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In Their Words, Adults With Intellectual Disabilities Tell Their Sexual Assault Stories


Over the past two weeks, we have been reporting on the high rates of sexual assault of people with intellectual disabilities. NPR obtained unpublished federal data and found they are assaulted at more than seven times the rate as everyone else. This information has been shocking to a lot of us, but it wasn't a surprise to people who have intellectual disabilities. In the final part of our series, NPR's Joseph Shapiro introduces us to some of the women and men who told him their stories. And just a warning - this report talks about sexual violence, and it runs about 7 minutes.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Somebody with an intellectual disability by definition has difficulty learning or reasoning or problem solving. But one thing I've learned from my reporting - they often think deeply about the things that affect them, the things that isolate them, like sexual assault.

DEBBIE ROBINSON: I felt dirty. I just felt not clean. I blamed myself. And I felt powerless.

SHAPIRO: Debbie Robinson was in her early 20s when she was raped.

ROBINSON: I couldn't even look in the mirror 'cause you see - all that comes back to you. It just does.

SHAPIRO: When the abuse happened, she couldn't even identify it as rape. She didn't get sex ed in school. The older man who abused her was related to someone who lived in her house. She'd been taught to trust him. She knew she didn't like it, that it was hidden. But she was confused. She thought maybe it was a relationship, a bad one.

ROBINSON: I had to figure out that it's not my fault. I had to go through all the memories and name it and open up the box that you really don't want to open up - Pandora's box.

SHAPIRO: It took a lot of therapy. Finding a therapist who knew how to talk to someone with her disability was hard, and getting there was even harder. Robinson doesn't drive. She confided in a friend who then came every week to give her a ride. Robinson didn't want to tell her overprotective parents. And when she finally did tell her mother, she then had to deal with her mother's own feelings of failure and guilt.

ROBINSON: That's why people would get angry - is because we didn't tell our own family members, but hey, I'm telling a stranger which is a therapist. You know, that gets our families angry.

SHAPIRO: There's a wide range of intellectual disability. Some people have significant disabilities mental and physical. Maybe they can't speak, or they need assistance from family or staff for basic things like eating to personal things like being bathed. The vast majority, though, have mild intellectual disability. There's a new generation that grows up and gets better chances in school. Some now even go to college programs. But pretty much everyone with intellectual disabilities has one thing in common. They depend upon other people for assistance. And that puts them at risk.

THOMAS MANGRUM: We are taught to trust grown-ups more than anyone else would be because when you have a disability, people are always telling you, do as that person says; do as this person says and all of this other stuff.

SHAPIRO: That's Thomas Mangrum. He says he was a young boy when he was assaulted by a deacon at his church. He told his parents, but they never said anything about it to him again. Mangrum says people with intellectual disabilities just aren't believed.

MANGRUM: They think if you've got a disability, that means you lie, that you can't really tell the truth or you don't know what the truth is.

SHAPIRO: People with intellectual disabilities often do have trouble speaking or describing things in detail or in proper time sequence. Our investigation found that makes it harder for police to investigate and for prosecutors to win these cases in court. But when sexual assaults go unpunished, then perpetrators are free to abuse someone again. It's one reason the NPR numbers show the rate of assault for this population is so high. Thomas Mangrum, who lives in Washington, D.C., thinks it's a matter of bias.

MANGRUM: And a lot of us in the disability community - people don't really see us. People don't see us at all. They just see our disability, and that's it.

SHAPIRO: And yes, sometimes the sexual assault of people with intellectual disabilities does get discounted. In 2014, a judge in Georgia threw out a conviction. He said the woman with Down syndrome didn't behave like a victim. She'd waited a day to report the assault. And in 2012, a psychologist testifying in Los Angeles said a 9-year-old girl who'd been assaulted by a boy at school was likely protected against the emotional trauma because of her low IQ. The jury was so offended it awarded the girl $1.4 million in damages, far more than the family was even seeking. That kind of thinking that people with intellectual disabilities suffer less gets Carolyn Morgan angry. She says, we feel the same pain as everyone else.

CAROLYN MORGAN: And we do feel pain all the time. Don't tell me that it'll go away.

SHAPIRO: She knows. She's dealt with the pain of her own rape. And she says anyone who denies her pain is ignorant.

MORGAN: They can't see that. They don't want to see it, close their mind to it.

SHAPIRO: Almost none of the people we interviewed said they were in a relationship now. They said it's especially hard for them after being assaulted to figure out what's a healthy relationship and then to have one. Sam Maxwell from Pennsylvania says he didn't know if he could trust anybody.

SAM MAXWELL: It took a long, long time before I had a relationship because I don't know if I could trust anybody.

SHAPIRO: Now Maxwell travels around western Pennsylvania telling other people his story. He was abused in 2004 at a state institution by a staff member. The man bought him sodas and candy at the canteen. Maxwell thought the man was his friend until the day he took him into the basement at the institution and raped him. Recently Maxwell told that story to a group of people with intellectual disabilities. Nine of the 15 in the room raised their hands and volunteered their own stories of assault.

James Meadours was assaulted by a man from his church in Baton Rouge who befriended him. Meadours was afraid what would happen if he reported it.

JAMES MEADOURS: And I thought he was going to kill me.

SHAPIRO: But a co-worker noticed he seemed depressed, got Meadours to say what happened and got him to call the health information line.

MEADOURS: And that information line told me to go to the SANE hospital. And the SANE hospital is the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner. And I met a wonderful lady named Ms. Wanda, and Ms. Wanda really took the time to examine me. And the key of it was that she worked with my pace, not her pace. And the police came and did step-by-step.

SHAPIRO: In the hospital, Meadours was thinking he didn't want anyone else with an intellectual disability to go through this.

MEADOURS: And I remember early on during the exam. I say, I want to change the world. But Ms. Wanda and the detective and a friend of mine say, James, you need take time to recover before you help others.

SHAPIRO: That was 2005. The man who assaulted him went to prison, and Meadours started speaking out to groups around the country. He lives in San Antonio now. And four times a year, he helps train the new volunteers at the local rape crisis center. He tells them that people with intellectual disabilities are the frequent targets of sexual assault. And he says it's time to stop keeping it a secret. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.


MCEVERS: And you can hear our entire Abused and Betrayed series at

(SOUNDBITE OF AETHER'S "ILLUSION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.