Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

NPR Investigation Finds Hidden Epidemic Of Sexual Assault


We are about to bring you voices of people who've hardly been heard in the national conversation about sexual harassment and assault. They are Americans who are exceptionally vulnerable. Yet, up to this moment, their experience has rarely been discussed. NPR's Investigations Unit spent a year reporting on sexual assaults against people with intellectual disabilities. Our correspondent Joseph Shapiro found previously undisclosed government numbers showing they are attacked far more often than other people.

And Joe, how often is it?

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: People with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted at a rate that's seven times that of people without disabilities.

INSKEEP: Seven times more.

SHAPIRO: Seven times. We asked the U.S. Department of Justice to calculate that rate for us. I knew from my reporting that it collected the data, but it hadn't released it until we asked. We are calling this an epidemic of sexual assault.

INSKEEP: Now, when you revealed this exceptionally high number to people who work with those who have intellectual disabilities, were they surprised?

SHAPIRO: It matches their experience. Like Sheryl White-Scott - she's a physician in New York City, and she has a practice just with people with intellectual disabilities. And she figures at least half the women that she sees have been the victims of sexual assault.

SHERYL WHITE-SCOTT: We'd be outraged if it was, God forbid, children or if it was the elderly that was abused at that high a rate. We would be outraged. And it's underreported and unrecognized.

INSKEEP: But why would the rate be so high for this particular population?

SHAPIRO: Part of it is that people with intellectual disabilities, they need to rely upon other people. They're taught to trust other people. We told you, we're going to hear lots of voices in this series, people with intellectual disabilities who are survivors of rape. And here's one of them - James Meadours from San Antonio.

JAMES MEADOURS: I think it's more common because a lot people sometimes - I don't want to say easy target, but it is a easy target because people try to work so hard to try to find friends and try to fit in our community.

SHAPIRO: These people are at risk all the time in their group homes, at school, at work, in the vans that take them to those places. Our numbers show they're more likely than others to be sexually assaulted by someone they know. And Steve, another reason for the high rates of assault is that these cases rarely get prosecuted. That means an abuser is free to abuse again. In one of my stories, I went back to Essex County, N.J. That's where one of the first cases ever got national attention. In Glen Ridge, N.J., there was a trial in 1992 and 1993. And Steve, I know you covered that trial.

INSKEEP: Yeah, it was one of my earlier stories as a reporter - dismaying story of high school athletes - four of them who were convicted of luring a 17-year-old special education student into a basement and raping her.

SHAPIRO: Right. And one of the stories in my series looks at what prosecutors learned from that case 25 years ago and what they're doing now.

INSKEEP: And that's one of the stories we'll be hearing over the next couple of weeks as this NPR investigation unfolds. What drew you to this topic, Joe?

SHAPIRO: I've been writing about this population for 30 years, and people with intellectual disabilities themselves - they keep telling me these stories. They tell me about the pain of the sexual assault in their lives. We've got a story tomorrow on a visit that we took to a sex ed class in Maine. And here's a clip of a teacher. She's at a whiteboard, and she's writing down answers.

PARK: Why do we want to be in a relationship?

JULIAN: For love.

PARK: For love.

JULIAN: And sexual reaction.

PARK: So yeah, love and sex - right? - pleasure - what else? How about romance?


ZACH: There's nothing wrong with that.

PARK: Nothing wrong with that.

SHAPIRO: Some of the women in that class said they want romance. They desperately want to be in relationships. But the biggest barrier, they told us, was dealing with the sexual assault that was common in their past.

INSKEEP: And we will hear their voices tomorrow - voices rarely heard in our national conversation - here on MORNING EDITION. It's the start of an NPR investigation that will unfold over the next two weeks. Joseph Shapiro, thanks very much.

SHAPIRO: Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joseph Shapiro
Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.