Women with learning disabilities subject to domestic violence – a neglected group

Women with learning disabilities subject to domestic violence – a neglected group

This research project, led by Michelle McCarthy with Siobhan Hunt and Karen Milne Skillman, found that women with learning disabilities suffered the full range of mental, physical and sexual cruelty inflicted on other women but were not given the same support.



Title: Domestic violence and women with learning disabilities

The research project was led by Dr Michelle McCarthy. Research workers were Siobhan Hunt and Karen Milne Skillman. All were based at the Tizard Centre, University of Kent.


Aims: This research project sought to hear directly from women with learning disabilities themselves about the domestic violence they had experienced. We also explored the views of the police and other professionals about their attitudes and responses to women with learning disabilities who experience domestic violence.


Methods: The qualitative method was semi- structured in depth interviews with 15 women with learning disabilities. The quantitative method was an online survey of 717 police officers and other professionals. We worked with a group of women with learning disabilities who helped us think about the issues, the kinds of questions we should ask and helped us to make a video.




There is a huge body of evidence regarding domestic violence in the general population. In addition, there is a smaller body of research on domestic violence of women with physical and sensory impairments, which suggests that women with disabilities experience more domestic violence than other women and that they have less access to specialist and general domestic violence services. However, very little is known about the experiences of women with learning disabilities in relation to domestic violence.



Findings from women with learning disabilities:


  • The nature of the domestic violence

The women reported to us that the domestic violence they experienced was often severe, including the use of weapons, and violence during pregnancy, occurred frequently and over long periods. All forms of domestic violence were reported – physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, financial and coercive control. Women would typically experience multiple forms at the same time.

“ I know it was every week but I can’t be sure if it was every day”.

“It was 12 years of abuse”.

“I felt really scared of him. I thought one day I’m gonna end up in a coffin”.


  • Psychological impact

Unsurprisingly, the psychological impact on the women was considerable. All reported low self-esteem and self-worth and many reported developing mental health problems, most commonly anxiety and depression. Some began to self-harm and a minority had had suicidal thoughts or had attempted suicide.

“I was putting myself down, I couldn’t even look in the mirror”.

“ I wasn’t getting any help… I took an overdose, a small one”.


  • Perpetrator issues

The husbands or boyfriends of the women in our study did not usually have learning disabilities themselves but often had other problems, such as mental health difficulties, drug and alcohol problems, were unemployed or had criminal records.

  • Findings from police officers and other professionals:


Our survey was completed by 172 police officers and 545 professionals. There were large differences in the amount of training police officers got on learning disability issues compared to professionals. Only 20% of the police officers felt they had had a lot or enough training in learning disability issues, compared to 58% of professionals. With regards to specific training in communicating with people with learning disabilities – an essential skill for anyone hoping to support a woman suffering domestic violence – only 12% of the police officers said they had had a lot or enough training in communication issues, compared to 57% of professionals. Nevertheless, there were many areas where both police and professionals expressed high levels of agreement; for example, both had strong beliefs that women with learning disabilities are sought out by abusive men as easy targets and that the women stayed in violent relationships because they had nowhere else to go.



A key recommendation from our research is that the 2014 NICE guidelines on domestic abuse should be followed. For example, recommendation 6 states:

“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”.

If all staff in learning disability services received such training, they would have a far greater awareness of domestic violence, its dynamics and especially of coercive control. This could only benefit service users.


At a more fundamental level, health and social care professionals need a greater remit to work with those with a mild and moderate learning disability. With almost 90% of local authorities in England no longer offering 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.



Domestic violence is usually seen as an individual problem, instead of the widespread social problem it is, and always has been, historically and cross culturally. Consequently, it is generally viewed as a problem to be solved largely by the woman herself, usually by leaving her home. However, the women with learning disabilities we spoke to were not generally equipped with the necessary information, personal or financial resources or support to take action to protect themselves or their children. They would have greatly benefitted from help and this was often not forthcoming.


We hope that the recommendations from our research project will lead to the police, health and social care services having a greater awareness of the vulnerability of women with learning disabilities to domestic violence and to becoming more responsive to their needs.


Key messages

  • There is nothing about having a learning disability which protects women from domestic violence. The full range of mental, physical and sexual cruelty inflicted on other women is also inflicted on women with learning disabilities.


  • Coercive control featured in the accounts of all but one of our interviewees. Threats and intimidation were commonly used to control what the women did, where they went, who they saw, who they spoke to and what they wore.


  • Most of the women we spoke to said it had taken them a very long time to realise they could leave the abusive relationship and that there were people who would help them. Most of them had not known about women’s refuges at the time. We have produced some accessible information for women with learning disabilities: a video and leaflet.



References and further reading

Please see research project website at http://www.kent.ac.uk/tizard/research/research_projects/domviolence.html


Findings from the research are currently being written up. However, the accessible outputs for women with learning disabilities are available now. The video called Don’t Put Up With It! can be seen online at https://vimeo.com/116967832 . Hard copies for women with learning disabilities are also available, free of charge, on request from Michelle McCarthy. M.McCarthy@kent.ac.uk. Copies of the accessible leaflet, also called Don’t Put Up With It! can also be obtained from Michelle.



This article presents independent research commissioned and funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) School for Social Care Research. The views expressed in it are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the NIHR School for Social Care Research or the Department of Health, NIHR or NHS.