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Everyone should be able to enjoy their human rights, including the right to be free from abuse. People with learning disabilities are no different. However, they may face more challenges in being able to access and realise their rights and are also at greater risk of experiencing gender-based violence. 

With the right support, education and access to information, people with a learning disability can make informed decisions about their own relationships and how they choose to live their life.

Here you can find information on gender-based violence, learning disability and health inequalities, as well as actions that can be taken to address this.

  • In 2019, there were 23,584 adults with learning disabilities known to Scottish local authorities.
  • Women with a learning disability experience the same range of psychological, physical and sexual abuse as other women.
  • Children with a learning disability are at greater risk of experiencing physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
  • People with a learning disability can have a 10 to 12 times greater risk of sexual assault.
  • 12% of cases dealt with by the Forced Marriage Unit involved someone with a learning disability.
  • In 2019, there were 23,584 adults with learning disabilities known to Scottish local authorities.
  • 40% of women and 20% of men with a long-standing illness or disability have experienced partner abuse.
  • 16% of women and 2% of men with a long-standing illness or disability have experienced sexual assault by a partner.
  • 17% of women with a long-standing illness or disability have experienced stalking by a partner.
  • People with a learning disability can have a 10 to 12 times greater risk of sexual assault.
  • 12% of cases dealt with by the Forced Marriage Unit involved someone with a learning disability.

Gender-based violence and learning disability – health inequalities

People with a learning disability are more at risk of abuse for a number of reasons. These include

  • being targeted by perpetrators because of their learning disability
  • lack of access to information and education on relationships and sexual health
  • perceptions that people with learning disabilities do not want sexual relationships or will not be sexually exploited
  • being socially isolated
  • not being asked about relationships or sexual health, or knowing who to talk to
  • lacking the communication skills to describe abuse and tell others when it is happening.

Some people may fear they will not be believed if they disclose that they have experienced abuse. They may fear their capacity to make decisions would be challenged, resulting in guardianship.

Parents have concerns that they would be deemed unable to look after their children – it’s estimated that between 40% and 60% of parents with a learning disability have their children removed from their care.

Due to the perceived risks of disclosing abuse, it can mean people experience it for longer, which will have a greater negative impact on their health and wellbeing.

Women are at more risk of experiencing abuse, but it can also happen to men and in same-sex relationships.

Guidance for practitioners on understanding gender-based violence and learning disability, its impact on health and behaviours, and how to identify and respond sensitively is available.

National actions

The Keys to Life (external link), is Scotland’s national strategy for learning disability, which seeks to ensure that people with learning disabilities

  • live healthy and active lives
  • learn to reach their full potential
  • participate in an inclusive economy
  • contribute to a fair, equal and safe Scotland.

Its strategic outcomes recognise that

  • people with learning disabilities should be able to have safe and healthy relationships
  • women’s sexual health and reproductive rights should be respected
  • people who have experienced gender-based violence should have access to appropriate services.

Services must balance the rights of people they support to live their life as they choose with their duty of care to protect them from harm. The Adult Support and Protection (Scotland) Act 2007 (external link) is in place to support and protect adults at risk of being harmed, their property and their rights. Further information on legislation is available in the guidance.

Local actions

All local areas should have adult support and protection guidance. Follow your local procedures if you have any concerns. Information is also available at Action Against Harm (external site).

If you have concerns over any child, follow your local child protection procedures and be familiar with the national guidance for child protection in Scotland (external site).

Find your local Scottish Women’s Aid service (external site) or local Rape Crisis Centre (external site).

Information for the public

Members of the public can also be directed towards Scotland's Service Directory on NHS inform which provides information on

Key message

It’s better to ask about abuse and provide an avenue for support than to never give the opportunity in the first place. Our guidance will prepare you for how to provide this support.