cybersafeAn increasing number of people with learning disabilities are becoming victims of cyber bullying. Julie Penfold considers what can be done to protect them?

The vast majority of people with learning disabilities have experienced some form of abuse or bullying because of their disability. Increasingly, this abuse is being committed online: earlier this year, the National Autistic Society surveyed 800 people with learning disabilities on the extent of disability hate crime and found 24% had been victims of cyber bullying.

Cyber bullying has been in the headlines in recent months as the tragic death of teenager Hannah Smith sparked national debate on the issue and how hateful posts and threatening comments can be made with complete anonymity on high profile sites such as For people with learning disabilities, who can be very trusting and see the best in others, staying safe online can be difficult. It’s not always possible to know who you are talking to and when friend requests pop up, the personality behind them may not be as nice as they initially seem. Some may go onto make abusive comments or send inappropriate content.

In the worst cases, the private information of a person with a learning disability, such as their address and telephone number, may even be passed onto others. One member of Carlisle Mencap found this out the hard way. Soon after joining social networking site Facebook she had 800 friends, many of them people she did not know, such as men living in foreign countries. Her profile, which was visible to anyone that clicked onto it, listed personal information such as email address, where she worked and home telephone number.

She soon began to receive things she did not understand. The young person simply thought they were her friends and did not realise there was anything odd about their contact. But when staff were shown her Facebook page, they found it difficult to explain what was happening in a way she could easily understand.

Unaware of dangers
“Over the years, more and more young people with learning disabilities have started using mobile phones and social networking sites,” says Sheila Gregory, Carlisle Mencap’s chief executive. “We had noticed that many members were unaware of the dangers associated with these activities. Vulnerable people are often very trusting of others and that is equally true of people they meet over the internet. This was highlighted when staff were shown the young woman’s Facebook profile. We talked with some of our younger members and decided we had to do something to help people with learning disabilities to understand the dangers.”

To this end, a group of young people have worked with a local animator to produce the Keeping Safe – Cyber Bullying DVD. The group did not want to act so used animated characters to express the issues and their experiences. The animations were designed and drawn by the young people; they also worked on the script, filming, voiceover and special effects.

The DVD gives advice on staying safe when using social media, forums, webcams, mobile phones and email. It also explains what to do if you become concerned about a person that has contacted you online. Cumbria Police worked with the group on the content and provided advice. The making of the DVD was funded by Cumbria County Council.

The first batch of DVDs sold out, but new stock has arrived and copies are available to purchase from Carlisle Mencap for £4. “Our members have found the DVD very useful, it’s such a simple way to get the stay safe message across,” says Gregory. “It’s also been used by a number of police forces across the country. It’s great to know we’re helping so many people with our short animated film.”

Beyond Bullying
Some councils have also begun to address cyber bullying issues. For instance, Leicestershire County Council has a dedicated Beyond Bullying website, which is managed by the council’s anti-bullying strategy team. The site has a section that provides advice for young people with special education needs or disabilities, adults and their families.

Two years ago, working with the council’s Valuing People Team, the Leicestershire Learning Disabilities Partnership Board (LLDPB) and a focus group of people with learning disabilities flagged up that information and advice for people with learning disabilities was lacking. Staying safe online and cyber bullying were also becoming more of a concern for people. It became apparent that existing advice on those areas was not appropriate for people with learning disabilities. As a result, a series of Keep Safe Online leaflets using easy read language were created, which cover cyber bullying, a glossary of common technology words, personal information, photos and videos and social networking sites.

“The idea for the Keep Safe Online leaflets originated from one of the LLDPB’s projects, the Keep Safe card,” says Sue Bosley, anti-bullying strategy manager at Leicestershire County Council. “The cards were given to local people with learning disabilities and included key stay safe information that they could keep with them at all times. We were asked to provide support on a new series of leaflets around keeping safe online and worked closely with the learning disabilities focus group to ensure the content made sense and gave clear advice.”

Part of the puzzle
Another organisation that has started to focus on cyber bullying for people with learning and physical disabilities is Huddersfield-based Jigsaw Enterprise Training. The social enterprise is led by Gemma Blagbrough, who has cerebral palsy and mobility issues. Many of the adults she works with have had negative experiences of learning and education, including being bullied.

Jigsaw’s training covers personal development areas such as confidence building, managing emotions, work preparation including presentation and interview skills for face-to-face and telephone interviews and disability issues, where Blagbrough runs disability awareness courses for disabled and nondisabled people.

The organisation has also recently introduced cyber bullying sessions as a pilot. The pilot sessions were incorporated into the 12-week personal development course and as part of Skill Builder courses. Cyber bullying is an issue that affects many of the people that attend Jigsaw; some were continuing to experience problems while taking part in the sessions.

“Cyber bullying was something we had to address in our course content as it was affecting many of the people that access Jigsaw,” says Blagbrough. "Cyber bullying is becoming an issue for more and more of us and is something that will only get worse unless we know how to keep safe when using social media.

“In the sessions, we look at who you might be talking to and how to keep yourself safe. They also help our disabled participants to recognise how cyber bullying happens and what [it] is. For some of the group, this ncluded recognising that they were being bullied online as they had not seen this as anything unusual. This is a sad sign of what people with disabilities may regularly be facing.”

Jigsaw hopes to be awarded funding to provide more frequent sessions and to offer a standalone cyber bullying course in the future. “People with learning disabilities really do want to use social media the same as everyone else does, we just need to increase their understanding of what information has to be kept private to protect themselves.”

To view Leicestershire County Council’s Keep Safe Online leaflets, visit 
(Picture posed by model)