Stopping Sexual Assault Of People With Disabilities
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Stopping Sexual Assault Of People With Disabilities

In the wake of #Metoo, we must acknowledge the vulnerability of children and adults with disabilities and work to stop assaults

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the President of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization working to empower people with disabilities to achieve the American dream. She works regularly with disability organizations, national, state and local policy leaders, workforce development professionals, media, employers, philanthropists, celebrities and faith-based organizations in order to expand opportunities for people with disabilities. Mizrahi has led numerous national polls and brought significant visibility to the issues of America’s 56 million citizens with disabilities. She is the co-author of a major toolkit on best practices on employment for people with disabilities and frequently hosts webinars on this topic. Mizrahi has published dozens of op-eds and publications on disability issues, including in USA Today, Huffington Post, The Hill and other publications. Dyslexic herself, she also knows what it means to parent a child with multiple disabilities. Reach her at JenniferM@RespectAbilityUSA.org.

Scott Berkowitz. Courtesy of Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi
Scott Berkowitz. Courtesy of Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi

Almost every day we learn about another powerful person who is a sexual predator and/or abuser. Some of them, like Harvey Weinstein and Dustin Hoffman, are Jewish. We have also heard of Rabbis and teachers from our community who are also perpetrators of abuse.

It’s important to remember that mensches and heroes still exist in the world.

Many men are trying to do the right thing, but frankly some don’t even know what they don’t know about how to address the issues. Matt Damon, the father of four girls, made an attempt that backfired, and is hurting his career.

The best role model I know is Jewish. He is Scott Berkowitz, the CEO of RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), which is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. RAINN created and operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE) in partnership with more than 1,000 local sexual assault service providers across the country and operates the DoD Safe Helpline for the Department of Defense. RAINN also carries out programs to prevent sexual violence, help survivors, and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice.

Since 1994, RAINN has helped more than 2.5 million people through the National Sexual Assault Hotline. RAINN also educates more than 130 million Americans a year about sexual violence prevention and recovery through media partnerships and outreach. In recent years, RAINN has helped Congress pass the SAFER Act (to fix the DNA rape kit backlog), worked with policymakers to renew the Violence Against Women Act, and supported Congress in passing the Justice for All Reauthorization Act of 2016.

This year, RAINN was excited to launch the Prevention Navigator, a one-of-a-kind tool to help colleges choose a sexual assault prevention program that best fits the unique needs of their campus.

As allegations of sexual assault and harassment continue to dominate national headlines, more people are reaching out to RAINN than ever before. In November, RAINN’s victim services programs helped a record 20,300 people. Their hotline support specialists have stepped up in a big way by taking extra shifts to meet increased need, but unfortunately their limited staff capacity leaves them unable to serve all who come to them for help. While they are serving more than 650 survivors a day, because of long wait times, hundreds more leave before connecting with a support specialist. They’ve just hired another 40 staff members, and are currently working in overdrive to gain the resources for more staff, as the #MeToo movement has created a window for people living with the trauma of abuse to get help.

The Jewish tradition of service runs throughout the Berkowitz family. Scott’s sister, Stephanie, is the CEO of Northern Virginia Family Services. Both were heavily influenced by their father, Charles. Now retired, he was the longtime head of the Jewish Home Family in New Jersey, which operates nursing homes and assisted living facilities, and served on the boards of many Jewish organizations in NJ.

The issue of rape and sexual abuse is particularly important to me. Children with disabilities are three times more likely to be victims of rape or sexual assault than children without disabilities. Every 9 minutes an adult with a disability is sexually assaulted or raped. Rape and sexual assault – no matter if the victim is a person with or without a disability – is not OK.

I know this personally. When I was 12 years old, due to my dyslexia, I could not really read or write. I had stopped growing, so I was already 5’10″ and looked a lot older than my actual age. But I couldn’t read. People called me “stupid,” “idiot,” “lazy,” “disappointing” and worse. Beginning in elementary school, I was bullied physically and verbally at school. When I was 12 years old, I trusted someone at school who made me feel “accepted” and special. I wound up getting raped.

I blamed myself and did not report it at the time. For decades I did not discuss it. Like many other people, I was touched or grabbed in public, once on a bus and another time on a subway. For many years, I worked to help crisis centers but did not go public with my own story. But it is far too common to stay silent. All this press coverage is triggering a lot of feelings in a lot of people who this happened to as well. Rape and sexual assault is a lot more common than most people think. It happens to children, women and men.

If you or someone you care about needs to talk about their experience with someone, contact RAINN or call them at 1-800-656-HOPE. That’s 1-800-656-4673. Their website is screen reader accessible and they are completely set up to accommodate and serve people who are hearing impaired. If you or a loved one is thinking of ending their life by suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

To meet the demands stemming from the visibility of #MeToo, RAINN is looking for both staff and volunteers. An equal opportunity employer, their hiring procedures are designed to provide persons with disabilities meaningful employment opportunities. Indeed, they do active outreach through the Department of Disability Services, ARC, US Department of Veterans Affairs – PVA (Paralyzed Veterans of America) and Department of Economic Security when recruiting new employees. You can find job openings on their website now. Members of RAINN’s Program Advisory Board offer expertise in serving survivors with disabilities and help ensure that RAINN’s programs, policies, and services are inclusive to all. People of all gender identities are urgently needed to be RAINN volunteers now. You can be a hero too! Go HERE to learn more.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the president of www.RespectAbility.org, a nonprofit fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities. She is also the co-founder/director of the Mizrahi Family Charitable Fund. She can be reached at JenniferM@RespectAbility.org

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