4th of Jan 2017: Domestic violence and women with learning disabilities

Domestic violence and women with learning disabilities

Written by Michelle McCarthy

The research project

In this research project we wanted to hear directly from women with learning disabilities themselves about the domestic violence they had experienced. (We also explored the views, attitudes and responses of the Police and health and social care professionals and these will be reported elsewhere.) Semi-structured in-depth interviews were conducted with 15 women with mild and moderate learning disabilities (aged 20–67 in Kent and London; 12 White British, 3 Bangladeshi/Indian; married 6, not married 9; had children 7, no children 8). Inclusion criteria were that women had to be over 18, have experienced domestic violence in the previous five years, and had left the violent relationship (ethical approval was not granted to include women still in violent relationships).

The women were asked about their own experiences of domestic violence, the impact on them and their children (if any), how they made the decision to leave, who they sought help from and life after the abusive relationship. Some of the principles and practices of Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) guided the data analysis, as this method is well suited to exploring how people make sense of their experiences and the meanings they attach to them.

What the women with learning disabilities said

The main finding from the study can be summed up in one grim sentence: There is nothing about having a learning disability which protects women from domestic violence. The women we spoke to reported violence, including sexual violence, which was both serious and frequent. In some cases, the violence was of a most severe nature and in our relatively small sample, there were three potentially life threatening injuries ie. a head injury from being pushed downstairs, being strangled and being stabbed.

“He threw me down the stairs, punched me the face. I was in hospital, I had no hair, I had staples in my head”

“He was kicking me, in the ribs, legs, everything”

Certain features of the physical violence which the women with learning disabilities reported to us are very commonly found in the general domestic violence literature, namely the violence and abuse continuing after the end of the relationship and violence beginning or escalating during pregnancy.

Financial abuse was also commonly reported. As outlined below, many of the perpetrators had drug/alcohol problems and almost all were unemployed. The men took and used the women’s money, both their regular income as well as savings, as a matter of course, using force where necessary and sometimes leaving the women with debts to be repaid long after the relationship had ended.

Verbal abuse was an everyday occurrence, with the women being continually insulted:

“ He called me a bitch, a bastard and a liar”

“He called me a fat bitch, ugly and a slag”

In some cases, the women’s children were also hurt by the perpetrators, as were their pets. Even when the children were not directly hurt themselves, the women recognised that there were seriously affected by witnessing the abuse of their mothers and, in some cases, by having to move home several times to escape.

Coercive control has recently been made a criminal offence in the UK and is an all-encompassing form of domestic violence that featured strongly in our sample. The perpetrators would control the women through unreasonable and non-negotiable demands, threats and intimidation. In order to do this successfully, the men would deliberately isolate the woman from her friends and family. The women reported that this happened in two main ways: either intimidating the women into stopping going to see their family and friends or using various tactics to ensure the family and friends stopped seeing the women.

“He was nasty to them, so I lost all my friendships with the neighbours”

 “My oldest, kindest friends, he accused them of stealing, so they wouldn’t come here again”

“ He wouldn’t put any trousers on when my mum and dad came round, so they stopped coming”

The perpetrators

The husbands or boyfriends of the women in the study did not usually have learning disabilities themselves, but did tend to have other problems such as mental health difficulties, drug and alcohol problems, be unemployed and/or have criminal records. They tended to be jealous and manipulative, make threats of self-harm/suicide/ murder (including murder of children). Some of the men had nowhere decent to live and moved into the women’s homes at a very early stage in the relationships, before the women were comfortable with that. Although they may not have recognised it at the time, the women later come to realise that they lacked assertiveness and did not take action to prevent this from happening:

“ I was vulnerable, cos I didn’t have confidence in myself”

“When I started seeing him, he moved in straightaway, because he was homeless…it was too easy, I just let people walk all over me.”

In the mate crime literature, this phenomenon, whereby so-called friends take over the homes and other resources of people with learning disabilities, is referred to as ‘cuckooing’ and it was certainly evident in our study.

Who can help?

It is essential that all professionals involved in the lives of women with learning disabilities become more aware of the problem of domestic violence. Indeed National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines (2014) state that “Health and social care service managers and professionals should ensure front-line staff in all services are trained to recognise the indicators of domestic violence and abuse”

Health and social care professionals have a clear role in trying to help women with learning disabilities to recognise domestic violence and to avoid or leave violent relationships. Staff therefore must themselves recognise indicators of domestic violence and be pro-active in asking women if they need help.

Another priority is for health and social care professionals to have a greater remit to work with those with a mild learning disability. Almost 90% of local authorities in England no longer offer social care to people whose needs are ranked low or moderate. Those at the most able end of the learning disability spectrum, have effectively been moved outside the social care system: and this renders them very vulnerable to abuse.

Clearly there is a need for joined up thinking and working between health and social care professionals (including domestic violence services) and the Police.

There is also a clear and strong role for advocacy, including self-advocacy and specifically women’s groups and women with learning disabilities also need accessible information, which the researchers on this project have produced (see below for details).


We have published a paper in JARID on this research. You can find it here http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jar.12237/pdf

We have made a video for women with learning disabilities about domestic violence. You can see it here https://vimeo.com/116967832 hard copies are available free of charge for anyone who wants one. Contact Michelle on M.McCarthy@kent.ac.uk

We have made an easy read leaflet to accompany the video. You can download it from here: