Warning: This article contains discussion of sexual abuse. The content may be difficult for some readers. Names have been changed to protect the identity and security of people involved.

Please visit https://www.rainn.org/articles/sexual-abuse-people-disabilities for resources or call 800-656-HOPE (4673) 24-hours-a-day if you need support.

Jane Smith has a fully realized goal. “I will advocate for people with disabilities on an international level,” she asserted. The young New York City resident is on her way. While attending AHRC New York City programs, she’s spoken to some of the state’s most influential legislators to advocate for issues important to her.

One topic Jane is interested in is continuing to increase access to all types of education for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including sexual education. As a part of Project SHINE, AHRC NYC is partnering with Planned Parenthood of Greater New York (PPGNY) and five other organizations committed to closing long-standing gaps in equitable access to sexual health for youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The first year of the project is about understanding youth’s experience with sexual health. The focus of year two is to innovate sexual health tools for youth with disabilities.

In a conversation with AHRC NYC, Jane spoke about overcoming a traumatic sexual experience, gaining support and advice from trusted sources, and realizing what she wants for herself as she continues her journey into adulthood.

Prevailing After Abuse

Jane said that she had some dating experience in high school, which was supported by her immediate family. Her mom and sister encouraged her to be safe and communicative and to come to them for advice whenever it was needed.

Jane’s family was also supportive of her during a difficult time in her life. At age 15, Jane was sexually abused by a family friend. “It was not consensual, and it was very inappropriate because I was so young. It was hurtful to me and my family,” she explained. “It made me not trust any man at all. I looked at sex and it made me feel disgusted. I didn’t feel good about myself at all.

Jane found the courage to tell her mother and her sister about what was happening. Her abuser ended up going to jail after an investigation. Through continued support and therapy, she finds herself in a better place now. “I’m not afraid anymore. I’m an adult. I’ve learned how to say no.

Building Her Own Boundaries

Jane’s mom felt it was important that her daughter continue to learn about sexual relationships in a safe, appropriate way. Jane recalled taking a sexual education class specifically for young people with disabilities where she learned about the concept of consent, how to properly use a condom, and the intricacies of interpersonal relationships. It has led her to realize what she is looking for in a romantic partner.

I’m waiting for the right moment to be intimate with a man,” Jane said. “I like to get to know him as a friend first. I’m afraid that my boundaries in the relationship could be affected and then the friendship would go away too.

Jane is comfortable with certain methods of modern dating. “I like to talk to people on the phone—it’s easier. Online dating is not for me. If a guy is nice to me [over the phone] then I would meet him in person. If he’s not nice I would say ‘bye bye.’ That’s the way I am with guys. I would talk to him and see how his attitude is. I’m trying to find someone who’s on the same level as me.

Matching Maturity

Jane says matching her own maturity is an important trait for a potential partner to have. “I want a man, not a boy because I’m not in high school anymore, a man that could act like me a little bit. I want like a man that treats me right and with respect as a woman.” She believes in waiting for the right person at the right time. “For me, the correct way to do it is when you marry. You could do it with your partner and someone that you love. I think that applies for people with disabilities as well.

Jane recently reconnected with an old friend who is interested in exploring a relationship but wants to take her time before moving forward. “I want to get to know him better again as a person,” she said. “I like to take baby steps when I’m meeting someone. I think that’s good advice for anyone.

Additional Resources

We extend our immense gratitude to Jane for bravely sharing her experience and for her continuous work in self-advocacy so we can better understand what work still needs to be done when it comes to disability rights and equitable sexual education for all.

Our partners at Planned Parenthood have developed additional materials for survivors of sexual violence and information about consent and sexual assault.

Interested in learning more or getting involved with Project SHINE? Visit the official Project SHINE website for more information.