As we enter the fourth week of “lockdown” across the UK as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, we only have to speak to friends and family or browse social media to gain a sense of the difficulties and frustrations that many people have with being “stuck at home”. We are encouraged to try to shift our thinking to appreciate that we are, in fact, safe at home rather than stuck. While for a good number of people, that is indeed the case, there has been growing recognition that for many people home is not safe. It is becoming clear that rather than fostering a sense of collective solidarity, a sense that “we are all in this together”, this crisis has further highlighted the great inequalities in many post-industrial countries.. The experience of being in lockdown is not equal and previous inequalities have been further amplified as was so powerfully highlighted by the contributors in our previous edition. Families living in poverty without access to the most basic amenities, let alone access to a garden or reliable internet connection will have a very different experience to those who do. In this piece we want to focus our attention on the experiences of a particular group of people who are among the most marginalised in society – women with learning disabilities who experience gender based violence.
There has been growing recognition that women who experience gender based violence are at increased risk of abuse or even death during the lockdown. The Guardian recently reported that at least sixteen domestic abuse killings in the UK have been identified by campaigners since the lockdown restrictions began, around double the average rate for this time of year. A survey by the UK wide charity SafeLives found that, for survivors living with their abusers during lockdown, 22% rated their safety at less than five out of 10, 54% were worried about finances and 72% were worried about their mental health. This has prompted the Scottish Government to make £350 million available to Scottish Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland to ensure the continued delivery of vital support services during the crisis. Annoucing the money, Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said: “we want women and children experiencing domestic abuse in the home to know that although they may feel isolated and vulnerable during these unprecedented times, they are not alone”. In addition, Police Scotland are promoting their 24 hour abuse helpline and advising people to visit Safer.Scot for further information and advice.
While all of these measures are commendable, the experiences and voices of people with learning disability have been absent from these discussions. As researchers working with people with learning disabilities for many years this absence is unsurprising to us. Our work has shown that people with learning disabilities are among the most excluded, disadvantaged and discriminated against groups in our society. Their experience of Covid-19 has been no exception to this. The number of deaths occurring outside of hospitals in care homes and residential units has become a source of national concern, and it is often forgotten that this includes those with learning disabilities and autism, as well as older adults. Prominent advocates for people with learning disabilities such as Eva Kittay, whose daughter has a learning disability, are campaigning in the hope that those with learning disabilities are not forgotten amidst the Covid crisis; while it is telling that George Julian is campaigning to ensure that the deaths of people with learning disabilities are recorded and properly recognised.
There is a glimmer of hope that the needs of people with learning disabilities are beginning to be acknowledged during this global pandemic. The Australian Government has produced a management and operational plan for coronavirus for people with disabilities, with a particular focus on the rights that disabled people have to life, and to the same standard of health care as anyone else. Professor Chris Hatton, a prominent academic in the learning disability field, has called on the four countries of the UK to develop similar plans for their citizens. In social care, the Social Care Institute for Excellence has produced a guide on Covod-19 for social workers working with people with learning disabilities with the aim of keeping people with learning disabilities and autism safe and “helping them play their part in getting through this national emergency while at the same time protecting and promoting people’s rights wherever possible”.
So what are the experiences of women with learning disabilities who are living with the threat of gender based violence during this global pandemic? From the small amount of research that has been carried out, we know that women with learning disabilities are more than twice as likely as their non-disabled counterparts to experience gender-based violence and that often traditional support services do not feel well equipped to support the particular needs of this group of women. In recognition of this gap in service provision Central Advocacy Partners an advocacy organisation in Central Scotland set up a specialist advocacy project known as the “Survivors’ project” to support women who are currently or who have historically experienced gender based violence. We are half way through a three year evaluation of the project and have been working with staff, referrers and service users to understand their experiences of, and responses to, gender based violence. We have been moved by the powerful accounts of the women who have so honestly shared their accounts with us. We have been struck by the pervasive nature of the abuse experienced by these women, for some, since childhood. Their lives are complex and as well as abuse they have had to contend with poverty, poor housing, isolation, bullying and discrimination within their local communities. For many, this complexity has included the loss of their children (temporarily or permanently) as a result of child protection concerns. The organisation in question has worked with the women on an intensive and often long-term basis to develop their understanding of gender based violence in order that they can better protect themselves and keep themselves safe. This not only requires educating the women on gender based violence and its effects but involves providing support around all aspects of the women’s lives. Often this has required a complex navigation of a wide range of services building relationships with others as part of this process.
Despite the lockdown we are attempting to continue with our evaluation. This has meant carrying out our interviews by phone. For the most part this has worked well, although it can never replace the quality of face-to-face interviews. What has struck us most from these interviews is the sense of loss that covid-19 has brought to the lives of these women. What has become clear is that the Survivors Project has been building a kind of scaffolding around the women to give them the support they need to tackle the complex challenges that they face. While the advocacy workers from the project continue to work hard and check in with the women regularly, offering much needed support, there is a sense that all other work has been paused. The referral to a learning disability social worker? On hold because of the virus. The appointment with the clinical psychologist? On hold because of the virus. For those women in the midst of child protection proceedings the situation is even more complicated. Children’s panel meetings (a central part of the Sottish child welfare system) might go ahead but it is far from clear how mothers with learning disabilities might meaningfully participate. Concerns have also been raised that facilitating contact via social media might lead to women being traced by abusive ex-partners. The women have reported concerns over maintaining contact with their children and some had worries about their children not being returned to them after visiting their other parent during the lockdown. Others have expressed concerns about their lack of access to the technology needed to facilitate video calling and worry that their lack of experience in this area might be held against them in any assessment of their parenting. Staff in the project have expressed concerns that an ongoing lack of face to face contact between mothers and their children will have a significant and detrimental impact on the women’s mental health.
There are no easy solutions to the difficulties raised here.. The complexities and risks involved for people with learning disabilities and their families can feel overwhelming. We hope that by raising these issues and encouraging others to discuss them we might contribute in some small way to ensuring the voices of people with learning disabilities and survivors of gender based violence in particular edge their way onto the agenda as we prepare for a new way of life under covid-19.
Gillian MacIntyre and Ailsa Stewart
Gillian MacIntyre is a senior lecturer in Social Work in the School of Social Work and Social Policy, University of Strathclyde.
Ailsa Stewart is an independent research consultant based in Glasgow.