The hidden victims of campus sexual assault: Students with disabilities

Even Gallaudet University, designed specifically for deaf students, can get it wrong when it comes to rape

American Sign Language symbols for the letters R-A-P-E.
Illustrations by Edel Rodriguez for Al Jazeera America

WASHINGTON — It was months into her freshman year here at Gallaudet University before Melissa decided to try alcohol. 

As the nation’s only liberal-arts institution specifically designed for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, Gallaudet is undoubtedly unique. But when it comes to drinking, this small school is like so many other campuses across the country: Alcohol is near ubiquitous to the social scene. 

One night in the fall of 2011, Melissa, whose name and some identifying features have been changed to protect her identity, decided she wanted to see what it felt like to be drunk. At a small gathering in a friend’s dorm room, she took one shot of vodka. The next thing Melissa knew, she says, her classmate John’s hands were all over her.

“He kept groping my genitals and rubbing himself against me, and I kept pushing him away, but he kept doing it over and over,” she remembers. Melissa felt violated and angry.  (John — whose name and some identifying features have also been changed — declined to comment, except to say that the accusations against him were “overturned.”)

From the day they met, just a few months earlier, Melissa felt uncomfortable around John. She barely knew him, but he was already telling her about the classmates he wanted to sleep with, she says. She tried to shrug off his remarks, but it became more difficult as John began fixating on her.

“He would sneak up behind me, grab me, and ask, ‘Guess who?’” Melissa says.

John didn’t need to cover her eyes, because Melissa is blind. She never saw him coming.

According to Melissa, John often exploited her blindness. At times, he would wave his hands in front of her face, she says, or steal her cane. He’d give it back eventually, telling her he was just playing around, but Melissa was left feeling vulnerable and stranded. 

He was “taking advantage of my disability,” Melissa says.

Over the last two years, American universities have come under intense, unprecedented scrutiny for how they handle sexual assault, stalking, and domestic or dating violence.

It’s an issue that has been elevated by the president’s bully pulpit and by the hundreds of students who have charged that their institutions violated Title IX, a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. To date, at least 95 schools are under federal investigation on charges that they failed to address these issues adequately.

But under this unprecedented national spotlight, there has been virtually no public attention paid to how universities handle reports of sexual violence from the millions of students with disabilities around the country, who make up an estimated 11 percent of the U.S. undergraduate population.

Nationally, research has shown that individuals with disabilities experience sexual assault at significantly higher rates than the general population and that they also face critical gaps in services when they seek help for abuse. At the same time, experts say, schools have yet to adequately assess or address the issue on their campuses. 

As a renowned university with a significant population of students with disabilities, Gallaudet offers a rare portrait of the challenges students with disabilities can face when it comes to sexual assault and what happens when they report it.

Al Jazeera America’s six-month investigation into sexual violence at Gallaudet — which included interviews with a dozen current or former students who say they were sexually assaulted, senior Gallaudet administrators, Title IX and disability experts, and an analysis of the university’s judicial board actions — reveals that even a school explicitly designed for students with disabilities can struggle in dealing with sexual assault.

More specifically, it uncovers troubling allegations from students who said their disabilities made them targets for sexual assault; that their experiences reporting that abuse were complicated by factors like disability, race and sexual identity; and that in some cases, sexual assault was even the cause of a disability, such as depression. Their stories, experts say, offer a window into the dire need for all universities to do a better job of tackling sexual assault among students with disabilities, and into the possible legal ramifications of their inaction.

Over the next year, John’s behavior continued, but because he and Melissa were a part of the same small academic program, avoiding him wasn’t an option. And by then, Melissa says, she wasn’t his only target. He was bullying other students with disabilities, too. So in August 2012, she reported John’s actions to the Office of Student Conduct, which suggested she also contact the university’s Title IX coordinator, Sharrell McCaskill, because of the sexual nature of her complaint.

Every university that receives federal funding is required to designate a Title IX coordinator, whose responsibilities include promptly investigating or overseeing the investigation into complaints of sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking and domestic or dating violence.

That month, Melissa sent McCaskill an email describing John’s behavior, including the sexual comments, and asked if McCaskill would be available to meet with her in person the next day. For more than two months, it went unanswered. Then in early November, came a short reply.

“I apologize that I may have overlooked your email,” McCaskill’s response read. “The matter that you are referring to has been brought to my attention.”

By that time, Melissa says, John’s behavior had escalated: He was bullying her at every opportunity — in class and on Facebook — and messaging her as late as 1 a.m., asking to come over to her place. 

‘Nothing happened. No one cared.’


Gallaudet student and sexual assault survivor

When McCaskill met with her, Melissa says, she described the abuse, while insisting that her anonymity be maintained.

“I was very clear,” she says. “I even asked to leave out blind-related details because it would be obvious [to John] that it was me.”

John was popular in their program, and she feared his friends would retaliate against her. Meanwhile, at least one other student reported John for assault or harassment, and McCaskill met with John to talk about that case. What happened next is disputed.

Melissa says she later found out — from a friend and via a text from John himself — that McCaskill had mentioned her name during the meeting with John. Frustrated and angry, she sent McCaskill an email alleging a violation of her confidentiality and criticizing the two-month delay, and copied several senior university officials. In a subsequent message, she attached a screenshot of John’s text message.

Citing confidentiality obligations, Gallaudet declined to comment about any individual claims involving students, and McCaskill did not respond to requests for comment. But in an email to Melissa, McCaskill denied the charge, writing that she only asked John “a general question,” and later said, according to Melissa, that she had made a vague reference to a student with different demographic characteristics than Melissa.

In the end, Melissa says, “Nothing happened. No one cared.” The experience left her distrustful of the system, doubly violated and more vulnerable, so she emailed McCaskill to say that she would not pursue an official report.

That year, Gallaudet University received 18 reports of what are known as “forcible sex offenses,” according to crime statistics required by the federal Clery Act. These can include forcible rape, forcible sodomy, forcible fondling and sexual assault with an object. (Nonforcible sex offenses refer to cases of incest and statutory rape in which consent was given.) And Gallaudet’s forcible sex offenses rate — more than 11 per 1,000 students, according to a “Washington Post” analysis — was the highest per capita of any federally funded university with more than 1,000 students in 2012.

Target for abuse

Sprawled across 99 acres of northeastern Washington, D.C, Gallaudet University is one of the country’s most influential hubs of deaf education and culture. Dating back more than a century, to when former Postmaster General Amos Kendall donated land from his own estate to educate 12 deaf and six blind students, the university has matriculated more than 24,000 students to date, with the support of substantial federal funding.

In a world where hearing is the norm, this small campus is a refuge for the some 1,700 students who attend it each year. As one of them put it, “I think of Gallaudet as the embassy for deaf and hard of hearing people … It helps prepare us to go back out to the hearing world.”

It’s a role the institution holds sacred. Gallaudet prides itself on being one of very few places that offers deaf and hard-of-hearing students the services they need, citing its caring community and respect for diversity in recruitment materials. In fact, a supportive environment is the main reason, the school says, that its students reported forcible sex offenses at a higher rate than any other federally funded university in 2012.

“It all comes down to a simple basic fact of communication access,” says Gallaudet’s dean of student affairs, Dwight Benedict. “We also provide the most access [deaf and hard-of-hearing] students can get anywhere.” As evidence, he points to the school’s vast network of interpreters, staff and faculty fluent in American Sign Language, or ASL, and immersed in deaf culture.

Melissa says those were some of the factors that drew her to Gallaudet, which she hoped would accommodate students with disabilities like her and help her to one day serve the deaf-blind community. “I noticed from my experiences that deaf/blind people fall through the cracks. People are trained in deafness, or blindness, but not both,” she explains. 

When she first arrived on campus, Melissa was startled by just how much more prepared the university was in dealing with blind students than any of the other schools she’d attended. At other schools, it could take months for Melissa to get a textbook converted to a blind-accessible format. At Gallaudet, it was just weeks. She also noticed that one of the dorms had vibrating doorbells students could feel, instead of the flashing lights typically used by deaf students.

But Melissa says, she found that her disability made her a target for abuse and repeatedly resulted in unequal treatment when she tried to report it. 

In the summer of 2012, Melissa met Mike, whose name and some identifying features have been changed. He wasn’t a Gallaudet student, but he was deaf and would come to campus events. Soon, she says, she noticed him showing up at places where she was, first around the school, and then at locations where she believed he’d have no reason to be. Once, at a lesbian bar, he walked up to her and began signing into her hand. Later, she says, friends told her that he would stand in the same room as her and stare at her, without Melissa knowing he was there. Her concern grew when she heard Mike had told a friend of hers he wanted to have sex with both of them. She says he kept on contacting her, despite her telling him to leave her alone and that if he persisted, she would go to the police. (Mike did not respond to interview requests for this story.)

Melissa thought his behavior was creepy, and she reported him to Gallaudet’s Department of Public Safety. Since he wasn’t a student, she hoped DPS would bar Mike from campus. Instead, she says, the DPS officer she met with didn’t take her seriously: “He was sort of casual.” He started asking Melissa questions about her blindness, she says, and whether she could really know if she was being stalked. “If you couldn’t see him,” Melissa says the officer asked her, “how do you know it was Mike stalking you, and not someone else?”

Yes, she was blind, but Melissa had other ways of identifying people, she insisted. She gave the officer details about the roughness of his hands when he signed to her, the things he said to her, and even offered to show him his Facebook profile picture. But without visual identification, Melissa says, the DPS officer told her there was no way they could pursue the claim or bar Mike. 

Equal protection

How students with disabilities experience sexual assault or violence, and how their schools respond to their reports, isn’t a concern just for specialized schools like Gallaudet. More than 2 million undergraduates across the country have a disability of some kind, according to recent government data. (Many in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community do not consider it a disability, though it is categorized as one by the federal government.) Because higher-education schools aren’t required to track disability statistics as aggressively as secondary schools, in-depth research on how university students with disabilities experience sexual assault or domestic violence is limited. The few studies are usually small and isolate particular disabilities. For example, one of the only studies of sexual assault among deaf and hard-of-hearing college students, conducted in 2009 at Gallaudet University, found that 48 percent said they experienced unwanted sexual contact — almost double the rate of hearing students that previous studies reported. 

On the national level, the research is more telling. 

In the most frequently cited study, from 1991, it was estimated that 83 percent of women with disabilities are sexually assaulted within their lifetime, a rate 2.5 times higher than the estimated 33 percent of all American women, according to the National Sexual Violence Research Center. Evidence also suggests that their abuse is often carried out at younger ages, by more perpetrators and for a longer period of time. 

Very few survivors with disabilities, an estimated 3 percent, ever report their abuse, but when they seek help, research has shown, they often encounter services that are not accessible to them, like when a deaf woman needs an ASL interpreter. A 2001 survey from the Center for Research on Women With Disabilities found that only 6 percent of U.S. domestic-violence shelters reported they could handle the special needs of women with a disability. The center also found that programs for abused women are less likely to serve women with hearing or sight disabilities than those with other disabilities.

Experts say these trends likely extend to college campuses — but reliable public data is needed.

‘I don’t think most institutions know enough about the kind of violence that’s happening on their campus to even know there’s a problem, let alone to begin to come up with ways to address certain populations.’

Nancy Chi Cantalupo


Nancy Chi Cantalupo of NASPA, an organization of student-affairs administrators in higher education, has spent two decades working on issues related to gender-based violence in schools. The heaps of Title IX-related lawsuits and complaints she’s seen over the years, she says, suggest that having a disability makes a student more vulnerable to sexual violence. But she doesn’t think schools are necessarily aware of this. 

“I don’t think most institutions know enough about the kind of violence that’s happening on their campus to even know there’s a problem, let alone to begin to come up with ways to address certain populations, like students with disabilities,” she says. “The best thing a school can do is conduct its own survey research to identify these problems,” but she also notes that schools don’t usually do that, or if they do, they don’t publish it.

When asked for basic demographics about disability — for example, the number of blind students who attend the school — Gallaudet University said it did not track those numbers.

Some argue that the responsibility isn’t just on universities; it’s also on the Department of Education. “There’s no mention of the disability issue within the Title IX regulations the administration has put out,” points out Stephanie Ortoleva, president of Women Enabled International, an organization that focuses on advancing the rights of women with disabilities. Still, Ortoleva, formerly a senior attorney at the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights, believes the department could play a critical role in encouraging universities to tailor their policies on sexual assault and gender-based violence to students with disabilities. 

Both disability and Title IX experts warn that the cost of inaction could be grave. That’s because disabilities can make the effect of a violation more severe, according to Colby Bruno, the senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston. And if the school isn’t proactive about it, then “you’re basically creating more risk for this student and the rest of the students.”

And it’s not just Title IX that the school could be violating. Titles II and III of the Americans With Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act all afford protections against discrimination on the basis of disability. As Cantalupo points out, under those laws, schools, regulators and advocates have developed a robust structure for accommodating students with disabilities. And if students file joint complaints alleging disability and Title IX violations to the Office of Civil Rights, schools could find themselves under even more pressure.

‘It’s harder for us’

When Alma met Lisa on Gallaudet’s campus in 2009, she was struck.

“She was beautiful, funny, charming,” Alma remembers thinking. “She made me feel like I’m amazing and phenomenal, regardless of my limitations.”

Like many of her peers, Alma is deaf; she also has narcolepsy. Lisa is hearing and able-bodied. 

The two women, whose names and some identifying features have been changed, began dating. But within a month and a half, Alma says, their relationship took a turn. It began with a light punch. As a survivor of abuse growing up, Alma told Lisa the punch triggered bad memories.

Alma says Lisa suggested that it was playful and described growing up in a difficult home. Feeling guilty, Alma scolded herself for not being sensitive enough.

But over the course of their five-and-a-half-month relationship, the abuse escalated, she says. If Lisa felt Alma spoke too loudly, she would pinch her. And when Alma reacted, she says, Lisa would snap, “Oh my God, do you know how awful you sound?”

Alma had no idea what her voice sounded like, but she did know that the fastest way to disempower her was to demean the way she spoke. “The verbal insults became the root of the relationship,” Alma recalls. “Before I knew it, I was getting in trouble for talking to my friends.”

During one argument, Lisa pushed Alma into a door, Alma says, resulting in a long-term injury that affected her mobility and signing ability. Lisa did not respond to requests for comment.

Alma wanted to end the relationship and never see Lisa again, but knew their small campus would make meeting inevitable. A local organization that assists deaf survivors of abuse, DAWN, didn’t have a safe house. So she stayed. 

‘Behind me was a large, large window where I saw all of my friends dancing, drinking, laughing and singing … She sat me down behind the window and told me to open my legs.’


Gallaudet student and sexual assault survivor

One night in May 2010, the two women were at an off-campus event Alma had helped organize. When Alma left their table to talk to other people, she says, Lisa would get pissed. 

Eventually sensing that Alma was upset, Lisa suggested they go outside for a walk, leading her down a path away from the others, according to Alma. “Behind me was a large, large window where I saw all of my friends dancing, drinking, laughing and singing … She sat me down behind the window and told me to open my legs.” 

Alma protested. There were people outside. Someone would see. 

“That fury showed up on her face,” Alma says. “So I pleaded and promised I would give her anything when we got back to dorm. That made her angrier, and she pinched my inner thigh … Then she penetrated her fingers in me, which felt like an object with thorns and barb all around. I pushed her hand out and said ‘no’ in every possible way, including my own voice.” 

Lisa told her to stop complaining, Alma says, because there wasn’t anyone around. “Would you quit being a bitch? This isn’t that serious.” And when Alma tried to get up and leave, she says, Lisa pushed her back down again, pinched her thighs to keep her legs open and performed oral sex.

When it was over, Alma couldn’t face Lisa. To avoid her, she didn’t stay on campus like she’d planned to do after exams. She also didn’t report the incident, because she felt like the odds were stacked against her. “That fact that she was hearing — and I was a woman of color who is queer and disabled — I had no case against her,” Alma explains. 

Over the next two years, Alma’s grades dipped and she became depressed. She skipped classes in buildings near Lisa’s dorm. She avoided school activities and the cafeteria, stopped wearing heels and her favorite clothes. Friends, and even a professor, asked why she was different. Finally, one friend intervened. “You can’t walk. You’re missing classes. You’re always hiding in this office. Someone did this to you,” she recalls him saying.

Alma confided in him, and to her surprise, he believed her. Maybe someone else would too, she thought. So after two years of near silence, she gathered the courage to report her rape to Gallaudet’s Office of Student Conduct.

Soon after, the university opened a preliminary investigation. The investigator was empathetic, Alma says, and told her about the options she had, including reporting the incident to the police. But it had been two years, he warned, and it was Lisa’s word against Alma’s. 

Alma was nervous: “I’m a black queer person,” she explains. “Black folks and police do not mix.” But she decided to contact the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department anyway, which dispatched two officers — without an interpreter. Though one of the officers was from the department’s Deaf and Hard of Hearing Liaison Unit — which didn’t respond to requests for comment or to Freedom of Information Act requests — Alma found her command of ASL nonfluent, and she struggled to communicate fully with the officers.

But the worst part, she says, were the questions the other officer asked her.

“Are you sure you were raped?” 

“You call that rape?”

“Do you know what the definition of ‘rape’ is?”

The university wasn’t much better, Alma says. Though a one-year protection order was granted requiring Lisa and Alma to stay 30 feet away from one another on campus and 100 feet away anywhere else, Lisa kept her job with the university after the investigation was over.

When it was finished, Alma was angry, but she wasn’t surprised. She said she’d often seen students of color, those who were lesbian, gay, bi or transgender or who had a disability, emerge from the reporting process scathed.

It’s just harder for us, she says. 

Citing confidentiality, Gallaudet University does not publish demographic data about disability, race or sexual identity when it comes to sexual assault, but many of the current or former students who spoke for this story identified as LGBT or as minorities. 

Data obtained through Freedom of Information requests about survivor services at a campus center run by DAWN reveals that minority students reported to the center at rates higher than the overall university population and their white counterparts.

Of the 42 individuals who sought help for sexual assault, domestic or dating violence, or stalking from DAWN on Gallaudet’s campus between January 2013 and June 2014, almost 40 percent were minorities. About 19 percent of those who sought services were black, though black students made up only about 10 percent of the student population, according to fall 2013 data. And another 19 percent of those reporting were Hispanic or Latino, even though Hispanics and Latinos made up only 12 percent of the university’s population. 

This data only represents the DAWN center — there are at least four other venues where sexual assault survivors can seek help — and Gallaudet says it demonstrates that “the university is effectively reaching out to those populations and promoting a safe, comfortable environment in which to seek services.” But students of color who reported being survivors of assault, including Alma, says it suggests that minorities prefer to seek services at DAWN, rather than the university. Without data from other centers on campus, it is hard to assess either of these claims.

‘Research has shown that faculty are more likely to downplay the needs of students with disabilities who are of color than those who aren’t.’

Robert Borrelle

studies race and disability in education

People of color are sexually assaulted at higher rates than the general population and, similarly, LGBT students are sexually assaulted more than non-LGBT students, but advocates caution that many universities aren’t sufficiently aware of the relationships between race, sexual identity and assault on their own campuses to ensure that their services are inclusive or culturally competent. 

“Research has shown that faculty are more likely to downplay the needs of students with disabilities who are of color than those who aren’t,” says Robert Borrelle, who studies the intersection of race and disability in elementary and secondary education at a disability-rights organization.

He says that trend is most evident in disciplinary actions, where teachers are more likely to suspend students of color and less likely to identify disability-related behaviors in them, instead tracing those behaviors “to their background or the way they grew up.” And, he adds, this trend also emerges when students of color with disabilities request accommodations or report problems. “Higher-education professors and staff often lack cultural competency in disability.”

Similarly, LGBT students report being sexually assaulted or experiencing domestic or dating violence at higher rates than non-LGBT students.

According to a 2006 American Association of University Women survey, LGBT students reported experiencing sexual harassment at a rate nearly 20 percent higher than non-LGBT students and contact sexual harassment at a rate 42 percent higher. Though there is little research studying the intersection of disability and LGBT identity, experts warn that such students likely face a higher risk of sexual assault.

Recent Title IX guidelines have helped universities recognize some of these factors. In April, the Department of Education made clear that the statute prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity or “failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity.” But change may be a long time coming, experts warn. “We as a nation, as a society, are in the very early stages of grappling with this problem,” Cantalupo says. “It’s like peeling an onion: Every time we address one issue — or even start to address one issue — another one pops up. It’s honestly hard to keep up.”

Gallaudet University rejected requests for aggregate data on judicial-board hearings related to sexual misconduct, citing privacy and concerns that speculation over the identities of involved parties could deter students from reporting. But an examination of semiannual progress reports submitted to the Department of Justice and obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests shows that the school’s expulsion rate for sexual assault was 0 percent in each of the three six-month periods during the year and a half period for which data was available.

Gallaudet resolved 27 disciplinary-board actions pertaining to sexual assault that were reported and resolved between Jan. 1, 2013 and June 30, 2014, according to the reports. Fifteen of those actions resulted in some form of sanction, but not a single student was expelled during that period. 

Edel Rodriguez for Al Jazeera America

These numbers vary significantly from the average expulsion rates of roughly 160 schools examined by The Huffington Post in September. The Post’s study shows that 30 percent of students found responsible for sexual assault were expelled at schools that volunteered that data, and 13 percent at schools that received DOJ grants.

During the year and a half period, one individual was removed from Gallaudet: a staff member who was dismissed for the sexual assault of a student in 2013.

Gallaudet denies that the data is an accurate representation of its disciplinary actions for sexual assault: “We have a broad spectrum of behaviors to define sexual misconduct, which was used in calculating ‘sexual assault,’ although not all of the behaviors are sexual assault, per se,” a press officer wrote.

Schools have often come under fire for what advocates say is lax or lenient punishment.

At Occidental College last year, a student expelled for sexual assault was allowed back on campus after writing a five-page book report. At California University of Pennsylvania in 2012, a student found responsible for sexual assault was put on probation and instructed to watch an online sexual-assault training already required for incoming freshmen. And at Bob Jones University, victims say they were told to repent.

Title IX advocates say lenient penalties are common. “Many schools are behind the curve when it comes to sanctions,” says Bruno, who has represented student victims through her work at the Victim Rights Law Center. Expulsions are a particular source of concern in critiques about outcomes. “Because after all is said and done,” she explains, “if a victim has to see her perpetrator on campus, then as a society, we have failed that victim.”

A legacy to uphold

By many accounts, Gallaudet is doing as much it can to resolve an issue that many other universities shortchange.

In 2012, the school received a three-year, $300,000 grant awarded by Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women that has helped fund an array of new programs and trainings, including, most importantly, the Sexual Assault Resource Team, started in August 2012 to help lead the university’s efforts, which meets biweekly. 

Gallaudet also boasts an interactive online course about sexual assault known as Haven, mandatory for new students; a workshop on sexual misconduct required during orientation; and a bystander-intervention program known as Green Dot, which Christine Gannon, the director of health and wellness programs, says has trained 180 students and 46 Gallaudet faculty and staff to date. And the grant money has helped make many of these programs deaf friendly, according to the university. The school also allows students to report anonymously, which Gwendolyn Francavillo, a former health and wellness coordinator, said corresponds with a higher rate of reporting.

Beyond awareness and prevention efforts, the school also hails the survivor services it provides — mental-health services for survivors and the on-campus counseling offered by DAWN. “There’s a paucity of mental-health services to deaf people worldwide, really, and in the U.S.,” explains Lauri Rush, the director of counseling and psychological services at Gallaudet. “We’re actually quite fortunate here.”

Students who are sexually assaulted get unlimited and free mental-health services, she says. And Rush says she has counseled not just survivors, but their families as well.

‘There are no secrets at Gallaudet, of course, which is one of the reasons our center is extremely strict about confidentiality.’

Lauri Rush

director of counseling and psychological services

Talk to Rush, an experienced mental-health administrator, and she’ll thoughtfully lay out the complicated issues she has seen develop when it comes to sexual assault at Gallaudet. One challenge, she admits, is the size of the campus community. With fewer than 2,000 students, this small campus can feel even smaller when reporting assault. “There are no secrets at Gallaudet, of course, which is one of the reasons our center is extremely strict about confidentiality,” she says. The chances of a survivor running into the perpetrator are high. “Anytime they come to any event, the perpetrator’s going to be there. There’s no such thing as leaving the community.”

Gannon says it’s a challenge to measure the grant’s success. But she points to signs of progress, like the bystander-intervention program. “I had a student who participated in the training, and then later she decided she wanted to interview to become a peer-health advocate,” she says. While interviewing for the job, that student told Gannon she had recently intervened in a situation she believed could have led to assault, and the next day, the would-be victim thanked her for it.

Some students agree with the university’s assessment and defend Gallaudet. One of them, Chelsea Lee, who has worked with the school’s health and wellness programs on sexual assault awareness, published this YouTube video in October. 

“People feel comfortable reporting rape because they know they can find someone they can communicate with” at Gallaudet, she signs in the video. “This means that they are more likely to make their report on campus, and therefore the report will go into the statistics that the university tracks because of the Clery Act, unlike reports made off campus.”

Lee did not respond to interview requests, but since the ASL video was published, it has been watched 4,500 times, more than double the number of current Gallaudet students. 

‘I’ve seen how Gallaudet has improved in how they handle sexual assault and rape cases, and I have faith in how they run the system.’

unnamed survivor’s account in the school paper

Also in October, an article in the university’s newspaper told an unnamed survivor’s account of why she didn’t report assault. “It had nothing to do with how the university would handle it,” the piece began. “But it had everything to do with me being embarrassed.” Later, it continued, “I’ve seen how Gallaudet has improved in how they handle sexual assault and rape cases, and I have faith in how they run the system.”

But while the university was being defended by its students, it was also trying to block the reporting that led to this article. During this investigation, Gallaudet, and representatives from a communications firm it hired, reached out to Al Jazeera America on several occasions to express concern about contacting sources for this story.

In one instance, a communications representative from the school contacted Al Jazeera America to warn against contacting a former Gallaudet student who says she was raped on campus. The press officer asserted that the student was “troubled” and “unstable” and that her account was unreliable. (At the same time, citing confidentiality and privacy rights, the university repeatedly denied requests for aggregate data about sexual assault.) 

‘Bigger than Gallaudet’

“After the rape, I just lost my identity, my name, my pride,” Alma says. “I’m rebuilding all of that now.”

Alma says her abuse left her with new disabilities: depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, for which she has been prescribed multiple medications, and physical injuries. And though she is trying to move on, the pain is a constant reminder of the abuse, she says.

She credits a school therapist with aiding in her recovery, but Alma recently graduated. She is still looking for a job, and hopes to work in survivor services, making them more inclusive to individuals with disabilities.

“I am angry, and I am determined,” she says.

She isn’t alone. Other students who say they are survivors of sexual assault and spoke to Al Jazeera America for this story are also resolute in raising the issue.

“We’ve all been dismissed as being the exception individually, even by people who are sympathetic and open to listening to our story,” explains one student who says she was groped by an unknown assailant one night. “People don’t want to see it as common [because] it’s scary. For one, it means it can happen to them. It also means admitting there is something wrong with a system they are a part of … Gallaudet is such a safe place in other ways, nobody wants to admit that there is an ugly underbelly.”

Melissa, though, has kept a lower profile over the last year.

“I spend most of my time hiding out in a secret place on campus,” she says. She feels safer and more at peace there. She’s connected to a small network of survivors on campus who want to draw attention to how sexual assault can play out among students with disabilities, especially deaf-blind ones. 

While Melissa says she’s grateful for her support network and the healing she’s done, she still gets angry sometimes — a feeling she wants to put to use to put a spotlight on disability and sexual assault.

“As ironic as it sounds, I do have a part of me that loves Gallaudet and cares,” Melissa says. “I feel like everyone deserves better than what is happening now.”

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