Advances in Applied Sociology
2013. Vol.3, No.2, 114-123
Published Online June 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s .
Perceptions of the Victimization of Individuals with
Intellectual Disabilities
Douglas N. Evans1,2
1Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Mercy College, Dobbs Ferry, USA
2Research and Evaluation Center, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New Yo rk, USA
Received March 3rd, 2013; revised A p ril 5th, 2013; accepted April 13th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Douglas N. Evans. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons At-
tribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
Perceptions of the victimization of persons with intellectual disabilities were explored from the perspec-
tives of adults with mild intellectual disabilities as well as service providers and supervisors who work
with this population. Interviews were obtained for 10 adults with intellectual disabilities. Additionally,
those who work with persons with intellectual disabilit ies were interviewed: 10 service providers and five
supervisors (n = 25). Results indicate that perceptions of victimization were influenced by factors such as
victimizer motivations, proximity to victimization, and situational pre-dictability. Offenses that cause
harm are recognized as victimization by most, but non-harmful offenses are not always perceived as vic-
timization, especially when respondents were involved in the offense. The implications of these findings
related to recognition, reporting, and prevention of victimization are discussed.
Keywords: Intellectual Disability; Victimization; Vulnerability; Perception
The victimization of individuals with intellectual disabilities
(ID) historically has received modest research attention, limit-
ing insight into the extent of the problem. This could partly be
attributed to the fact that few crime statistics exist for this
population, but there is considerable evidence that crimes
against persons with ID are systematically underreported. The
limited existing research and statistics on persons with ID indi-
cate that estimates of the prevalence of victimization of this
population vary extensively (Horner-Johnson & Drum, 2006),
making it difficult to determine the extent of the problem.
The ambiguity surrounding definitions of victimization and
crimes involving individuals with ID facilitates and promotes
underreporting of the problem. Acts of victimization against
persons with disabilities often are labeled as “incidents” rather
than crimes. In many cases, incidents are handled internally—
through internal organizational means if the act occurs in a
supported living context—rather than through the criminal
justice system (Petersilia, 2001). That individuals with ID may
not realize they are being victimized compounds the problems
associated with defining acts of victimization (Marge, 2003).
Individuals with ID may not recognize victimization because
mental impairment precludes their ability to identify it or be-
cause victimization has been a part of their lives for many
This research utilizes a case study approach to qualitatively
explore victimization of individuals with ID in a supported
living context from the perspectives of individuals with ID as
well as service providers and supervisors who work with this
population. The site of analysis is a typical supported living
organization, and the objective of this research is to enhance
comprehension and awareness of victimization of individuals
with ID. Because national statistics regarding crimes against
individuals with ID are problematic, this study seeks to con-
tribute to the issue through a local-level analysis. While vic-
timization of any kind demands awareness, because some dis-
abilities create a need for assistance with daily activities (Nosek,
Foley, Hughes, & Howland, 1997) and because of the difficulty
that persons with ID often face in recognizing, reporting, and
responding to the range of acts of victimization, the population
of persons with ID requires special attention.
Defining victimization in a consistent manner is no easy task.
Quinney (1974) asserts that the concept of “victim” is a social
construction, thus, defining what constitutes victimization is an
inherently subjective process that depends on the target’s per-
ception of the act. In other words, one person may perceive a
physical confrontation between two people to be “horseplay” or
justifiable punishment while another may perceive the same act
to be excessive abuse and consider it victimization. This dis-
tinction is crucial because it can trigger a victim’s or a witness’s
inclination to respond to or report the instance as victimization.
Scholars have defined victimization in a variety of different
ways. A study on the relationship between gender, victimization,
and outcomes resulting from victimization defined victimiza-
tion as interpersonal aggression, which is a deliberate intention
to cause physical or psychological harm that leads to a negative
encounter between two individuals (Pimlott-Kubiak & Cortina,
2003). Other research has limited the definition to criminal
victimization, which focuses on physical harm and excludes
emotional, mental, and verbal abuse as well as social and eco-
nomic exploitation (Hiday, Swartz, Swanson, Borum, & Wag-
ner, 1999). In research on sexual victimization, the term was
defined as unwanted sexual contact (Marx, Calhoun, Wilson, &
Meyerson, 2001). Scholars have offered a broader characteriza-
tion in the context of school bullying, defining victimization as
conflict between group goals (Bukowski & Sippola, 2001).
These definitions reveal that victimization can be marked by a
potentially limitless number of subjectively determined charac-
teristics, which makes it a difficult term to describe consis-
Defining victimization may be even more difficult when the
victim has an intellectual disability. In the realm of disability,
terms such as abuse, neglect, and harassment are referenced
interchangeably, suggesting that victimization involving per-
sons with disabilities is not clearly defined (Sin, Hedges, Cook,
Mguni, & Comber, 2009). While there is some degree of ambi-
guity inherent to instances of possible victimization involving
this population (e.g., physical punishment vs. abuse), the larger
concern is the reaction that the definition triggers. For the pur-
poses of this study, the following description of victimization is
used, extending Sin et al.’s (2009) definition: acts involving
physical, sexual, verbal, and emotional violence as well as in-
stances of harassment, abuse, neglect, and financial manipula-
tion or exploitation.
Intellectual disability is characterized by three attributes:
limitation in intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviors;
intelligence quotient (IQ) between 70 and 75; and an onset of
disability before age 18 (The Arc, 2012). According to the
President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities
(Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities),
there are seven to eight million Americans with ID. Further-
more, ID affects one in ten families. Research indicates that
individuals with ID face an increased risk for being victimized
compared to people without ID (Petersilia, 2001). In addition to
increased risk, although exact statistics vary, this population
experiences the highest rates of victimization of any disability
category both nationally and internationally (Rand & Harrel,
2009; Wilson & Brewer, 1992).
There is a lack of detailed information on the victimization
persons with disabilities. Statistical sources conflict with one
another because methods of data collection and reporting do not
disaggregate between victims based on their specific disability
type nor do they include details on crimes against this popula-
tion. A comparison of federal Hate Crimes statistics and Na-
tional Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) data on the vic-
timization of persons with disabilities illustrates the wide varia-
tion between data sources. In 2009, federal statistics indicated
that there were 99 hate crime incidents involving victims with a
disability (US Department of Justice, 2009). However, NCVS
reports indicated that there were more than 750,000 violent
victimizations committed against persons with a disability in
2009 (Harrell, 2011). The discrepancy between the two sources
could indicate a number of issues, including a high degree of
non-reporting to law enforcement, lack of evidence to corrobo-
rate reported victimization, or prosecutorial failure to file
charges due to lack of substantiation or inability of a victim to
answer questions and testify in court. Importantly, while NCVS
reports break down the statistics by disability type, the federal
Hate Crimes statistics do not include information on disability
type. Outside of Hate Crimes statistics, official data on the vic-
timization of persons with disabilities are nearly non-existent.
Petersilia (2001) emphasized the absence of any recurring col-
lection of information on crime victimization of persons with
disabilities at the national, state, or local level. In part due to
this lack of data, it is difficult to ascertain the extent of victimi-
zation against persons with ID.
There are several reasons for the dearth of data on victimiza-
tion involving individuals with ID. There is a low rate of re-
porting of incidents involving this population. Research indi-
cates that the severity of ID affects a victim’s likelihood of first
identifying, and then reporting when victimization has occurred.
The rate of reporting decreases when the individual is consid-
ered to have more severe intellectual disabilities (Wilson &
Brewer, 1992; Sobsey & Doe, 1991). Other reasons why per-
sons with ID do not report victimization include a lack of
knowledge on how to report, low self-esteem, inability to com-
municate, fear of personal harm if they report, and conflicts of
interest between victims and perpetrators in the instance of
maltreatment at the hands of service providers or family mem-
bers (Petersilia, 2001; Muccigrosso, 1991).
There are a number of possible types of victimization that
persons with ID could experience, including physical violence,
sexual assault, verbal and emotional abuse, school and cyber
bullying, property damage, discrimination (Sin et al., 2009),
neglect, psychological abuse, financial exploitation, withhold-
ing of medication, and inhumane treatment, depending on how
the victim, the perpetrator, and any outside witnesses perceive
and react to these incidents. The wide range of potential acts of
victimization, in addition to preconceptions and prior experi-
ences that influence the perceptions of victims and observers,
compound the difficulty of accurately identifying ambiguous
acts as victimization, particularly when the intent of the perpe-
trator is indiscernible.
The relationship between ID and risk for victimization has
become progressively more visible since the Independent Liv-
ing Movement of the 1970s, in which persons with disabilities
pushed for the removal of social barriers that prevented them
from living independently in the community (DeJong, Batavia,
& Meknew, 1992). Prior to the Independent Living Movement,
many persons with disabilities were housed in institutions
(Sobsey, 1994), but in recent decades, independent living cen-
ters have opened across the country to provide commu-
nity-based integration and supported living services to indi-
viduals with physical, developmental, and intellectual disabili-
ties. The shift from institutionalization to community-based
supported living has created a new realm through which to
explore the victimization of this population.
Several studies have explored the victimization of individu-
als with disabilities who receive personal assistance services.
Paid service providers offer invaluable support services and
assistance with daily tasks, a nd they are uniquely positioned to
identify signs of and report victimization because of their fre-
quent contact with clients (in this paper, clients refers to indi-
viduals with intellectual disabilities receiving supported living
services). However, in some instances, personal assistance pro-
viders may use their position to victimize their clients physi-
cally, verbally, or financially (Oktay & Tompkins, 2004). Intel-
lectual disabilities are associated with increased exposure to
sexual abuse and a greater use of force and violence at the
hands of service providers (Powers, Curry, McNeff, Saxton,
Powers, & Oschwald, 2008).
This work was inspired by years of exposure to and work
alongside countless clients with various disabilities and capa-
bilities and staff with wide-ranging backgrounds that brought
them to employment in supported living. Supported living of-
fers obvious benefits to clients—social and financial support,
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s . 115
positive relationships, and assistance with daily tasks—and less
evident problems, including manipulation, use excessive of
force, and disrespect of individual rights.
Research has addressed the victimization of individuals with
disabilities at the hands of service providers, but limited re-
search has examined the perception and comprehension of vic-
timization from the perspectives of these individuals and those
who work with them. The following was the primary research
question: how do persons with ID and those who work with
them perceive and comprehend victimization? This study seeks
to identify areas of intersection and differentiation between
these two groups in terms of their recognition of victimization.
The hope is that this research will enhance awareness of the
intersections between ID and victimization in order to improve
the safety and wellbeing of clients in supported living environ-
Qualitative methodology was selected for this study to as-
certain detailed perceptual information regarding victimization
of individuals with intellectual disabilities. Qualitative research
is advantageous when there is limited existing knowledge about
an issue; it also is helpful in regards to individuals with ID be-
cause unlike survey research, interviewing can enhance a re-
searcher’s ability to detect inconsistencies in participant re-
sponses, and it enables researchers to provide clarification in
the event that a respondent is confused about a question
(Loberg, 2009).
This research was conducted over the span of several years.
The author worked in a supported living organization (study
site) for six years, and during that time conducted informal and
formal interviews as well as observational research. Selection
of respondents was not easy because of the potential for conflict
between clients, service providers, and supervisors regarding
possible reports of victimization, possibly perpetrated by others
in the organization. To minimize this conflict, the researchers
asked respondents to not use any names during interviews.
According to supervisor respondents, the supported living
organization is similar to other large supported living organiza-
tions in terms of mission (client-focused), number of clients
(2000) and staff (500), and varieties of disability types receiv-
ing services. Thus, this organization appears to provide an ade-
quate representation of large supported living centers around
the country.
The populations of interest in this study consisted of adults
with ID as well as service providers and supervisors who work
with individuals with ID. Purposive sampling was used to se-
lect respondents who were at least 18 years old and receiving
(individuals with ID) or providing (service providers and su-
pervisors) services through a supported living organization.
The first group was selected with the assistance of a case
manager at the supported living organization, who identified
individuals with ID that met the following criteria: 1) receiving
supported living services through the supported living organi-
zation for a minimum of six months; 2) assessed as having an
IQ in the range of 70 - 75; and 3) 18 years or older. This re-
sulted in a sample of 14 individuals. Three individuals refused
to participate and another had a communication deficit that
would have made interview comprehension difficult.
The final sample consisted of 10 adults with ID (nine males,
one female). Two respondents had a dual diagnosis, meaning
that in addition to ID, they had other diagnoses, and in both
cases these were psychotic disorders. Respondents with ID
ranged in age from 28 to 70 years with a mean age of 47. Seven
respondents lived alone, two were roommates, and one lived
with a spouse. All of the respondents functioned at a high
enough level to qualify them for semi-independent living with-
out 24 hour staffing. Respondents received anywhere five to 60
supported living service hours per week from service providers,
with an average of 24 hours per week across all 10 respondents.
Nine respondents reported working at least part-time. Jobs
duties included custodial work, food service, laundry, and car
washing. Respondents’ daily routines appeared to revolve
around their work schedule and also consisted of various activi-
ties with service providers. Commonly reported activities in-
cluded errands to the bank, grocery store, gym, or library as
well as outings to the movies, parks, malls, and social gather-
ings with others from the organization. Most took the bus to
work while others received transportation from their service
providers. Most respondents preferred to spend their free time
relaxing at home and watching television, but a few respon-
dents enjoyed going out in the community as much as possible.
The next group consisted of service providers and supervi-
sors at the supported living organization. The same case man-
ager at the organization informed service providers and super-
visors about the study, and if interested, instructed them to con-
tact the research team. The criteria for their participation in-
cluded: 1) current employment in supported living as a service
provider or supervisor and 2) a minimum of six months ex-
perience in one’s current position.
The sample consisted of 10 service providers (six male, four
female) and five supervisors. Age of this sample ranged from
24 to 51 with a mean of 30. Service providers had experience in
supported living employment ranging from six months to seven
years. The five supervisors were all females and had experience
ranging from three to 18 years of employment in supported
living. Service providers had no connection with respondents
with ID. In other words, service providers did not work directly
with any individuals with ID who were interviewed for this
study. Supervisors did have previous associations with many of
the respondents with ID on their caseloads, but they were kept
unaware of who was interviewed for this study. Because all
respondents were instructed not to use identifying names of any
clients or employees at the organization during interviews, the
extent of overlapping information between respondents with ID
and supervisor respondents was unknown.
Prior to conducting interviews with individuals with ID, ser-
vice providers, and supervisors, the principle researcher met
briefly with all respondents who expressed interest in the study
in order to make introductions, explain the purpose of the re-
search, and establish familiarity with respondents.
Interviews with respondents with ID were conducted in their
homes or places in the community that afforded sufficient pri-
vacy (e.g., a quiet park, private study room in a public library).
Interviews with service providers and supervisors were con-
ducted in a private room at their place of work or at a location
in the community that afforded privacy. Initially, respondents
were provided with an informed consent, which was read aloud.
Respondents also were notified that participation was voluntary,
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s .
and they could stop the interview at any time. Each respondent
provided both oral and written consent. Following the consent
process, semi-st ruc t u re d interviews commence d .
Two interview guides were used to conduct interviews. The
same interview guide was used for service provider and super-
visor respondents. The principle investigator, who has several
years of experience and training working and communicating
with individuals with ID, conducted each interview. Interviews
were audio recorded.
Interviews with respondents with ID lasted between 45 and
150 minutes. Questions for respondents with ID were adapted
from the Attendant Mistreatment Interview Schedule (Oktay &
Tompkins, 2004) and included items about understanding, rec-
ognition, and experiences with physical abuse, sexual abuse,
verbal abuse, theft, neglect, and extortion. Oktay and Tompkins
(2004) asked about these forms of victimization in relation to
respondents’ service providers (“Has your [service provider]
ever taken anything from your home, or taken money from you
without permission?”). In the present study, respondents were
not asked about specific victimizers unless they first introduced
them through their responses. Additional question items in-
cluded perceptions of neighborhood safety, encounters with
strangers, definitions of victimization, and sources of knowl-
edge about victimization. Interviews were semi-structured to
allow the interviewer to clarify questions by asking them in
different ways and to use examples to better illustrate topics
(“How safe is your neighborhood?” followed by, “How safe
would you feel walking around your neighborhood after
dark?”). Due to the sensitive nature of some questions, the
supported living organization agreed to allow the research team
to offer its counseling services to respondents who showed
signs of distress. Fortunately, no respondents expressed dis-
comfort or requested follow-up counseling, even after such
services were offered.
Interviews with service providers and supervisors lasted be-
tween 25 and 90 minutes. Interview items for service providers
and supervisors included questions regarding the nature and
extent of their training in identifying and responding to vic-
timization; specific experiences with or knowledge of victimi-
zation of individuals with ID; understanding of the range of
victimization of individuals with ID; and the process of defin-
ing ambiguous instances as victimization or non-victimization.
Data Analysis
Data analysis began during initial observations and continued
through the data collection phase. Immediately after interviews,
the researcher’s comments, reactions, and interpretations of
each respondent’s interview were recorded. Following the
process of interview transcription, responses were grouped
according to broad themes. Two additional researchers not di-
rectly involved in the interview process reviewed each tran-
script separately and grouped the information into themes. In
the event of disagreement regarding coding decisions, the three
researchers discussed proposed groupings in relation to written
interview notes until reaching consensus. Following the coding
process, transcripts were reviewed to identify key passages and
informative quotes that could be used in the research write up
(Basit, 2003).
The objective of this research was to address the nature of
victimization of individuals with ID through an exploration of
commonalities and the extent to which perceptions of victimi-
zation vary among individuals with ID, service providers and
supervisors. Responses were categorized based on themes that
best illustrated the similarities and differences amongst percep-
tions of individuals with ID, service providers, and supervisors
in regards to victimization (Merriam, 2002). The themes in-
cluded: definitions of victimization, victimizer motivations,
proximity to victimization, and situational predictability.
Definitions of Victimization
All respondents were asked to discuss examples—either ac-
tual or possible—of victimization involving individuals with ID
to assess their subjective understanding of what constitutes
victimization of this population. Because a few respondents
with ID were not familiar with the term victimization, we also
asked for their descriptions of crime. Regardless of whether
they discussed “victimization” or “crime”, many respondents
with ID listed television shows (e.g., Andy Griffith; Law and
Order) and news media as sources of their understanding of
victimization and crime. Each respondent mentioned at least
one of the Part I index crimes listed in the FBI Uniform Crime
Reports (UCR), which indicated some commonality amongst
definitions of victimization across all respondents. Respondents
with ID referenced specific offenses: stealing, robbery, breaking
and entering, murder, rape, assault and battery, and drug dealing,
citing economic crimes (e.g., robbery, theft) most frequently.
Service providers and supervisors cited sexual assault most
Sandy was a supervisor with five years of experience in
various supported living positions. She often went out of her
way to help her clients, was devoted to her work, and quickly
worked her way up to supervisor. Sandy thoroughly discussed
her organization’s definition of the range of victimization
against individuals with ID:
Physical abuse is willful infliction of injury, unnecessary
physical or chemical restraints or isolation, and punish-
ment resulting in physical harm or pain. Sexual abuse in-
cludes all allegations of rape, sexual misconduct, or sex-
ual exploitation. Verbal abuse includes oral, written, or
gestured language that includes disparaging and deroga-
tory remarks to clients, and mental abuse includes unrea-
sonable confinement or intimidation, and any punishment
or action that is intended to cause shame, embarrassment
or intimidation … Neglect includes failure to provide ap-
propriate care, food, medical care, or supervision. This in-
cludes when family or staff are not following physicians’
orders … We are also trained to recognize exploitation.
This can be financial—any deliberate misplacement, ex-
ploitation, or wrongful temporary or permanent use of an
individual’s belongings or money—or can include any
situation in which the client is used for financial gain, la-
bor or sexual exploitation.
Some respondents, particularly service providers and super-
visors, expressed a lower threshold for defining an act as vic-
timization. Codis, a service provider with more than seven
years of experience who took his work seriously, used broad
criteria to determine whether an act constitutes victimization:
I see [victimization] as the clerk at Kroger looking at [my
clients] differently, so I see victimization, discrimination,
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maltreatment, every day and all over the place. My eyes
are always open and I take it to heart whenever I see
something like that happen.
Jean was a supervisor with 20 years of experience in sup-
ported living and was a favorite of her clients because of her
kind and positive attitude. She asserted that victimization in-
volving individuals with ID is broader than traditional legal
definitions of victimization:
There have been a couple of [clients with ID] who were
verbally abused by a bus driver who was making sexual
comments to them. It is discrimination when someone
targets a person because of their disability. This offense
would probably not be punished in a court of law but it is
certainly victimization no matter who the victim is.
A few respondents with ID described instances in which they
were victimized verbally. Lynn, a 47 year-old client with ID
who prided himself on his critical thinking and his awareness of
other peoples’ behaviors, said:
People have said hurtful things to me. I’ve been called
dumb or stupid by some people that I knew. I responded
kind of badly. Sometimes I get mad, but I try to relinquish
that. I don’t like to be called a freak just because I don’t
fit in. It makes me feel inferior. I try to avoid [people that
would insult me].
Michael, a 33 year-old client with ID with a noticeable
speech impairment and a kind and outgoing demeanor, also
spoke about what he believed to be verbal abuse: “People at
work make fun of me, say mean things to me. They make fun
because I get shaky. I just try to ignore them.” Several respon-
dents with ID could not offer specific examples but discussed
feeling as if they are treated differently or “looked at funny”
because of their intellectual disability. Betsy, a 47 year-old cli-
ent with a calm and quiet disposition, said, “Sometimes I can
feel people looking at me because [of my disability]”. Elmer, a
56-year old respondent with ID who did not work and enjoyed
spending his time riding city buses and sitting on park benches
to watch people walk by, mentioned the different ways people
in the community respond to his disabilities (in addition to ID,
he walks with a limp in his right leg). “I think people do act
different toward me because of [my disabilities], like they think
I’m this way because of drinking or drugs. But some people are
nicer to me when they see notice [my disabilities].”
A few respondents suggested that definitions of victimization
and crime should account for the fact that the victim has an
intellectual disability. Lynn stated:
Some [people with ID] need extra protection. There’s a lot
of things that they’re very good at and capable of, but
there’s a lot of things about the world that they don’t quite
understand. The people that do understand them, they’ll
take advantage of that. I guess a person can use their
knowledge in the wrong ways, try to get them to believe
what they’re saying when they’re not really truthful. But
there are a lot of people [with ID] that know the game and
they don’t get fooled that well.
Bill, a service provider with one year of experience who
worked while attending school and appeared to be very consid-
erate of his clients, asserted that a victim’s ability to recognize
and comprehend victimization are necessary skills, but their
ability to communicate is of equal import. If they cannot speak,
their likelihood of making a report drops considerably:
There’s a lot of clients that can’t communicate so there’s
no way for them to report victimization … A lot of the
clients that can’t communicate have a staff with them 24/7
so that if they were abused by someone, [the service pro-
vider] would always have their eye on the client. But the
problem is if a person is hired who doesn’t have a strong
moral background and takes advantage of the client, I
don’t think there is any way that anybody would ever find
out… If there’s only the two of them then there’s no way
that anyone outside could ever find out what happened
between those two.
The majority of service provider and supervisor respondents,
as well as a few respondents with ID, discussed how their par-
ticular vulnerabilities widen definitions of victimization in-
volving individuals with ID. Several respondents stated that this
population is vulnerable to victimization as a result of a number
of factors associated with ID, as Sandy discusse d:
[Clients with ID] are sometimes more vulnerable due to
their lower level of cognitive functioning, lack of know-
ing how to protect themselves, inability to differentiate
between the intentions of other people, having small sup-
port systems, the inability to know who to go to for help,
and possible isolation if they are unable to communicate
or are not mobile.
Victimizer Motivations
Several respondents drew attention to the influence of perpe-
trator motivations on perceptions of acts that could be con-
strued as victimization. Some supervisors stated that motives
have minimal bearing on determinations of victimization. For
instance, Jean said, “If the person is harmed in any way, then
regardless of intent [that is victimization]. We would definitely
take action in that case.” Other supervisor respondents noted
the importance of victimizer motivation as a factor that could
enhance the perpetrator’s culpability. Sandy said:
I know of several clients who were taken advantage of
because the offending party knew they either did not have
the cognitive ability to understand what was taking place,
were unable to communicate to others, or were intimi-
dated or isolated from other individuals. These are the
people we should be most concerned about because they
prey on vulnerability.
The awareness of potential motivations for committing acts
of victimization against individuals with ID is necessary for
someone to perceive ambiguous acts as victimization. This is
especially true when victimizers are closely associated with
individuals with ID, either as family or friends. Baka, a service
provider with eight years of experience who had laid back in-
teractions with his clients, noted the potential for “friends” to
take advantage of individuals with ID:
[Clients with ID] are more easily manipulated by some-
body who pretends to be a friend. I’ve known circum-
stances where people have abused that friendship by get-
ting money out of these clients and not paying them back,
pretending to be a good friend but they’re just using them,
and once they get their money, they disappear until they
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s .
want more money. I’ve seen that happen before.
Flina, a service provider with five years of experience who
was working her way through school and planning on pursuing
other jobs after her graduation, discussed a similar scenario
involving financial exploitation in which the perpetrators used
their power over the individual with ID to manipulate him:
It’s usually about money. People with intellectual and de-
velopmental disabilities have a tendency to be targeted. A
lot of stories I’ve heard are when a person will lure them
in and say “come live with me” and then they take all of
their social security money. A certain [client] was found
playing the tambourine in front of Target, and the people
who were caring for him were taking his social security
money and making him play the tambourine for [addi-
tional] money.
PJ, a 52 year-old client with ID who enjoys sports, taking
walks, and eating out, expressed his awareness of the financial
motivations of potential victimizers, but he limited his discus-
sion to strangers: “I know what homeless people want when
they come up to me on the street. It’s always about money, but I
never give it to them.”
Perpetrator motivations and intentions are not always easy to
infer. Trina, a service provider who in four years had worked
her way from substitute to service provider and has since be-
come a supervisor, discussed the difficulty of determining mo-
tivation, particularly when an act is interfamilial:
It seems if something were to occur within their immedi-
ate family, the motivation may be a control issue. They
feel like since they’re family it’s not as bad when they
take advantage of [a family member with ID] because
they are related. They feel like [the family member with
ID] can’t fend for themselves and like it’s their job to do
so but they don’t do it in the most appropriate way. It’s
difficult to know if the family member is being forceful or
trying to take advantage of the person. Who’s to say?
Proximity to Victimization
Proximity to acts of possible victimization had a noticeable
impact on respondents’ perceptions, responses to, and likeli-
hood of reporting acts of victimization. Involvement in an act,
or lack of involvement, appears to influence how it is perceived.
Respondents not directly involved in a particular act, either as a
victim or a perpetrator, were more likely to perceive an am-
biguous act as victimization than those involved in an act. For
example, Joey, a service provider with five years of experience,
identified an encounter he witnessed between another service
provider and a client as “forced medication”—grounds for em-
ployment termination—rather than “medication error”, which
would require the service provider to fill out an incident report
and participate in additional training. Baka discussed an inci-
dent he heard about in which another service provider locked a
client in the client’s room. Baka perceived this as “forced con-
finement”, which also could lead to termination. However, he
noted the ambiguity that service providers are allowed to utilize
“time outs” when clients become difficult. Time-out is an ac-
ceptable form of punishment as long as clients are not physi-
cally restrained, there is behavioral justification for the time out,
and it is consistent with the client’s behavior plan.
Those directly involved in a questionable act of victimization
were less likely to perceive it as victimization. Elmer spoke
about an instance in which he gave $40 to a stranger in the mall
for a magazine subscription, which he never received. Initially,
he did not perceive this as victimization: “I didn’t think there
was anything wrong with giving [him my money] at first.” But
after discussing the incident during the interview, Elmer con-
nected this incident to similar experiences and realized his mis-
take: “Strangers have asked me for money two or three times
before. I know I’m supposed to say no. [This last time] I felt
taken advantage of, but it was my fault for giving him my
money. I should have just walked away.” He was unable to see
that he was being financially exploited at the time of the act. A
later interview with a supervisor revealed that she witnessed a
carnival worker’s attempt to cheat Elmer out of at least $25 by
overcharging him for a t-shirt.
Flina discussed an instance that involved two forms of vic-
timization. She was both a victim and a witness, but she only
described one as an act of victimization:
[A client with severe ID] was hitting me repeatedly be-
cause I was trying to pass his meds, so I stepped back and
I was going to give him a few minutes to calm down. This
other staff person proceeded to take the meds out of my
hand, pushed the client’s head back into a chair while his
arms were flailing and poured the pills down his throat …
I reported it, but it was me against her, and no one could
prove that it happened.
Although Flina perceived the forced medication as victimiza-
tion, she did not believe that she was victimized by her client’s
physical assault. Her reasoning was, “[There was] no intent to
hurt me. He just didn’t want to take his meds. Sometimes get-
ting hit is part of this job.”
Several respondents drew attention to the importance of pre-
dictability in the lives of individuals with ID. When their rou-
tines are predictable, it is easier to detect when a situation re-
quires caution or concern. When a context is foreign, it could
create uncertainty for individuals with ID. Trina discussed
problems associated with unfamiliarity in novel contexts:
[Clients with ID] who are outside of their usual environ-
ment would be at a big risk for victimization. If they were
traveling in a different city or were in a new environment,
they might be easily confused and taken advantage of,
especially if they are alone and there is no advocate to
warn them about harmful situations and stand up for
Individuals with ID expressed concern about unpredictable
situations. A few respondents with ID mentioned feeling anxi-
ety and worry whenever they are around “drunks” or people
who are homeless. PJ spoke about his concern around such
persons: “I was at Subway getting my lunch and there was this
homeless guy. I think he was drunk. It made me nervous [be-
cause] I thought he might try to take my money or hurt me.” PJ
said that to be safe, he avoids unfamiliar situations unless a
family member, service provider or friend accompanies him.
When he is alone, he tends to frequent places that he has been
to many times because, “I’ve been there before. I know what to
expect.” Elmer also said that homeless people worry him be-
cause “I carry some money but I’m careful with it. I don’t want
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s . 119
a homeless person to rob me, take my billfold and run away
with it. They beg and ask me for money but I never give it to
The issue of predictability emerged when respondents with
ID spoke about encounters with strangers. Some asserted their
belief that it is acceptable to talk to strangers, but only in con-
trolled situations (e.g., on the bus, while at work). However,
some respondents with ID noted certain factors that they con-
sider before engaging with a stranger. Ly nn said, “It depends on
the person’s age [and] it depends if the person is friendly.”
Elmer said, “If a stranger says hi to me, I like to be friendly
with them.” Other respondents with ID are more skeptical of
stranger encounters. Betsy said, “I don’t talk to strangers be-
cause you never know who you can trust.” Michael said, “It is
not okay to talk to strangers because all they want is your
money.” Respondents appeared to base their discussions on
personal experience. Those who had positive and friendly prior
contact with strangers were more likely to be open to commu-
nicating with strangers in certain situations compared to those
who had negative prior encounters with strangers (e.g., some-
one asking them for money).
Some respondents with ID mentioned nighttime as a situa-
tion that presents unpredictable possibilities. Many respondents
said that they avoid going outside after dark to evade encoun-
ters with strangers at nighttime. Lynn discussed the unpredict-
ability of encounters with strangers at night:
When it gets dark out you have to be careful. Some people
are dirty. I try to stay away from them, but there’s always
the chance that I could get attacked by a stranger. If I’m
ever out after dark, I just hope and pray that it doesn’t
Predictability is an asset, but it also can interfere with recog-
nition of victimization. Individuals with ID typically do not
expect significant others in their lives to take advantage of them.
Their comfort with family members and friends may cloud their
awareness that these persons could potentially victimize them.
Carol, a supervisor who was promoted from a service provider
after three years of experience but has since left to pursue a
career in policy analysis, discussed the possibility that indi-
viduals with ID may not recognize victimizers when they are
too close to a potential victimizer:
It can be even harder for [individuals with ID] to recog-
nize victimization when coming from someone familiar.
One of the teams I work with has had to closely support a
client whose sister always asks her for money or other-
wise tries to manipulate her finances, to help the client
understand that she can have a positive relationship with
her family while not submitting to this exploitation. This
has been a very difficult struggle for this person to recog-
nize, understand, and deal with.
According to data from each sample of respondents, victims
with ID were usually familiar with their victimizer. Victims
were linked to their perpetrators through familial ties, commu-
nity relationships, or disability support services. The list of
reported victimizers included family members, guardians, for-
mer or current service providers, co-workers, teachers, other
clients with disabilities, bus and taxi drivers, and institutional
staff. Strangers were specified as being the perpetrators in very
few instances. Although predictability may comfort individuals
with ID, it also may distract them from perceiving an incident
as victimization.
This study explored how individuals with ID, service pro-
viders, and supervisors perceive the victimization of individuals
with ID and factors that influence their perceptions. The focus
of this study was on persons with ID because this group ex-
periences the greatest risk of victimization in relation to other
types of disabilities (Rand & Harrell, 2009). In discussing defi-
nitions of victimization of individuals with ID, most respon-
dents mentioned at least one key component associated with
current definitions of victimization involving this population
(Sin et al., 2009). However, because Sin’s definition is very
broad, as expected, there was inconsistency between respon-
dents’ subjective definitions of victimization. Variation in defi-
nitions of victimization of individuals with ID was particularly
evident when respondents discussed whether an ambiguous act
(e.g., forced medication, client physically hitting a service pro-
vider) constitutes victimization. Research on bullying found
similar results; teachers’ definitions varied widely, suggesting
that determinations of what constitutes bullying is a complex
process (Mishna, Scarcell, Pepler, & Weiner, 2005). We identi-
fied key factors that impacted individuals with ID, service pro-
viders’, and supervisors’ perceptions and definitions of vic-
timization: perpetrator motivations, proximity to the incident—
including whether or not they were directly involved in the
incident—and predictability of the context and environment in
which the incident took place.
Service provider and supervisor respondents, along with re-
spondents with ID, discussed a range of victimization involving
individuals with ID. Intellectual disability appears to widen the
scope of victimization involving this population. Although
physical, verbal, emotional, and sexual abuse could occur re-
gardless of whether or not a victim ha s ID, victims with ID are
susceptible to other offenses that the general population is not.
Similar to young children and the elderly, individuals with ID
are subject to neglect at the hands of guardians, caretakers, or
service providers, depending on their unique vulnerabilities.
Respondents mentioned clients with ID who have been victims
of neglect-related incidents, including service providers who
slept on the job, failed to change diapers regularly, and com-
mitted medication administration errors. Other discussions of
victimization incidents involving individuals with ID included
forced confinement, forced medication, financial exploitation,
having food withheld, medication theft, and forced panhandling,
in which an individual with ID was coerced into standing out-
side of a store to beg for money. These reports suggest that the
nature of victimization is more comprehensive when it involves
individuals with ID.
The nature of victimization expands when the victim has an
intellectual disability because their capabilities and life experi-
ences are inherently different than the general population. In
general, people with ID have difficulty processing information
quickly and need more time to do so when compared to people
without such disabilities. Furthermore, people with ID have
trouble making self-protective decisions (Hickson, Golden,
Khemka, Urv, & Yamusah, 1998), resisting coercion (Khemka,
Hickson, Casella, Accetturi, & Rooney, 2009), and their con-
ceptions of potentially dangerous situations are rudimentary
(Hill, Lewis, & Dunbar, 2000). Many respondents noted that
the unique vulnerabilities associated with ID influence their
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s .
likelihood of being victimized. Although most respondents,
including those with ID, considered this population to be vul-
nerable in the eyes of potential victimizers, respondents dis-
cussed additional factors that motivate victimizers. Individuals
with ID tended to believe that victimizers are motivated by
financial gain, while service providers and supervisors cited sex
and control over the victim as the most common motivations.
Financial, sexual, and control motives are consistent with the
findings of Petersilia (2001). There are some possible explana-
tions between these differing perceptions of motives. Most
respondents with ID receive considerable practice using money
because they either work or receive Social Security and have
some degree of freedom to spend their own money. They un-
derstood that money is a valuable resource and have been
taught to be careful and protective of it, especially when
strangers ask them for money. The value of money is not diffi-
cult for them to comprehend, whereas sexual and con-
trol-oriented motivations are less tangible and more complex,
especially if they have never been victims of sexual or violent
offenses. Service providers and supervisors oversee the finan-
cial records and expenditures of clients, so they are less con-
cerned with financial exploitation than with physically or sexu-
ally harmful offenses, the visible signs of which are someti mes
difficult to detect.
The finding that many respondents with ID learned about
victimization from watching television reveals how proximity
influences perceptions of victimization. Service providers and
supervisors receive considerable on-the-job training in recog-
nizing and responding to signs of victimization, and according
to multiple supervisor respondents, clients with ID receive at
least annual training in recognizing and responding to victimi-
zation (e.g., role playing scenarios, practice calling 911). How-
ever, television portrayals of victimization appear to be more
memorable than training for those with ID. This can be ex-
plained by the high volume of television that viewers watch,
and also the amount of violence on television, which is far
greater than the amount of real-world violence (Bushman &
Huesmann, 2001). Learning about victimization from watching
television, while in some ways informative, is somewhat prob-
lematic because it precludes their active interpretation of an
event; television show characters or on-air news personalities
convey what is and is not victimization. Additionally, learning
about victimization as a passive observer does not enable indi-
viduals with ID to gain experience responding to it. If televi-
sion-based learning were supplemented with practical training,
this could empower individuals with ID and gradually reduce
their risk for victimization.
Although the ability to perceive and be aware of victimiza-
tion is imperative for individuals with ID, the capacity to com-
municate it to the proper authorities is equally as important. As
many service provider and supervisor respondents noted, when
communicative disabilities are apparent in persons with ID, risk
is further increased because the likelihood of reporting dimin-
ishes drastically, and perpetrators may take advantage of this.
An inability to communicate effectively not only reduces the
likelihood of reporting victimization but according to supervi-
sor respondents, it also limits their ability to take action and
punish the perpetrators of these offenses. While some persons
with ID have a better understanding of precarious situations and
a higher communicative capacity than others, assessments of
the activities and capabilities that they are able to do independ-
ently, using instruments such as the Functional Limitation
Screen, would provide a practical measure of the individual
risks associated with each individual (Moore, 2000).
Involvement in an act appears to influence perceptions of the
act, but not as expected. Respondents not directly involved in a
particular act, either as victim or perpetrator, were more likely
to perceive an ambiguous act as victimization (e.g., “forced
medication” rather than a medication error; “forced confine-
ment” rather than a time-out or deserved punishment). Con-
versely, when respondents were directly involved in the act,
they were less likely to perceive it as victimization (e.g., “be-
havioral outburst” instead of a physical assault; “voluntarily
giving money” instead of financial deceit or exploitation). This
finding indicates the influence of perspective on the likelihood
defining acts involving persons with ID as victimization. When
ID is implicated, respondents (with and without ID) seemed
reticent to perceive of themselves as victims, but were more
like ly to perce ive other s as perpetr ators. If it is perceived at all,
oftentimes victimization involving individuals with ID is re-
ported as an incident rather than a crime (Petersilia, 2001). In
these instances, offenses are handled administratively rather
than through legal channels (Sobsey, 1994). This is problematic
because it suggests that victimization is not as significant when
the victim has ID or other disabilities.
When victims with ID are unable to perceive an act of vic-
timization, they are more likely to remain in situations where
victimization could occur repeatedly. The likelihood of recur-
ring victimization becomes especially problematic when perpe-
trators have an intimate affiliation with the victim (Sobsey &
Doe, 1991). As a service provider discussed, these individuals
may perceive an act to be forceful instruction or legitimate
punishment while an outside observer may perceive the same
act to be illegitimate harm or excessive punishment. Further-
more, when they value their relationships with others, people
with ID may not perceive significant others as potential or ac-
tual victimizers because trust may obscure their awareness that
these individuals can cause them harm. This supports the asser-
tion that a failure to report victimization increases the risk of
individuals with ID (Petersilia, 2001).
When their environments and encounters are predictable, in-
dividuals with ID appear to be better able to detect deviant
strangers and precarious circumstances. The results of the cur-
rent study support prior research that suggests that individuals
with ID are more comfortable and have an easier time making
decisions in environments and situations that are familiar and
predictable (Snell et al., 2009). However, when they are in
complex or novel situations, individuals with ID are more
likely to be compliant and overly trusting, especially when the
other person is in a position of authority. The consequence is
that they are more prone to make poor decisions in situations
that are unfamiliar to them (Snell et al., 2009). Although pre-
dictability appears to reduce the difficulty of decision-making
for individuals with ID, as noted above, it also could increase
the difficulty of recognizing potential or actual victimizers,
particularly when they are fami ly members or significant others.
If the individual with ID is unable to identify a victimizer as
such, they are more likely to remain in situations where vic-
timization could occur repe atedly.
In order to effectively address the challenges inherent to
novel situations as well as the reality that almost anyone could
be a potential victimizer, individuals with ID require regular
and ongoing training in recognizing and responding to various
forms of victimization. Based on information from service pro-
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s . 121
viders and supervisors, training clients with ID in how to rec-
ognize, respond to, and report signs of victimization should be
individualized to the capabilities of each individual, conducted
on a regular basis, involve real life scenarios, and should in-
clude but not be limited to methods of self-defense, recognition
of personal space, understanding of personal rights, and proce-
dures for reporting a crime. Training would be empowering for
clients with ID who are able to benefit from it. Clients usually
receive regular practice with, or at least exposure to, their fi-
nances (e.g., paying bills, maintaining financial records), but
training also should include personal safety and protection, risk
reduction, and violence prevention, and it should take place at
home, school, work, and independent living centers (Marge,
2003). Weekly or bi-weekly training in how to recognize and
respond to problematic situations could provide familiarity and
much needed experience for individuals with ID. Training also
must acknowledge an individual’s history of victimization be-
cause if this is not properly considered, there is a greater likeli-
hood of continued risk for repeated victimization (Marley &
Buila, 2001). Importantly, multiple supervisors explained that
training should not be limited to persons with ID alone. All
individuals who work with persons with ID as well as con-
cerned family members should participate in the training. In
order to lessen their use of harsh methods of compliance such
as physical force or coercive punishment, these individuals
should be trained in non-forceful methods of dealing with
someone with ID.
There are some limitations to this study. Persons with ID that
were interviewed functioned toward the higher end of the intel-
lectual disability spectrum given that they were assessed as
having mild ID. Those with more severe ID likely deal with
significantly different obstacles and may face considerably
more risk in their lives. Interviewing a sample of individuals
with severe ID would be difficult, but compiling victimization
histories from members of this group would give a more com-
plete representation of the risks this population faces. With this
population, there were concerns about memory, language com-
prehension, and possible difficulty being able to fully explicate
their responses. However, to understand the perceptions of vic-
timization of individuals with ID, it is important to gather in-
formation directly from these individuals because the reality is
that individuals with ID are the only people who can understand
and convey the totality of their experiences (Stone & Priestley,
1996; Taylor & Bogdan, 1998).
An additional limitation is that there was only one female
participant with ID in this sample. It is likely that females will
experience victimization in a different way than males, and thus
it is not possible to draw conclusions based on gender in this
study. Finally, service providers and supervisors who volun-
teered to participate in this study could represent a biased sam-
Future research should include interviews with parents and
guardians because depending on how much time they spend
together, data from these individuals could provide valuable
supplementary information. Research should also explore the
most effective methods for training persons with ID and the
service providers, case managers, and supervisors who work
with them. Information from persons with ID regarding their
satisfaction with support services should also be sought. Finally,
research needs to focus on the etiology of the abusive and
criminal behaviors of perpetrators and how such behaviors can
be prevented.
The author thanks Dr. Richard Curtis for his insightful com-
ments on early drafts of this paper. Also, the author dedicates
this work to all those who dedicate their lives to serving per-
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