“We have within us the strength, the patience and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” ~ Harriet Tubman.
Possibly, after children, the most vulnerable people in our society are those with intellectual developmental disabilities. Unfortunately, they can frequently find themselves in situations where others may take advantage of them, abuse or exploit them.
They are more likely to be forced to remain in an abusive situation because they are unable to source help for themselves or to have access to the justice system. This is particularly the case where children who are intellectually disabled are abused or neglected.
The meaning of abuse and neglect
The term “abuse” means any physical, sexual or mental abuse, or financial exploitation. It is a broad term that describes any behaviour that: is unwanted; intentionally harms an individual; is demeaning or insulting; deliberately causes a person to be afraid.
The term “neglect” refers to a carer who fails to provide adequate medical or personal care, or proper maintenance, with consequences resulting in pain, injury or emotional distress, even to the point of death, for the person for whom they are supposed to be responsible. Neglect can result in an individual’s maladaptive behaviour or deterioration of their physical or mental health.
A “carer” can be a family member, an employee or a facility charged with providing adequate care and maintenance. It is disturbing that many abusers can be family members or relatives, neighbours, classmates, even educators or professional carers employed to support the person with intellectual disabilities.
Forms of abuse
Abuse can take many forms, ranging from overt physical and/or sexual assaults to bullying and emotional abuse, the latter often being much more difficult to prove. This kind of treatment destroys a person’s dignity and sense of self-worth.
People with disabilities are also more likely to experience several less common forms of abuse, such as behaviour controlling through the withholding of medication or necessary life-supporting technological devices, or essential assistance.
Factors which perpetuate abuse
People who are intellectually disabled are more susceptible to abuse for several reasons:
- People with limited communication abilities and/or cognitive disabilities may find it difficult to report abuse effectively.
- Abusers are more likely to perceive people with intellectual disabilities as weak and vulnerable, or less likely to report abuse, making them easy targets.
- Many live in homes where abuse can take place more easily and remain hidden.
- Very often the abused victim has limited access to police, advocates, medical or social services representatives, or others who can intervene and help.
- Many people with disabilities are afraid that they will not be believed when they do report abuse.
- People with disabilities are often isolated and dependent on a small circle of friends or caregivers for critical support. As these are people on whom the intellectually disabled individual is dependant, any abuse poses an emotional difficulty because the victim, when and if able to report the abuse, is facing the prospect of losing a person who is part of their survival system.
- Many people with disabilities may have developed low self-esteem through a cycle of abuse and have developed the belief that somehow the abuse is deserved.
- On the other hand, the abuser is often of the opinion that people with mental disabilities are less entitled to consideration because they are often unable to contribute to society, and therefore the abuser finds it easier to abuse or exploit them.
What you should look out for:
- Anyone you may see hitting a person who is intellectually disabled.
- An injury on a person with disabilities that does not appear to have been caused by an accident.
- If a person with intellectual disabilities should tell you that he or she has been harmed by a caregiver.
- If an individual appears to be undernourished, dressed inappropriately for the weather, or is seemingly abandoned by staff at a programme the individual attends, or where they live.
What you can do to help
- As soon as you suspect or witness or have good evidence that someone is abusing a intellectually disabled person, then you should act. If there is a hotline you can call, then do so immediately if you are aware of abuse.
- Alternatively, contact the authorities in charge of the individual’s care. If you still feel not enough action is being taken, or you are not being taken seriously, then call the police.
- Whether the person is a child, an adult or an elderly person may mean you have to call different numbers for assistance. Find someone who can help you to contact the correct authorities.
- When you phone a hotline or report abuse, make sure that you have all the details to hand:
- the abused/neglected person’s name or description; the nature of the suspected abuse or neglect; details of when and where it occurred; the names or descriptions of suspected perpetrators; and any other information you think may help, including the names of witnesses and how to contact them.
The story of Sunfield Home
Twenty years ago, Chris and Lynne Bennett, parents of a young girl with Down Syndrome, pursued their dream of establishing a home for their daughter and other intellectually disabled young adults in the Western Cape. Together with a number of other parents, they founded the Sunfield Home in Wellington, providing a loving and nurturing environment for over 100 residents and day-care individuals of all ages and together with the rest of South Africa takes a stand against abuse aimed at women, children and vulnerable persons, such as the intellectually disabled.
Find out more about us at: www.sunfieldhome.co.za