I was lucky enough to stumble upon something I am extremely passionate about early on in life. By the age of 13, thanks to my friends with disabilities, I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life in relationship with people with disabilities and do whatever I could to help them live life to the full. This was a structured and clear plan I had laid out and been steadily pursuing; I would become an Occupational Therapist, which would then open the door to advocate for people with disabilities in public policy. I would be able to help people with disabilities live life to the full individually through therapy and I would also advocate through public policy for a government that provided this access. My purposeful plan was thrown a curve ball when a friend with disabilities shared an experience about sex trafficking. As a 19 year old who had lived with no knowledge of the reality of sex trafficking- this shook me up. While I had been pursuing a career to provide the tools needed to help people with disabilities live their lives to the full, I had been ignorant of the fastest growing crime industry (Polaris) that can put people with disabilities at high risk of exploitation.
While people with disabilities are not the only vulnerable population of trafficking, they are situated with other people groups that historically faced discrimination such as people of color, members of the LGBTQ+, indigenous people, and immigrants. While we know that trafficking does not happen in a vacuum, we have to be aware that these groups are disproportionately effected due to centuries of oppression and discrimination.
I want to be clear that not all people with disabilities face every one of these vulnerabilities, and many people with disabilities are able to live and function independent and full lives. As I share these vulnerabilities, try to see people with disabilities as individuals and understand that there is a wide variety of people with disabilities with ranging abilities and independence; just like there are a wide variety of people fitting in any other people group.
People with disabilities are at risk to sex trafficking for reasons that are unique to this community. Some individuals with disabilities require a caregiver to provide basic needs and assist with activity of daily living like food, bathing, dressing, and communication. A portion of people with disabilities depend on their caregiver, which can create a sense of trust and compliance. While it is possible for a caregiver to manipulate the person they are providing care for, this relationship can teach the person receiving care to be compliant and depend on others. This dependence could potentially be carried over into trafficking, where traffickers use people's needs to manipulate and exploit them.
Another risk that a portion of people with disabilities face, is if they have a difficult time communicating. This can create a roadblock in their efforts to get help or report a trafficking situation. Due to isolation, a lack of formal sex education, and many other factors, some people with disabilities can be desensitized to touch. Being unaware of their authority to object to touch is another risk factor that traffickers can take advantage of.
Of course this is not an exhaustive list of risk factors that put people with disabilities in a position that is vulnerable to sex trafficking, these are some of the reasons why preventive measures are so important in this community and why survivor resources should be more accessible to people with a range of abilities.
While people with disabilities are not the only vulnerable population of trafficking, they are situated with other people groups that historically faced discrimination such as people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, indigenous people, and immigrants. While we know that trafficking does not happen in a vacuum, we have to be aware that these groups are disproportionately effected due to centuries of oppression and discrimination and a system that upholds it.
All the credit goes to the community of people with disabilities for helping me begin to care about an injustice that affects so many. I can say that never in my path of wanting to help people with disabilities live life to the full did I think I would ever intersect with sex trafficking. I was once intimidated and uneducated on the topic and now I am growing in my confidence to share about the issue of sex trafficking with others. I encourage you to let our journey with Pedal the Pacific be your launching pad into learning, caring, and sharing more about sex trafficking.