabilities need to be educated on clear communication, boundaries, qualities of healthy relationships, and consent to keep themselves safe and maintain healthy relationships.

Get Involved!   

These disparities highlight the need for accessible healthy relationship education classes. This is why Family & Children's Counseling Services’ Sexual Health Educator, Regina Cuddeback, and I are starting our own educational series for individuals aged 18+ with disabilities in Cortland County. Our classes begin March 6th and will cover topics such as communication, making friends, decision-making, and the signs of an unhealthy or abusive relationship. 

If you or someone you know might benefit from ATI’s free Healthy Relationship classes or one-on-one sessions, please contact Erin Vallely at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  She can help you gain the skills you need to stay safe.