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The targeting of women with learning disabilities

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In our final blog to mark Hate Crime Awareness Week, Dr Phillippa Wiseman writes about the unique challenges that women and girls with learning disabilities face from hate crime and the need to recognise these intersecting identities under hate crime law.

People with learning disabilities experience all forms of violence, over and above other non-disabled people. In research that we have done on learning disability and violence, in Scotland, we found that people with learning disabilities experiences all forms of violence and across all points in their lives. As Nick Watson’s blog this week outlines, people with learning disabilities are subject to so-called ‘low-level bullying’ and name calling, ‘mate crime’, abuse from carers and social care professionals, physical attack and murder. People with learning disabilities, specifically women and girls with learning disabilities, experience particular forms of domestic, sexual and childhood violence over and above other experiences of hate crime and harm.

There has been a lot of debate, in Scotland and the UK more generally, about whether misogyny or targeted violence against women should be included in hate crime legislation and protections. There are specific protections for disabled women in UK equalities legislation and in Human Rights frameworks. However, while this may be the case – women with learning disabilities often feel hidden, invisible, forgotten about and neglected. This blog looks to draw attention to the experiences of women with learning disabilities in Scotland and how they feel about the kinds of violence they experience and how they feel that they have been targeted as women with learning disabilities, specifically.

It is really important to pay attention to the lives and stories of women with learning disabilities because they are often ignored in public conversations, debates and policy around violence against women and girls, and hate crime. The heart-breaking murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa have brought about new conversations as to how misogyny is an important dimension of how women are targeted and subject to violence by men.

I have been able to work with women with learning disabilities on a number of different projects, around targeted violence or hate crime and on reproductive inequality. On those projects, women with learning disabilities talked to us about the kinds of violence they experienced as girls and as women. They told us about the kind of targeting they experienced; at school by male peers and teachers, in long-stay hospitals and in foster and social care settings, and sexual and physical violence from male family members and other known persons. What most women told us about was that, specifically, non-disabled intimate partners were frequently perpetrators of violence that ranged from domestic abuse and physical threat to rape, sexual exploitation and forced drug-taking.

Women with learning disabilities told us that they felt that they had been targeted, by men, because they have learning disabilities and men think that they are ‘more vulnerable’ and easier to control. Women also told us that when intimate partners were abusing them, they would say things like ‘the police would never believe someone like you’ and ‘nobody will believe you, you’re too stupid’. What we learned from women with learning disabilities was that they are subject to violence on the basis that they are women with learning disabilities.

What we learned from women with learning disabilities was that they are subject to violence on the basis that they are women with learning disabilities.

One of the most striking things that women told us was that they had come to feel that violence was a normal and everyday part of their lives and that they were ‘used to it’. Some women told us that they had always experienced harm or sexual violence and so they didn’t think that it was out of the ordinary, and that it was just part of being a woman with a learning disability. On top of managing everyday violence and abuse, women with learning disabilities told us that they were quite often afraid to tell anyone about it. This was because they were afraid of having their children taken away from them, or because they were worried that they would be seen as ‘too vulnerable’ and may have an ‘order’ [guardianship orders] taken out against them.

Women with learning disabilities are between 5 and 8 times more likely to experience all forms of violence than non-disabled women. They are also less likely to be believed by the police, less likely to be included in RSHP education as girls (and very unlikely to receive information on safe relationships and consent), and less likely to tell anyone about the targeted violence they are subject to. Women with learning disabilities are often invisible in policy frameworks and protections for women as well as policy around hate crime.

Women with learning disabilities are often invisible in policy frameworks and protections for women as well as policy around hate crime.

We need to take the lives and experiences of women and girls with learning disabilities, very seriously. We need mechanisms for women to report violence in a safe way and without fear of losing their children or autonomy. We need to value women and girls with learning disabilities, to properly fund and ensure specialist support services that they can use and most importantly: make women with learning disabilities a priority when we think, talk about and tackle violence against women.

Dr Phillippa Wiseman

Phillippa is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Glasgow and an affiliate of the Scottish Learning Disabilities Observatory.

Find out more

  • Dr Phillippa Wiseman is a Lecturer is Sociology at the University of Glasgow. Contact Phillippa here.
  • You can read more about this research at www.sldo.ac.uk.