What makes students in special education vulnerable to victimization?
Students with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to victimization. A systemic stereotype exists that special education students are often regarded as having less social awareness and viewed as not being sexually active. Sadly, many adults, caregivers, and society in general have the same perspective. These students are regarded as not being credible or accurate reporters of personal events. Traffickers are more likely to exploit students with disabilities due to these systemic stereotypes and fulfill the students’ needs for acceptance, inclusion, and romantic love.
The following points identify factors that make students with disabilities increasingly vulnerable. While students with cognitive impairments are at more risk, students with language, emotional, affective, and learning disabilities are also vulnerable.
Limited to no understanding of healthy romantic relationships
Students with disabilities tend to be more compliant with family members, caregivers, teachers, etc. Many students are dependent on the direction from their teachers and caregivers. This causes unequal power dynamics and can be a reason why a student does not understand what abuse is and what is not normal relationship boundaries from a friend or romantic interest1. Having a disability can be very isolating and often leads to strong desires of friendship and connection which creates vulnerability. Traffickers can fill the desire for friendship and connection by being that connection and friend. Through trust, traffickers can persuade the student to do sexual acts if they want to keep that friendship and connection. It can be hard for the student to reach out for help if they see they are benefitting from the friendship and connection1. The student is likely to believe that the relationship will grow from a friendship to a romantic relationship. A component of romantic relationships is touching, whether it is holding hands, hugging, etc. Not all students may want to be touched due to sensitivity, being uncomfortable, and/or not understanding the physical cues of romantic relationships. These students may not understand that they can object or reject any form of physical touch even in a relationship2. General society’s culture encourages prejudice towards individuals with disabilities. This adds to feelings of isolation and hopelessness, making them more vulnerable to traffickers who promise any connection of friendship or sexual relationships3.
Communication barrier/Difficulty with language/speech
Communication and language barriers are commonly seen in students with disabilities. These students may have limited expressive and receptive skills as well as deficits in pragmatics (social language). Some students may utilize a communication device or use an interpreter to ask for help2. This can limit their ability to explain situations if they are seeking assistance and wanting to communicate concerns.
Assumed not sexually active
Society makes the assumption apparent that students with a cognitive impairment or physical disability are asexual, but that is not the case. As a result, many students with disabilities are not given the opportunity to discuss and learn what romantic relationships are, boundaries, and what healthy and unhealthy romantic relationships look like. Without these conversations, movies, magazines, and social media educate students on expectations for romantic relationships.
Desire romantic relationships and own family/lack future focus
Students with disabilities and especially those with cognitive impairments can have narrow future focus, like wanting to be a caretaker, teacher, doctor, astronaut, or veterinarian, when they grow up. They may seek a role they perceive society is telling them, such as getting married and having children as this capitalizes on their experiences or desires for having a family. Due to a limited understanding of boundaries and romantic relationships, this can be a risk factor for students with disabilities as traffickers can say to them, “I love you so much and you make me so happy. Let’s have a baby together.”
Less credible by law enforcement, known adults, and society in general
In some communities and based on the experiences of individuals in authority, an unhealthy cycle of mistrust between individuals with disabilities and authorities may exist. Traffickers may perceive students with disabilities as easier targets due to social discrimination and prejudice. This only reinforces this cycle of distrust for the victim towards authorities2 since they are not always believed by law enforcement when making reports on violence or abuse.1
Do you suspect a student may be a victim? Here are example questions to ask:
- Where/when did you get that purse/jacket/phone/jewelry?
- Do you have a boyfriend? What do you do together?
- Can you tell me about that tattoo?
- How do you and your boyfriend keep in touch?
- Who do you stay with? How do you pay for rent/food?
- Can you come and go as you please?
Download the SPED brochure for more information
If you hear or see something, say something
- OVCTTAC. (n.d). Human trafficking Task Force E-GUIDE. Retrieved March 09, 2021, from https://www.ovcttac.gov/taskforceguide/eguide/4-supporting-victims/45-victim-populations/victims-with-physical-cognitive-or-emotional-disabilities/
- Polaris Project. (2019, December 3). Individuals with Disabilities May Face Increased Risk of Human Trafficking. Polaris. https://polarisproject.org/blog/2018/08/individuals-with-disabilities-may-face-increased-risk-of-human-trafficking
- Carey, C., & Peterson, S. (2020). Trafficking People with Disabilities: A Legal Analysis. Cardozo Journal of Equal Rights & Social Justice, 26(3), 471–496. https://4048580a-6877-4460-b15c-ac5c8ebbccbb.filesusr.com/ugd/a6e465_e8e9befe098845fc97f47576252620f7.pdf
Next Steps... Learn more about how to protect students and intervene.