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Sexual Abuse of People with Learning Disabilities – SWSC media Debate

Photo courtesy of Royal College of Psychiatrists

The department of health defines learning disability as “a significantly reduced ability to understand new or complex information, to learn new skills with a reduced ability to cope independently which started before adulthood, with a lasting effect on development”  (Department of Health, 2001:14).

Individuals with learning disabilities, physical disabilities, head injuries, cognitive difficulties or disabilities have an increased vulnerability to abuse. People with these difficulties and/or vulnerabilities have a dependency on others for support and care, this reliance results in power differences which can lead to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.

Sexual abuse can be defined in a variety of ways, and one useful definition is ‘whenever anyone is subjected to a sexual act to which they do not or cannot consent, or where they have been unduly pressured’ (O’Hara & Sperlinger 1997, p. 158). However, what constitutes appropriate consent to a sexual relationship for people with learning disabilities is difficult to determine.

Although there are no well-established and clear methods for judgement, research (Brown & Turk, 1992) indicates that if a person is not able to do the following things then they are not in a position to give valid consent:

  • Knowing what a sexual act and abuse are;
  • Appreciating the value usually accorded to sexual acts (e,g, appreciating that sex for a cigarette or crisps is not a fair deal);
  • Understanding the possible consequences of sexual acts (e.g. pregnancy);
  • Appreciating who society has decided it is inappropriate to have sex with (e.g. parents).

Joseph Roundtree foundation in its social care report entitled “Crime Aginst People with Learning Difficulties” states: “People with learning difficulties are often victims of persistent, low-leveloffending.  Such offences tend to be given lower priority by the legal process; however, they can cause considerable distress and may be the forerunners ofmore serious offences.” (1995:1)

The same paper goes on to highlight that professionals working with this group are not always aware of the abuse experienced by people with learning disabilities. More worryingly the JRF report (1995) states that people with learning disabilities interviewed felt that, when reporting abuse, they were not always taken seriously by the police.

Therefore, in today’s debate we wish to explore some relevant questions regarding sexual abuse of people with learning disabilities, these include:

Why are individuals with learning disabilities more vulnerable to sexual abuse?

How can professionals ensure that people with learning disabilities are heard and supported?

What are the consequences of sexual abuse for individuals with learning disabilities?

What services should be put in place to ensure such individuals be better supported?

What can be done to raise awareness and to improve professionals’ understanding of this phenomenon?

Can the sexual abuse of people with learning disabilities be prevented? If yes, how? If no, why not?

Join us to explore these and other relevant questions and to share your views @SWSCmedia today 8:00 PM BST (UK) / 3:00 PM EDT.


Brown H. & Turk V. (1992) Defining sexual abuse as it affects adults with learning disabilities. Mental Handicap, 20: 44–55.

Department of Health (2001). Valuing People: A national strategy for learning disability in the 21st century, London: The Stationery Office. Accessed 13 August 2012 www.archive.official-documents.co.uk/document/cm50/5086/5086.htm

Joseph Roundtree Foundation (1995) Crime Against People with Learning Difficulties. Accessed 13 August 2012 http://www.jrf.org.uk/sites/files/jrf/sc70.pdf

O’Hara J. & Sperlinger A. (eds) (1997) Adults with learning disabilities: a practical approach for health professionals. Chichester, Wiley.

Join us to explore these and other relevant questions and to share your views @SWSCmedia today 8:00 PM BST (UK) / 3:00 PM EDT.



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