Julia* was 16 years old when a man more than three times her age tried to undo her bra.
It was not the first or the last time that Julia was sexually assaulted by one of her co-workers at a sheltered workshop for people with intellectual disabilities.
Julia – who has a mild intellectual disability – was harassed during every shift at the male-dominated workplace, she says.
When she reported the abuse to her managers, Julia was told the unwanted advances were understandable given her youth, attractiveness and friendly nature.
She was told it was her own fault that she was repeatedly harassed by her male co-workers, she says. Julia believes that the fact her abusers also had intellectual disabilities meant their alleged offences were seen as lesser crimes.
Now 31-years-old, the trauma is still with her. “I felt I had no control over what happened to me,” Julia says. “That feeling is never completely gone.”
Julia is just one of many women with intellectual disabilities who have been harassed, abused, assaulted – and ignored.
Momentum is building behind the push from Labor and the Greens’ for a royal commission into abuse in the disability services sector. The government waved through the parties’ motion on Monday, agreeing in principle to a royal commission. However, Prime Minister Scott Morrison did not commit to a timeline for the inquiry, saying it would first need the agreement of all states and territories.
But the first hurdle to any meaningful inquiry is Australia’s lack of robust data that traces the true extent of what experts call an endemic and hidden crisis.
“We know women with disability are silenced by the perpetrators of the abuse,” says Associate Professor Patsie Frawley at Deakin University.
“We know violence against women with disabilities is often unreported and when it is reported it is dismissed, ignored or covered up.”
Through her community outreach work Frawley has collected countless testimonials from women with an intellectual disability who have been sexually abused.
But the reports of abuse are not being tracked at a state or national level.
The 2016 Australian Bureau of Statistics Personal Safety Survey shows that more than 43 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds with a disability or long-term health condition report experiencing sexual harassment. That is almost double the proportion of people without a disability or long-term health condition.
But because the figure is based on a household survey, it does not capture the population of women with a disability living in facilities or who would not readily disclose abuse, Frawley says. And many facilities, such as boarding houses, prisons and women’s shelters, don’t identify women with disabilities in their records, “so there’s not a clear and full picture”, she says.
And an erroneous, often-quoted statistic: “90 per cent of women with disability have experienced violence and abuse”, is a two-decade-old conflation of several Canadian studies.
“A royal commission would give us the opportunity to get some really good Australian data,” Frawley says.
‘I was very terrified’
Soon after Julia started working at the sheltered workshop, several older male employees found her in the phone directory and left countless voicemail messages asking her to be their girlfriend.
Through tears, Julia recalls working alone in a storeroom when she felt hands fumbling with her bra clasp. It was a male co-worker aged in his 50s. “I turned around and said ‘why did you do that?’ and he said ‘because I can’.”
On another occasion, a male co-worker in his 20s touched her bottom, rubbed himself against her and laughed.
She reported the incidents to her boss, who said he would talk to the men.
But Julia was later told that their behaviour was expected, given her youth and appearance, she says. She was advised not to engage with or smile at her co-workers.
As she rode the bus home from work one afternoon she saw one of her abusers on the same bus. She panicked, got off the bus, crossed the road and was hit by a car. She sustained a skull fracture and a mild brain injury.
She was again traumatised when one of her abusers visited her in hospital.
The day she returned to work, she learned the man who had touched her bottom had been making loud sexual noises, moaning her name and making lewd gestures with the workshop machinery as he invited other men to join in.
“A female co-worker told me she was scared for me … she was worried [the man] would take the next step of rape,” Julia says. “I was very terrified and became angry.”
She confronted the man in the lunchroom, yelling at him and threatening to call the police.
But the most demoralising act, she says, was the reaction from her managers. Julia was ordered to the head manager’s office where several other section bosses were waiting. She says the door was slammed shut behind her and locked, she was reprimanded and her job was threatened.
“They told me I had no right to have an outburst at a male with an intellectual disability,” she says. “They said it was very inappropriate of me and it was not tolerated in the workplace.”
The intimidating experience was the final straw. Julia had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalised.
‘It’s okay to speak up’
When the perpetrators of harassment and assault are people with an intellectual disability it can be seen as “less of a crime”, Frawley says.
The daily, pervasive sexual abuse of women with a disability were usually reported as “incidents” and dealt with internally, she says. “We need to take them out in the open and call them what they are. These are crimes.”
Julia was an exception. The teenager and her mother launched a long and costly court battle against her employer; it was later settled.
But she had lost her job, her self-esteem and her friends. “I couldn’t leave the house for three years. I was very paranoid that someone was going to touch me,” she says.
International evidence shows women with disabilities are subjected to higher rates of physical and sexual abuse, both from people close to them and total strangers. The perpetrators might be intimate partners, co-workers, managers, carers and, in isolated cases, transport providers such as taxi drivers. A 2008 survey in the United States found women with severe disabilities were four times more likely to be sexually assaulted than women without disabilities. And a 2005 New Zealand study found women aged between 11 and 17 disclosed experiences of sexual abuse at the hands of step-fathers, mothers’ boyfriends and older brothers.
For Julia, it has taken several years of intensive work with a counsellor to claw back her life. “He told me a person who doesn’t have a disability struggles [to overcome the trauma of sexual harassment] but a person with intellectual disabilities struggles 10 times worse,” she says.
Julia believes women with intellectual disabilities may be perceived as vulnerable and less likely to defend themselves from sexual harassment and assault. “I want them to know it’s not their fault and it’s okay to speak up,” she says.
Lawyer and senior advocate at the NSW Council for Intellectual Disability Jim Simpson says a royal commission would “put a spotlight on the terrible injustices that happen so often to people with intellectual disability”.
“It’s extremely important to have the spotlight of a royal commission because people with disability – by the nature of their disability – find it really hard to identify when their rights are being abused, know what to do about it and have the confidence to seek redress,” Simpson says.
“Reporting sexual abuse is so often difficult for any woman. It can be much more difficult for women with intellectual disability.”
It is vital that a royal commission examine all settings, including residential facilities, schools, hospitals, jails, workplaces and within homes, Simpson says.
Frawley says there is a role for the National Disability Insurance Scheme Quality and Safeguards Commission to address these issues. The commission – which covers NSW and South Australia – received 29 reports of sexual assault against NDIS participants, and 184 reports overall of abuse or neglect in three months.
The Human Rights Commission’s National Inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces was also taking notice, holding a targeted consultation with people with disability in Sydney on Monday.
“There is good work being done, but there is a hell of a lot more we need to understand and a lot more that needs to be done,” says Frawley.
*Name has been changed
1800 RESPECT National Sexual Assault and Family Violence Counselling Service: 1800 737 732