Almost half of women with disabilities have experienced sexual harassment or assault in the workplace, according to a new 19th News/SurveyMonkey poll that is one of the first to explore the issue.
The number, 48 percent, compares to 32 percent of women without disabilities who reported experiencing sexual assault or harassment at work.
While there is a growing body of research and reporting on the sexual violence faced by people with disabilities, little of it has delved into the workplace.
Monika Mitra, director of the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy at Brandeis University, said some describe sexual violence against people with disabilities “as a silent epidemic.” Mitra has done research on sexual violence against people with disabilities, but not in the workplace. To her knowledge, no one has.
“We know that disabled people, men and women, are significantly more vulnerable to different forms of abuse,” Mitra said. She also noted that there has not been research on the experiences of nonbinary disabled people’s experience of abuse; SurveyMonkey did not reach enough nonbinary people with disabilities to break out in this poll.
However, the poll did find elevated rates of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace for disabled men: 23 percent of disabled men reported experiencing sexual harassment or abuse in the workplace, compared with 11 percent of non-disabled men.
SurveyMonkey conducted this poll online from August 24 to 31 among a national sample of 20,191 adults, with a modeled error estimate of plus or minus 1.0 percentage points.
There were some limitations. Specifically, because the poll was online only, it may not have reached people with intellectual disabilities, who may have limited literacy or struggle with technology.
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There are no industry-wide standards or best practices around polling on disability, according to Laura Wronski, director of research at SurveyMonkey, The 19th’s polling partner.
“I don't think disability gets the focus that a lot of other demographic characteristics get in the polling world,” Wronski told The 19th.
The 19th/SurveyMonkey poll meets web accessibility standards but likely did not include people with more intensive support needs.
“If you are not in a position where you're able to answer the phone or do things for yourself, I don't know how we approach that from a polling perspective,” Wronski said.
It is a problem that researchers who specialize in disability struggle with themselves.
“It’s very difficult, even for researchers, to get comprehensive data with full inclusion of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The methodology of most surveys is limited that way,” Mitra said. She noted that people with intellectual disabilities face some of the highest rates of sexual violence in research that does manage to include them. In 2018, NPR reported that an analysis of Justice Department data showed that people with intellectual disabilities are more than seven times more likely to be sexually assaulted as those without disabilities.
Stephanie Woodward isn’t surprised by how much women with disabilities have reported sexual assault or harassment at work; she is a disabled survivor of sexual assault and harassment herself.
“Women with disabilities have a lot of barriers just to get into the workforce. So many keep their heads down while there, because they’re afraid to lose the position they’re currently in. I think sexual harassment against women with disabilities is pervasive,” Woodward told The 19th.
In 2014, freshly out of law school, Woodward was at a young lawyers’ bar crawl when a judge on a case she was working on came in.
“He told me how attractive I was and made certain comments about my body. Why was a 60-plus-year-old judge going to a bar crawl for young lawyers in the first place?” she said. She was nervous about saying anything. The judge would decide her case and she didn’t want to lose.
“Later when I was before him with my case, he shook other lawyers’ hands. But he bent down and kissed me on the head,” she recalled. Woodward uses a wheelchair, while the other lawyers stood.
Woodward’s experiences led her to found the Disability EmpowHer Network, which provides mentorship opportunities and promotes disabled women and girls’ growth and leadership. She knew from talking to other disabled women that sexual assault and harassment were common and that the multiple oppressions they faced were excluding them from leadership.
“In talking to other disabled women, and then my own experience of working for men, we realize that there's no reason for this circumstance to exist. Disabled women can and should be leaders. We needed an organization that really focused on the experiences of girls and women with disabilities so that we could uplift and empower women to lead,” Woodward said.
Part of building women’s and girls’ confidence is addressing the issue of sexual assault and harassment early, according to Woodward. It is one of many issues the EmpowHer camp for 13- to 18-year-olds addresses.
“Some people can make these forms of harassment and abuse actually seem like compliments, which can be really confusing,” she said. “We talk about how to respond to it. We talk about how you are no more deserving of harassment or abuse than any other person. No one deserves this.”
Victims of sexual assault and harassment often face skepticism or disbelief when they come forward. For disabled women and girls, that can be compounded.
“When I was sexually assaulted, at first people didn’t believe me. But then they made comments to me that I should just be grateful someone found me attractive. That’s not an uncommon experience,” Woodward said. Other women in the EmpowHer network have recounted being told similar things — “that they should feel grateful that someone found them sexually appealing enough to commit these acts against them,” Woodward said.
Mitra also noted that disbelief plays a large role in creating a culture of silence around sexual violence faced by people with disabilities.
“In reporting, we know that often, disabled people simply are not believed,” she said.
Mitra and Woodward both hope for more research into the issue — as well as intervention to prevent further harm.
“We need to recognize that this is an issue that women with disabilities experience regularly and not see it as something that's so unbelievable that we don't take it seriously. There's so many barriers women with disabilities in the workforce experience. This should not be one of them,” Woodward said.
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