Back in 1974, researchers Ann W. Burgess and Lynda L. Holmstrom first published their observations of rape victims’ psychological reactions to rape, naming the common disorder they observed “Rape Trauma Syndrome” (RTS). Many have since turned their eye toward determining how RTS affects rape survivors’ testimony at trial (or in other situations where survivors may seem to give inaccurate accounts).
Let’s be clear: Especially in light of recent events, we are not concerned about how RTS or other trauma affects survivor reliability. No, here we’re taking a sharp turn and bringing together two areas that are rarely considered together: sexual assault and disability, and how educational institutions need to look at the intersections between the two.
Strong but Poorly Recognized Connections
Researchers in psychology, psychiatry, and social work have taken the original research on rape-trauma syndrome and built upon it through the decades. For example, they correlated RTS to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when PTSD was first recognized by the American Psychiatric Association in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) in 1980. Indeed, “Rape has been found to be the trauma most commonly associated with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among women.”
A quick skim of the scientific literature reveals that 30 to 40 percent of female rape victims will still be suffering from PTSD six months after they are raped (the percentages are much greater in the weeks and months just after being raped). That’s a higher rate than even military veterans.
That statistic means an incredibly high number of students are walking around your institution’s campus suffering from a severe psychiatric disability. Those students are in need of care—and disability accommodations. With rates of PTSD (and other disabilities, such as eating disorders) as high as they are after sexual assault, it is time for the Title IX offices on every campus to become good friends with Title II.
What Title II Rights Do We Mean?
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) “prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, State and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation.” Title II of the ADA deals specifically with discrimination on the basis of disability:
Subject to the provisions of this subchapter, no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.
“Public entities” include, of course, colleges and universities that accept public money (which is basically all of them). That means students who are rape survivors on those campuses have a right to academic accommodations, and should be informed of that.
We know that more than 90 universities are currently under investigation by the U.S. Education Department for mishandling sexual assault under Title IX. But many of those same universities are also facing less talked about, less publicized Title II investigations. And those investigations aren’t coincidental. Many of the same survivors who filed Title IX cases are the ones having their Title II cases investigated as well.
End the Siloing of Campus Services
We know there are connections between sexual assault and disability, but the offices responsible for offering students resources—often the Title IX office (for sexual assault survivors) and disability support services (for people with disabilities)—are not connected in any meaningful way.
From both of our experiences—as former students, sexual assault survivors, and university employees—campus offices tend to be siloed, meaning that they do not communicate well with one another. They exist to perform the singular function named in their title, and that is all.
Let’s use a hypothetical: You are a first-year male student who was raped as part of a hazing ritual. As a result, you developed severe anxiety, and you just can’t figure out how to go to class and “be normal.” You’re terrified people in your dorm and in your classes will find out what happened, but you do need support from your professors. You can’t concentrate, and for the first time in your life you are turning in papers late and having a hard time finishing exams within the allotted time. How do you find help?
First, you might Google where to report violations of the student honor code related to sex—you don’t call it rape yet because that word is too much for you to handle. You see something about support for sexual assault survivors at your college’s women’s center, but you don’t feel like you can go there. (Note: Male assault survivors can seek support at most university women’s centers.) Finally, you are able to find something about a “Title IX office.” You wonder: Isn’t Title IX about women’s sports? But the website says the office handles situations like yours. So even though you’ve never even heard of this particular office, you make an appointment anyway with this “Title IX coordinator” person.
The Title IX meeting is in an office building so far from the heart of campus that you’ve never even seen it before. In fact, you get lost trying to find the building and arrive late for your appointment. When you sit down for your meeting, you explain that you know some “really bad” stuff has happened at a fraternity house, and it has made you anxious and you’re unable to concentrate in class. They ask you if you want to make a formal report about the incident. You say no. They thank you for your time and assure you they will check into that fraternity.
You ask about other resources, you know, for your anxiety problems in class. They hand you a card for the university counseling center and send you on your way. You stick the card in your backpack during the long walk back to your dorm, and forget about it, eventually losing it. You start getting more and more anxious to the point you can’t leave your room. Your grades fall. You have nowhere to go for help, and you eventually drop out of college.
This sort of thing happens to rape victims on college campuses across the country. We fail those students because our institutional offices fail to communicate with each other.
But what if we applied Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality to the ways our campuses operate? What if the people at the rape reporting office were educated about disability? By having a holistic sexual assault policy, and including all offices, our campuses would be more equipped to respond to violence.
There needs to be a presumption of need on college campuses when students report sexual assault—beyond what the Title IX office can provide.
Title IX offices need to presume that rape will affect a student’s performance in class. If that presumption is wrong, and the survivor needs no accommodations from disability support services, so be it. But right now the presumption falls the other direction, placing the burden solely on the survivor to maneuver through a maze of campus offices while traumatized, humiliated, and in pain.
These students often fail to get what they need. And that failure is on us.