Learning difficulties: people’s experience of bullying, hate crime and abuse

People with learning difficulties and crime reduction agencies often use different words to describe violence, says Joanna Perry

Bullying, harassment, abuse, assault, hate crime. What do these words mean? And do we all mean the same thing by them? In my experience, people think they do until they really start talking about it. Recently, I assembled a group of people to talk about these words.

In attendance were people with learning difficulties, police officers, community safety officers, independent living supporters, health workers and adult protection specialists. They were brought together by the Bournemouth Forum, a self-advocacy group of people with learning difficulties.

I got people from different backgrounds and perspectives to face each other and talk for a couple of minutes about what these words mean before they were cut short and asked to move chairs and talk to someone else.

We then all came together to share our conversations. I always find this technique creates the environment where people with and without learning difficulties help each other understand how they communicate about the everyday violence that goes on.

“Why do you tell us to ignore it?” was one question raised by people with learning difficulties directed to the police. This kind of meeting usually produces several answers to questions like this. Conversations between police officers and people with learning difficulties and their supporters revealed that the word “bullying”, although commonly associated with violence that happens inside institutions such as schools, is the word people with learning difficulties are most likely to use to describe the spitting, “thumping” (as one person put it), bottle throwing and violent verbal abuse at bus stops, outside shops and on the streets that they put up with everyday.

Equally, people with learning difficulties and their supporters learned that the police need lots of detail about what happened so that they know just how serious it is and have specific allegations to investigate. For example, explaining that you think an attack was committed because you have learning difficulties is likely to lead to the police treating it as a hate crime – thus seeing it as their responsibility to take action rather than to tell you to ignore it.

Conversations between professionals such as adult protection and crime and disorder reduction officers reveal that the violence that the former calls “abuse”, the latter is more likely to call “assault” or “hate crime”.

As a result, the best of these conversations led to agreements to work to shared definitions. These will form the basis of the partnership approach that is needed to ensure that the violence that people with learning difficulties experience is captured by the mainstream crime and disorder reduction agenda, supported by adult protection expertise.

Joanna Perry is policy manager, Victim Support

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