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Teaching People With Intellectual Disabilities How To Protect Themselves From Assault

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Doug Nadvornick/SPR
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Earlier this month, NPR aired a series of stories detailing sexual harassment of people with intellectual disabilities. The network told stories about caregivers and others in positions of authority who raped women.

The Arc of Spokane operates a program that provides people who have intellectual disabilities with tools to protect themselves from sexual assault.

Theresa Fears, who teaches in the program, has a passion for working with people who have intellectual disabilities.

“They are some of the nicest, smartest, funnest people I’ve ever met and it just irritates me so that they’re treated so disrespectfully by such a large number of our community members,” Fears said.

That disrespect includes rape and other forms of sexual assault. Fears teaches in Spokane County high schools and young adult transition classes as part of The Arc of Spokane’s Partnership 4 Safety program.

“One class I had a couple of years ago, five of the six girls in my class had already experienced a sexual assault,” she said.

She says a 1988 study of sexual abuse of people with disabilities in Canada found more than 90% of the perpetrators know their victims. They’re friends, relatives, co-workers, caregivers.

“So this abuse is happening in the context of a relationship. This isn’t stranger abuse. This is people they already know,” Fears said.

But many victims don’t have the tools to stop what’s happening or even to know what’s happening. So the idea is to teach them about healthy relationships.

“I’m able to teach them about boundaries, what boundaries belong to what relationships, what behaviors go into what relationships. And if they have that foundational understanding, they’re going to recognize it when someone is violating a boundary,” Fears said.

She teaches them to be fussy about people whom they choose to trust. And she teaches them about personal responsibility, theirs and the people with whom they know.

“I think if they can understand about the need for respect, about how choices belong to the chooser, and how trust is so vitally important," Fears said. "If they can do that, then they’re going to be harder to be taken advantage of because they’re going to know that somebody else doesn’t have the right to do things that make them uncomfortable or that they would not choose to have done.”

One of Theresa Fears’ former students is 23-year-old Sammy Kelly. Kelly now volunteers as to lead The Arc’s movie night for young adults. She says Fears’ class has helped her develop some control over the relationships with the people in her life.

“I got to be more aware of who my friends were and how to respond to my friends and family even if I’m having a tough day,” Kelly said.

She says she’s learned when to walk away from difficult situations and relationships. And she knows that she controls her own fate when it comes to men and romantic relationships.

“I try to find people who are in my own surroundings and my own group. And if I decide that I want to be with them, then that’s my choice. And if we decide to become a couple, then there’s boundaries,” Kelly said.

“It is my hope that it opens the door for them to have conversations that they might now get to have anywhere else, about a subject that is really intimate and personal and needs to be talked about and yet is so often not talked about," Theresa Fears said.

The Partnership 4 Safety program is not just for people with intellectual disabilities. It also offers classes for people who work with them, including parents and caregivers.