Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

New guidance on working with women with learning disabilities who have experienced violence

The Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services (Iriss) has produced a new report that offers guidance for those working with women with learning disabilities who have experienced gender-based violence (GBV).

The report examines why women with learning disabilities are disproportionately likely to experience GBV and makes recommendations on appropriate support.

It also discusses barriers to accessing services such as normalisation of abuse, lack of awareness and unrealistic expectations of professionals as well as lack of available resources.

The authors say that trusting relationships and longevity of engagement are critical to ensure that women feel believed and reassured that they are not to blame for the abuse.

Other preventative strategies, such as building social networks, developing peer support and challenging other areas of disadvantage in women’s lives, are also important

Women with learning disabilities are specifically targeted

There are a number of reasons why women with learning disabilities are more likely to experience GBV than their non-learning disabled and non-disabled peers, according to the report.

This includes stigma and discrimination where disablist or discriminatory attitudes towards women with disabilities can lead perpetrators to believe they are easier to manipulate.

Disabled women are more likely to be exposed to a wider range of potential perpetrators, including care workers and personal assistants, with whom they often have a dependent relationship. Research suggests that women with learning disabilities are specifically targeted because of their learning disability and then exploited in the guise of an intimate relationship or friendship.

Other risk factors include loneliness and isolation and difficulties in identifying and naming abuse. Also, women with learning disabilities can be unaware that their relationship is an abusive one. Research also shows that the association with poverty is also strong, but it is not clear whether it is disability or poverty that plays the major causal role in the increased violence experienced by people with disabilities.

Implications for the social services workforce

The report said that support for women with learning disabilities can be provided by mainstream or specialist services and key compotents include:

  • Ease of access to support is critical, including easy-dial options for online and telephone support, given some of the digital and literacy challenges experienced by people with learning disabilities.
  • Staff training in GBV services and learning disability services is essential to ensure they are aware of the impact of GBV on women with learning disabilities.
  • Preventative work and education. Projects should focus on distilling key messages into a repeatable accessible format, changing the visual layout and adding additional larger and extra visual resources. Participants can better understand what domestic abuse looks like, and better identify inappropriate behaviour and the warning signs of an unhealthy relationship.
  • Accessible information provided in a variety of formats is important to ensure that women with learning disabilities experiencing GBV are able to access services to protect themselves and their families.
  • Peer support. Women’s support groups for those with learning disabilities are also potentially valuable as a safe and confidential space for women with learning disabilities that can provide the opportunity for women to share their experiences and promote a greater understanding of abuse.

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