‘Disproportionate’ number of sexual assault victims have learning disabilities, research suggests

A disproportionately high number of people with learning disabilities are victims of sexual assault, new research suggests.

Dr Rabiya Majeed‐Ariss, Research Associate at Saint Marys Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC), is the principle author of the research paper, published in the Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities.

Part of Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust (MFT), Saint Mary’s SARC provides support to people who have been raped or sexually assaulted. Services include immediate crisis support, forensic medical examination and counselling.

After establishing there was, ‘a dearth of reliable data on sexual assault prevalence among people with learning disabilities’, Dr Majeed-Ariss set out to identify what proportion of adult clients attending Saint Marys SARC have learning disabilities, and how their experiences differ or are similar compared to clients without.

To do this, adult clients attending Saint Marys SARC for a forensic medical examination during a 12-month period were asked to complete a short, validated Learning Disability Screening Questionnaire (LDSQ). Of the 679 clients who completed the LDSQ, 8.2 percent were likely to have a learning disability and the presence of self‐reported mental health issues.

Dr Majeed‐Ariss said: “Our research data shows that people with learning disabilities are over‐represented in the sexually assaulted population in the UK, since according to Mencap, only two percent of the general population nationally are reported to have a learning disability.

“8.2 percent equates to around one in 12 of Saint Mary’s SARC clients, which is huge, and underlines the importance of timely, accessible and appropriate patient‐centred care for this vulnerable group.”

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The LDSQ consists of seven questions and takes less than five minutes for a Crisis Worker to complete with a Saint Mary’s SARC client. While the LDSQ was introduced for research purposes, it has since been retained in routine clinical care. If clients’ scores suggest a likelihood of learning disabilities, they are supported as appropriate on a case by case basis, for example through a referral to the safeguarding team at MFT.

“This research is just the start really; now we have this data we can start to think about how services should be tailored for people with learning difficulties,” said Dr Majeed‐Ariss.

“For instance, the LDSQ score can be routinely shared with the police who can arrange additional support as appropriate, such as representatives who can advocate on their behalf.”

While Dr Majeed‐Ariss’ research relates specifically to Saint Mary’s SARC data, she hopes her findings can have a national and international impact and is supporting counterparts in Australia to replicate this research in their context.

Dr Majeed‐Ariss added: “Another finding of concern was that clients with learning disabilities were more likely to report mental health issues, self‐harm, substance misuse and a domestic violence history than clients without learning disabilities. 

“These findings are consistent with the broader literature and demonstrate the additional vulnerability of people with learning disabilities that report sexual violence, and the need for further research to better understand how sexual assault and mental health services can best support this population.”

Read the full paper on the Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities website, which is free to access until 31 March.

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