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Guest Post: Human Trafficking of People With Disabilities

Lydia High Resolution (1)

This is a guest post from Lydia Sharp. Lydia is a PILI Alum and Equal Justice Works Fellow at Equip for Equality where she provides advocacy and outreach to people with disabilities who survived sexual abuse and sex trafficking in Illinois.

Please note, the below article includes descriptions of sexual assault.

People with disabilities are more likely to experience sexual violence than people without disabilities. In a recent special series, NPR called sexual assault of people with intellectual disabilities an “epidemic no one talks about.” In fact, people with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted at rates more than seven times those for people without disabilities. In addition, one study on sexual assault and women with mental health diagnoses found that 40% had been victims of rape or attempted rape, compared to 7% of the general population (1).

As an Equal Justice Works fellow sponsored by Greenberg Traurig, LLP at Equip for Equality, I provide outreach and advocacy to people with disabilities who are survivors of sexual violence and/or human trafficking in Illinois. In my experience, there is another epidemic no one talks about: human trafficking of people with disabilities.

Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery involving:

  1. the exploitation of youth under the age of 18 for commercial sex;
  2. the exploitation of adults for commercial sex through force, fraud, or coercion; and/or
  3. the exploitation of any person for compelled labor(2).

There are many misconceptions and myths surrounding human trafficking. For example, many believe that trafficking requires movement. However, unlike smuggling, trafficking does not require transportation or movement. Please visit the National Human Trafficking Hotline to dispel more myths and misconceptions.

People with disabilities are especially vulnerable to trafficking. Traffickers may target people with disabilities to steal their income and/or benefits. For example, a Chicago landlord labor trafficked two men with intellectual disabilities. He forced them to work several jobs and stole their income. He verbally and physically abused the men repeatedly, and sexually assaulted one of them with a power drill.

Traffickers may also target people with disabilities and use their medications as a means of control. Traffickers may require them to sell sex or work before receiving their required medications. Traffickers also target people with disabilities who have difficulty communicating clearly or who require assistive devices or interpreters for communication, knowing that reporting the abuse is much more difficult for these individuals.

Traffickers of people with disabilities are often people close to them: guardians, caregivers, and residential care providers. This is because people with disabilities often rely on these individuals for their basic needs. In these situations, it is again less likely the victim will report the abuse because of their dependence and trust of their caregiver.

For example, in U.S. v. Kaufman, Arlan Kaufman, a doctor of social work, and Linda Kaufman, a licensed nurse, were convicted for running an unlicensed residential treatment center for people with mental illness for more than 20 years in Kansas. The Kaufmans stole social security benefits and fraudulently billed Medicare for the “services” provided. They forced residents to perform sex acts on each other and recorded these acts. They also forced residents to perform nude labor in the yard.(3)

The U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Reports indicate some additional reasons people with disabilities are especially vulnerable to trafficking. For example, the 2016 TIP report states:

Lack of training for police, prosecutors, and judges on how to accommodate persons with disabilities […] can leave victims with disabilities unable to report their abuse or effectively participate in the criminal justice process. Lack of accessible information about judicial procedures and rights may also preclude them from approaching law enforcement or courts to report abuse; those who do may encounter social biases against the credibility of their statements and evidence. […] Diminished access to the justice system and limited avenues of recourse to address abuse can empower traffickers to target persons with disabilities with a sense of impunity.

The intersection of disability and trafficking has only recently come into focus in the anti-trafficking and disability networks. However, it is important to note that most survivors of trafficking are survivors with disabilities. Some have disabilities prior to the trafficking, which make them particularly vulnerable to the exploitation. Others have disabilities – like traumatic brain injuries, PTSD, and dissociative identity disorder — caused by the trauma of being trafficked.

However, many disability service organizations are not aware of trafficking in their communities and many anti-trafficking agencies “miss identifying [disability as a] risk factor or fail to make provisions for people with disabilities.”(4) Thus, both those serving people with disabilities and those serving survivors of trafficking often do not realize that they are serving many of the same people, and that survivors may benefit and qualify for services in both spheres.

To better understand this intersection and increase access to justice for survivors of trafficking with disabilities, the new National Human Trafficking & Disabilities Working Group launched in 2017. If you are interested in learning more and getting involved in the fight against the trafficking of people with disabilities, please consider joining and email them for more information.

Learn more about Lydia’s Equal Justice Works Fellowship project here »



1. H. Khalifeh, et. al. Psychological Medicine, Domestic And Sexual Violence Against Patients With Severe Mental Illness, 45, 875–886 (2015).

2. See The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000.

3. U.S. v. Kaufman, 546 F.3d 1242 (10th. Cir. 2008).

4. Office of Justice Programs, Office for Victims of Crime, Training and Technical Assistance Center, Victims with Physical, Cognitive, or Emotional Disabilities.

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