Title IX: We Still Have a Long Way to Go Towards Equity

The 50th Anniversary of Title IX passed last year with lots of fanfare in athletic arenas. There were prominent athletic events commemorating the historic milestone, mentions across athletes’ social media, and commercials on TV. Title IX is about so much more than women in sports (although it is very important!), but rather it’s about ensuring that sex-discrimination does not occur in federally-funded educational institutions. As we are finding with many social justice issues on campus, discrimination based on sex does not exist in a silo. There are many intersectional considerations that must be made, including how this process for upholding the rights and equity for all students must be inclusive of students with intellectual disability.

Title IX legislation has resulted in the creation of offices at colleges and universities across the country to address the needs of campus community members who have experienced sexual assault and discrimination. With the best intentions, Title IX personnel in higher education have developed policies and procedures for thorough investigation into these claims. These policies are meant to promote equity, yet often leave students with intellectual disability in a procedural tangle with ineffective accommodations and a reactive approach to ensuring that they are properly supported from reporting to navigating the grievance process. Adults with intellectual disability are more likely to experience sexual assault or find themselves in social situations where their inability to effectively navigate social norms may be perceived as harassment.

The following are suggestions for what and how we could be doing better, in partnership with our Title IX office colleagues, to ensure that students with intellectual disability are properly supported in reporting violations and navigating Title IX policies and procedures. This, in turn, promotes more equity for all students. #UniversalDesign

1. The Issue: Plain Language. I get it, policies were created in conjunction with a bunch of legal professionals ensuring that each and every word was considered. Guess what? This doesn’t work for students with intellectual disability. In fact, it doesn’t compute for many students on campus who need to focus on advocating for themselves rather than interpreting legal-ese.

A Solution: Work with your Title IX and legal offices to generate a plain language companion document that makes policies and procedures accessible and understandable for all students.

2. The Issue: Reporting Procedures. You would think that the procedures that were created to support folx who are reporting injustices and violations of their bodies and personal safety would be a supportive and low-stress process. In reality, it is stressful! Imagine having support needs around recall and communication and trying to make a police or Title IX report.

A Solution: Work with your Title IX office, campus police, and other responders to understand how to effectively support students with intellectual disability in filing a report. This could include additional protocols beyond what is typical for students without intellectual disability, like receiving student permission to include a program/disability advocate in communications with this office to ensure that students are aware of next steps and have the proper support to communicate their needs and experiences. This includes working with first responders on providing support on scene to students with intellectual disability.

3. The Issue: Campus Culture in Assuming People with Disabilities are Hypersexual. People with intellectual disability are often left out of conversations around sexuality and lack basic sexuality education, let alone comprehensive education (more on that here). They aren’t hypersexual; they are underestimated when it comes to their desire to know and learn more about healthy sexual relationships. Unfortunately, this can play out as you would imagine- someone says something weird and is accused of sexual harassment.

A Solution: I want to make it clear that I’m not condoning sexual harassment. Students need to be held accountable for their actions. But IPSE programs have to prioritize educating students on social-sexual behavior if they want to ensure that they can properly identify harassment and recognize when their actions can be perceived as such. Comprehensive sexuality education on a college campus keeps everyone safe.

4. The Issue: Inadequate Accommodations for Students with Intellectual Disability. Students with intellectual disability quite frankly require more support in ensuring that they understand the grievance process. This includes access to accommodations and resources that may not be typically employed or go beyond the standard “reasonable accommodation” definition.

A Solution: Work with your Title IX office (noticing a trend here?) to ensure that your offices are in agreement and regular communication about what accommodations and resources students enrolled in the IPSE program may need and who will provide them. Consider a Memorandum of Understanding that outlines expectations from each office and the role they will respectively play in supporting students with intellectual disability.

5. The Issue: Accessible Resources for Survivors. Sexual trauma causes community members to retreat. Colleges and universities have devoted millions of dollars to supporting campus sexual assault survivors, but are all of these resources and support systems inclusive of people with intellectual disability? You guessed it: no way.

A Solution: Universal design. There’s that term again! Ensuring that survivor resources are accessible for students with intellectual disability ensures that they are accessible for all students. Trauma has massive effects on the brain and the way we comprehend and receive information after traumatic experiences. Making sure these resources are made to be consumed and supportive of students with intellectual disability can benefit everyone.

Want to talk more about Title IX effective practices for the equitable experiences of students with intellectual disability? Email our TA help desk at thinkcollegeTA@gmail.com. Are you a Title IX office with an exceptional relationship and inclusive practices for students with intellectual disability? We want to talk to you! Email Chelsea Stinnett at Chelsea.Stinnett@umb.edu.


About the post author: Chelsea VanHorn Stinnett is the Training Development and Technical Assistance Coordinator for the Think College Inclusive Higher Education Network and campus sexual assault survivor.