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News from Lemos&Crane

Action Against Cruelty

Combating cruelty, harassment and abuse against people with learning disabilities

Sarah Frankenburg

4 September 2013

People with learning disabilities face challenges in their everyday lives that those without learning disabilities rarely need to consider. These might range from the inaccessibility of many day-to-day essential services to difficulty or discrimination when trying to find employment (while 65% of people with a learning disability say they would like a paid job, only around 7% are currently employed, according to the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities). Most shocking, though, is that many people with learning disabilities also have to contend with frequent harassment, abuse and loneliness.

As part of the Voice and Community project, last year Lemos&Crane published Loneliness and Cruelty, which revealed the extent to which many people with learning disabilities find themselves victim to targeted cruelty or abuse in their community. The most commonly experienced type of incident was verbal harassment and bullying, although many had also experienced theft, damage to their property and physical or sexual abuse. The report found that many people with learning disabilities experienced loneliness and isolation, which in some cases put them at risk of exploitation by cynical and manipulative ‘friends’.

The findings of Loneliness and Cruelty have been replicated elsewhere. Alarmingly, research suggests that many people with learning disabilities have come to tolerate regular apparently ‘low level’ malice – name-calling, teasing or harassment – as part of their day-to-day lives. With loved ones and carers often encouraging victims to ‘just ignore it', many report changing their daily routines to minimise opportunity for the cruelty of others. The majority of these incidents go unreported, with victims feeling uncertain that their experience will be taken seriously by police and public services or unsure as to whether it warrants reporting at all. Many also describe feeling intimidated and excluded by inaccessible reporting structures and protocol. This accommodation for the cruelty of others leaves people unable to freely pursue what they would otherwise hope to, and devalues and diminishes their independence, enjoyment and sense of safety. The impact of such harassment should not be underestimated. The deaths of Fiona Pilkington and her daughter Francecca Hardwick brought to public attention the extreme consequences both of ongoing harassment and targeted antisocial behaviour and the related stress of trying to care for a disabled young person without adequate support.

In addition to persistent ‘low-level’ insidious cruelty, in recent years there have been numerous shocking and high profile cases of people with learning disabilities falling victim to serious or enduring abuse. These severe cases are the visible extremes of a much more pervasive problem, and have made all too clear the vulnerability of many with learning disabilities to the cruelty of others. The appalling murders of Steven Hoskin and Gemma Hayter, for example, brought to the public eye the very real threat of abusive and exploitative ‘friends’ capitalising on the social desires of isolated people, or the willingness of some with learning disabilities to tolerate abusive relationships deemed by the victim to be better than having none at all.

As with all those who share this classification, there was more to Steven [Hoskin] than the uniquely powerful term of learning disability […] Steven wanted friends. He did not see that the friendship he had so prized was starkly exploitative, devoid of reciprocity and instrumental in obstructing his relationships with those who would have safeguarded him.

The Murder of Steven Hoskin Serious Case Review: Executive Summary P.23

These cases make for distressing reading, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed in the face of a problem more entrenched than the extreme actions of a criminal few. However, the next stage of the Voice and Community project aims to use the findings of the report to inform an approach to tackle the problem, by giving a voice to people with learning disabilities and finding solutions from within all levels of the community.

To that end, over the past few months I have been working on the development of a guidance resource website for practitioners involved in the care and day to day lives of people with learning disabilities, and its counterpart for people with learning disabilities themselves. The website – Action Against Cruelty – brings together guidance for best practice in dealing with cruelty and crime - from teasing and harassment to abuse and exploitation. The site covers every stage of dealing with cruelty, from prevention and safeguarding through to civil or criminal procedures and aftercare, and demonstrates ways in which agencies can work with one another and the community to tackle the problem. The accessible site provides focussed information and guidance on what to do if you find yourself victim to cruelty of any form, how to help your friends through the experience, reporting cruelty and how to keep yourself safe. In addition, the reference group of adults with learning disabilities are developing accessible guidance on topics such as keeping yourself safe online, which will be incorporated into the accessible site.

Crucially, Action Against Cruelty imbeds professional and procedural knowledge within a more fundamental positive: improving the social experience and security of people with learning disabilities. The site covers the importance – and good practice examples – of providing accessible opportunities for people to  find secure companionship and company, firmly established on their characters and interests; far more than just learning disability.

In light of growing awareness of the cruelty encountered by many with learning disabilities it is wonderful to be part of the process of building a powerful resource for bringing people - whether professionals, members of the public or service users - together to tackle the problem. For me, it is fundamentally important that the Action Against Cruelty approach has been informed throughout by the very people it sets out to support, and more so that its message is not one of fear and vulnerability, but cooperative effort, awareness and strength. Becoming victim to the cruelty of others should not be dismissed as merely an additional consequence of learning disability. Instead, we need to find ways to enhance people’s social experiences, their security and sense of safety in their communities, both to improve wellbeing and to reduce the opportunity for - and impact of - senseless cruelty and opportunistic crime.

Action Against Cruelty is due to go live within the next few months and will be accessible via the Lemos&Crane homepage.The site has been developed working with the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities, a reference group of adults with learning disabilities and a research group of practitioners from related organisations, supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.



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