Sharing ideas to stay safe in the community

People with learning disabilities have shown they can find their own solutions to keeping safe but those supporting them should try to ensure that family networks are maintained. This research is being conducted at the Connect Centre for International Research on New Approaches to Prevent Violence and Harm, based at UCLan. Dr Rachel Robbins explains.

Study title:  Making it Better, Learning Disabilities and Community Safety

Aims: The aim was to look at what makes people with learning disabilities feel safe and unsafe and using creative methods to share ideas to improve community safety.

Methods: This small scale developmental project has been carried out with two self-advocacy groups in the North West of England. Three people with learning disabilities have been interviewed about when they feel safe and when they don’t feel safe. These interviews have been used to produce short animations which can be used for training and information. One of these animations was shown to 10 self-advocates in a focus group and highlighted other instances when people have not felt safe and what would help them to feel safer. The detailed case studies give a voice to people with learning disabilities.


The first time disability hate crime was recognised by the Criminal Justice System was in 2005 with the implementation of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Data on hate crime is not collected on the basis of disability and although little academic attention has been paid to the issue, Quarmby (2008) catalogued a range of alarming hate crimes against disabled people. The available research demonstrates a limited response to reported disability hate crime (Roulstone et. al., 2011). What is known is that people with learning disabilities are more likely to be exposed to traumatic life events (Wigham et. al., 2014) because of several factors including an increased likelihood of institutionalisation, reliance on care-giving, being seen as vulnerable and lacking in capacity, an increased likelihood of being in poverty and prejudicial attitudes.

The research is in line with the growing movement to ensure that the stories of people with learning disabilities are placed centre stage. It was designed to make sure that people with learning disabilities could tell their own stories which could provide training resources and material for self-advocacy groups to use. The research examined the compromises they are expected to make to stay safe.


While analysis of information is on-going, it was clear there is no shortage of people with learning disabilities who have experienced feeling unsafe and/or mistreated. The three individuals each described typical experiences and aspects of harm and abuse. These were: institutional abuse in a group home, violent hate crime in their own home, and mistreatment using hospital services. The focus group with self-advocates provided further examples of workplace bullying and street harassment.  However, everyone involved was also very clear about what would help them to feel safer.

A copy of an animated case study can be found at: ( ). This is the story of ‘Henry’ who talks about a serious crime that happened in his own home. He now feels safe because he has moved to a group house where he likes the support and the other housemates.  He now lives a much fuller life and has even been on holiday to Cuba.


All three individuals talked about their family and important family members. Some lived with their families, some had lost significant family members but all wanted to have contact with siblings and wider family members. This was sometimes difficult because of distances involved but new technology was helping some to stay in touch with their relatives. However, they also talked about professional attitudes towards families and relationships as barriers to keeping in touch or making a new family.


Much of the harassment experienced was in the community: on buses, on the streets, and at the workplace. All three felt that the solution was to tackle the bullies, rather than to expect people with learning disabilities to change or move away. They wanted better community policing and to be listened to when they made a complaint. Too often they felt ignored.


Loneliness was something they all experienced. One focus group member came up with a novel way to help with her loneliness. She wanted a dog because it would bark at strangers to keep her safe, make her walk every day to keep her fit and would be company in the evenings.


Although they didn’t want to feel alone, they did want to be in control of their own lives.  Because the research was undertaken with self-advocacy groups, those involved were good at saying how being part of a group was important but they also wanted to be able to speak up for themselves. Some were on a management committee and this gave them a real sense of belonging and a belief that they could make the world safer for themselves and others.


People with learning disabilities are vulnerable to harm and abuse because not enough attention is paid to their needs for family and companionship, nor are their voices necessarily heard when they make complaints about harassment in the community. For the three people in this study, the circumstances had to get very bad before they were dealt with and some of the harm could have been easily avoided. However, people with learning disabilities are able to live well and safely when they are surrounded by a supportive network of friends, families and support workers who listen to their concerns and attempt to address them.

Key Messages

  • People with learning disabilities are clear about how they can be supported to feel safe and avoid unnecessary harm
  • Self-advocacy groups are an important way to support people as they can work on solutions together and make sure their voices are heard
  • Families for adults with learning disabilities are not just a part of their past, they need to be considered part of their present and future. This could mean ensuring that families are kept close together, or that communication between family members is prioritised and facilitated through technology
  • Those working with people with learning disabilities in the community need to support their need for companionship and focus on building support networks, including pets.


Quarmby, K. (2008) Getting Away with Murder: Disabled People’s experiences of hate crime in the UK. Report for Disability Now, UK Disabled People’s Council and Scope, London.

Roulstone, A., Thomas, P. and Balderstone, S. (2011) “Between hate and vulnerability: unpacking the British criminal justice system’s construction of disabilist hate crime”. Disability and Society, 26 (3): 351 – 364.

Wigham, S., Taylor, J. L., and Hatton, C. (2014) A prospective study of the relationship between adverse life events and trauma in adults with mild to moderate intellectual disabilities. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research,  58 (12) 1131 – 1140.