In the mid-1990s, a staff member from The University of Texas at Austin who knew about the high rates of sexual abuse against people with disabilities teamed with the Austin Rape Crisis Center to conduct a community survey.
Responders to the survey identified the need for two primary services: accessible counseling and personal safety education for people with disabilities.
Eventually, the Austin Rape Crisis Center hired this researcher and developed a program that would become a national leader in the movement to address violence against people with disabilities.
That program, Disability Services of The SAFE Alliance (SAFE), a partnership of Austin Children’s Shelter and SafePlace, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
“The groundbreaking and vital efforts of SAFE Disability Services gave voice, dignity, and hope to many, long before talking about and responding to the violence began spreading across the country,” noted Nancy Smith, Director of the Center on Victimization and Safety, Vera Institute of Justice. “They paved the way – hand in hand with survivors – to help build a movement.”
Twenty years ago, a few researchers were beginning to report the high rate of sexual assault and physical abuse against children and adults with disabilities. Clear evidence now exists that people with disabilities experience abuse anywhere from 2-10 times more frequently than people without disabilities.
Since 1996, staff have provided education and worked with more than 76,000 people with disabilities, family members, and professionals throughout Texas, in 49 states, and three countries (Hong Kong, Kenya, and Egypt). In addition, program staff developed ten manuals, curricula, and toolkits to guide similar efforts by other agencies, which have been distributed nationally and internationally.
In November, Disability Services will launch a website to improve stakeholder responses to children with disabilities who are abused and neglected.
“For 20 years, Disability Services’ staff have provided hope to countless victims with disabilities, and given advocates the tools we need to feel empowered to make real change in our communities, in our states and at the national level,” said Leigh Ann Davis, Director of the Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability.
Disability Services eventually expanded its focus to include sexual assault, domestic violence, and caregiver abuse against adults and children with disabilities. Through several U.S. Office of Justice program grants, staff mentored collaborations in 13 communities across the U.S. to address violence against people with disabilities.
In Austin, Disability Services has continued to conduct assessments to listen, expand services, and respond to community needs. Its work is guided by a Program Advisory Committee that consists largely of people with disabilities.
Staff provide outreach, education, and training on interpersonal abuse, personal safety, healthy relationships, and responsible sexuality with youth and adults with disabilities.
Staff also provide training to family members, disability service providers, advocacy organizations, educators, and criminal justice staff on the dynamics and intersections of abuse and disability; how to respond to abuse disclosure and support healing and recovery; and providing accessible services to people with a variety of disabilities.
SafePlace recently joined Austin Children’s Shelter to become founding partners of The SAFE Alliance. It leads in ending sexual assault and exploitation, child abuse, and domestic violence through prevention, intervention, and advocacy for change.