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Sexual violence allegations brought by disabled women ‘not going to court’, charity says

Written by on 30/07/2021

A group which campaigns on behalf of disabled abuse victims has called for more training for police officers to improve conviction rates and address discrimination.

In evidence submitted to parliament last month, Disabled Survivors Unite (DSU) stated: “Through our work, we have spoken with hundreds of survivors, none of whom had their cases go to court.”

This follows latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) which suggest sexual violence against disabled women in England and Wales has more than doubled in the past six years.

The government’s Rape Review, which apologised for failing victims, has also highlighted a higher risk for marginalised groups, including those with disabilities.

In 2014, the ONS figures were relatively similar for all females; 2.6% of disabled women experienced sexual assault, compared with 2.2% of non disabled women.

The latest data, published in March 2021, showed rates for disabled women had more than doubled to 5.7%, while rates for non disabled increased to 3%.

Sky News has spoken to a number of victims, who have complained about the way their allegations of sexual assault were handled by the police.

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“Jayla”, who is autistic, said she was drugged and raped on a first date.

When she returned home in the early hours, she left a distraught voicemail to her ex-boyfriend.

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Image: When reporting incidents to the police, Primrose (right) says officers have suggested men were being “kind”

She then called the Samaritans. And by late morning, she was admitted to hospital as the bleeding had got so bad, she could not walk.

She said police refused to take her claims seriously when she reported the rape three days later.

“I kept being asked ‘was I sure it had happened?’ ‘Was it not just my autism playing tricks on me?'” she told Sky News.

Her case was later dropped due to “lack of evidence” – which she says led her to attempt to take her own life.

“Mimi”, who also has autism and PTSD, described a similar experience.

She said she was told by officers that her conditions made her “overly emotional” and therefore not a reliable witness.

Carly Jones, a British Autism advocate, said she was “heart-broken” but not shocked to hear these stories.

She said: “When autistic women talk about consensual sex, they are infantilised. And when they talk about rape, they are vilified.”

She added police need more training about how autistic people process trauma.

Meanwhile, those with sensory impairments face barriers. “Shannon”, a blind survivor, said when she began using a guide dog in her late 20s, the police stopped following her allegations up.

During the last three years, Shannon has reported ten sexual assaults by strangers on busy tube carriages and stations.

Every time she says the police have dismissed her allegations or refused to return her 101 calls, because she “cannot identify her perpetrators”.

The Royal National Institute For The Blind (RNIB) has heard of many similar cases of police discrimination against blind people.

It said if a victim cannot describe their perpetrator, the police must review CCTV and appeal for witnesses.

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Image: Crime lead David Tucker says the College of Policing already provides “vulnerability training” for officers

A survey by Disabled Survivors Unite also revealed victims have been told they are “not attractive enough” to be sexually assaulted.

“The desexualisation of disabled people is so harmful,” “Primrose”, a wheelchair user, says.

“Because some police officers think rape and assault are about attraction, not power, women like me can be automatically discounted as victims.”

Due to her being in a wheelchair, Primrose feels some men perceive her as a “rolling sex toy”, not a human.

She says being groped has become a routine occurrence for her, and she has also come across men who have a fetish about her disability.

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Image: The Ministry of Justice has introduced a new Victim’s Code which sets out enhanced rights for vulnerable victims including disabled people

“It’s not just attitudes that need to change,” points out Ashley Stephen, co-founder of DSU.

Despite the Equality Act 2010, DSU has found that some police stations fail to deliver communication in accessible formats such as Braille, sign language interpreters or advocates for autistic people in interviews.

Moreover, just 2% of UK courts are currently accessible to disabled people, according to legal firm Bolt Burdon Kemp.

David Tucker, crime lead at the College of Policing, agrees they must do more to improve the current vulnerability training for police officers.

“All victims should be believed at the point of reporting and officers should take the same approach when investigating any allegation of sexual assault or rape,” he said.

The Victim’s Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird, is hopeful certain parts of the Rape Review could help.

Project Bluestone outlines that police should focus on the suspect, instead of examining the victim’s credibility.

In April 2021, the Ministry of Justice introduced a new Victim’s Code which sets out enhanced rights for disabled people.

In future, DSU advises a roll out of updated disability training across forces, as well as free and specialised legal representation for marginalised victims.

The Crown Prosecution Service said: “‘Close joint working between the police and prosecutors is key to driving up the number of successful prosecutions.

“‘We are working closely with victim services to improve how we communicate with victims to help them understand and support them through the process. Our prosecutors also undergo trauma training to ensure that they are able to evaluate evidence whilst taking into consideration how trauma can impact on memory, behaviour and demeanour.”

 Sky News

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