Safety Issues in the Lives of Children with Learning Disabilities

Article excerpt


Quantitative and qualitative data were collected from 116 special education students aged 11-17 years (61 females and 55 males) who had been identified as 3 or more years behind their peers in all aspects of the curriculum. The study confirmed the vulnerability of children with learning disabilities to the risks of drugs, violence, psychological bullying, pornography and sexual abuse. Significant levels of violence were found in both schools and homes. The study also showed the need for special attention for the protection of boys. It is possible that children with learning disabilities were targeted because they were less likely than others to (a) recognize abuse as wrong, (b) understand their rights and report abuse, and (c) be regarded as competent witnesses for court proceedings. On the other hand, it is possible that they were learning-disabled as a result of abuse. The findings suggested that children with learning disabilities require more vigilant and more intensive, explicit forms of protection than other children.


The particular vulnerability of children with disabilities to all forms of abuse was brought to public notice in the 1980s. American and Canadian studies suggested that these children are up to seven times more likely to be sexually abused than their non-disabled peers (Sinn 1988, Kennedy 1989, Monty and Fetter man 1989, Sullivan et al. 1987).

The literature suggests that children with disabilities are at highest risk of all forms of abuse because they are devalued by society in general (Subset 1994). They were found to be the least well informed about their rights, their sexuality and the limits of acceptable social behaviour (Subset 1994, Sinn 1988). They are inadequately protected by the justice system and child welfare agencies and lack self-esteem and the confidence to complain (Sobsey 1994, Briggs 1995). Furthermore, there is a high risk that abuse will continue into adulthood (Subset 1994). Research by Kennedy (1990) showed that the victimization of children with disabilities compounds the low self-esteem, emotional problems, sense of helplessness, frustration, anger, depression, fearfulness and withdrawal associated with their disabilities.

In the 1980s, many countries introduced child protection curricula following the initiatives of some Canadian and American education departments. Victoria Police and South Australian education authorities adopted the Wisconsin Protective Behaviors programmed in May 1985. Michelle Elliott's Kids cape was made available in the United Kingdom in 1986 offering "good sense defense" for 5-11-year-olds to counter bullying and dangerous strangers. Canadian academics, teachers and parents had already created the CARE Kit, which was independently evaluated with young children.

New Zealand Police and the Ministry of Education rightly rejected "'packaged" overseas programmers and worked together to produce a developmentally and culturally appropriate curriculum, Keeping Ourselves Safe, which now caters for all ages from kindergarten to school-leaving. It also incorporates parent information and opportunities for their participation, videos and other teaching resources covering all aspects of safety. This national school-based curriculum is delivered by teachers. They are supported by health coordinators and 138 specialist trained police education officers who provide several safety programmers for schools.

Briggs and Hawkins (1996b) evaluated the curriculum with 252 intermediate school children aged 11 and 12 years and their parents in both North and South Islands. Children identified as having severe learning problems were at greatest risk of all forms of abuse and exposure to illegal drugs, pornography (63% versus 24% of others), drug abuse (50% versus 12%) and sexual abuse (81% versus 4%). Eighty-one per cent of girls in special education groups for learning disabilities had previously reported substantiated sexual offences committed by from two to 10 offenders before the age of 11. …