Intellectual Disability, Sexual Assault, and Empowerment

  • Virginia L. Warren
Part of the Library of Public Policy and Public Administration book series (LPPP, volume 12)


Girls and women with intellectual disabilities, such as Down syndrome, have a shockingly high rate of rape and sexual assault—12 times the rate of persons without disabilities. The perpetrators are often caretakers, who repeatedly violate them. Empowerment is a better framework than autonomy to address this crisis. A conception of autonomy common in healthcare is individualistic and stresses rationality. It may disempower those deemed not competent to make autonomous decisions. By contrast, empowerment calls for changes that are nuanced, political, and far-reaching. An individual is empowered when some or all of the following occur: (a) one is involved in long-term projects (b) which make one feel energized and more confident in one’s ability to make changes in one’s life or society, (c) while developing traits and capacities which help one to shape one’s life, (d) often while being supported by—and supporting—others in a group or community effort with which one identifies, (e) thus enhancing one’s particular skills, relationships, self-concept, and long-term well-being. Empowerment involves (f) seeking changes in laws, institutional policies, and the attitudes and behavior of other people. Here, the aim is transitioning to a more inclusive, caring and just society that values the “person first.”


  1. American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD). 2018. Definition of intellectual disability. © 2018. Accessed 15 May 2018.
  2. Crary, David. 2018. Energized by #MeToo Movement, McDonald’s workers file sex harassment claims. The Morning Call, May 22. Accessed 26 May 2018.
  3. Department of Justice. 2014. Office for victims of crime. Responding to transgender victims of sexual assault. June 2014. Accessed 26 May 2018.
  4. Dutton, Mary Ann. 1992. Empowering and healing the battered woman: A model for assessment and intervention. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  5. Edgin, Jamie, and Fabian Fernandez. 2014. The truth about down syndrome. New York Times, August 29. Accessed 20 May 2018.
  6. Garcia, Sandra E. 2017. The woman who created #MeToo long before hashtags. New York Times, October 20. Accessed 23 May 2018.
  7. Mackenzie, Catriona, and Natalie Stoljar. 2000. Introduction: Autonomy refigured. In Relational autonomy: Feminist perspectives on autonomy, agency, and the social self, ed. Catriona Mackenzie and Natalie Stoljar, 3–31. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Martin, Tina. 2018. This self-defense class empowers people with disabilities to fight abuse. NewsHour, March 14. Accessed 21 May 2018.
  9. Morgan, Robin, ed. 1970. Sisterhood is powerful: An anthology of writings from the woman’s liberation movement. New York: Vintage Books.Google Scholar
  10. Nedelsky, Jennifer. 1989. Reconceiving autonomy: Sources, thoughts, and possibilities. Yale Journal of Law and Feminism 1: 7–36.Google Scholar
  11. Scully, Jackie Leach. 2014. Disability and vulnerability: On bodies, dependence, and power. In Vulnerability: New essays in ethics and feminist philosophy, ed. Catriona Mackenzie, Wendy Rogers, and Susan Dodds, 204–221. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Shapiro, Joseph. 2018a. The sexual assault epidemic no one wants to talk about. NPR, January 8. “Abused and Betrayed” series. Accessed 15 May 2018.
  13. ———. 2018b. How prosecutors changed the odds to start winning some of the toughest rape cases. NPR, January 16. “Abused and Betrayed” series. Accessed 26 May 2018.
  14. Tassé, Marc J. 2016. Defining intellectual disability: Finally we all agree… Almost. American Psychological Association. Spotlight on Disability Newsletter. September 2016. Accessed 28 May 2018.
  15. Warren, Virginia L. 2001. From autonomy to empowerment: Health care ethics from a feminist perspective. In Bioethics, justice, & health care, ed. Wanda Teays and Laura M. Purdy, 49–53. Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.Google Scholar
  16. ———. 2018. Moral disability, moral injury and the flight from vulnerability. In Disability in practice: Attitudes, policies and relationships, ed. Adam Cureton and Thomas E. Hill Jr., 227–244. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Wasserman, David, Adrienne Asch, Jeffrey Blustein, Daniel Putnam. (2016). Disability: Definitions, models, experience. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta. Summer 2016 Edition. Accessed 23 May 2018.

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Virginia L. Warren
    • 1
  1. 1.Chapman UniversityOrangeUSA

Personalised recommendations