By Shirley Wilson, Senior Consultant for d/Deaf and disabled children and young people at NSPCC
A boy with cerebral palsy wants to get your attention; he keeps trying to point at his chest. A girl with Asperger's syndrome arrives at school in a bad mood and becomes disruptive during lessons. The signs of abuse aren't always obvious and children often disclose in very subtle ways.
Disclosure is a long and complex journey for any child, but for children and young people who are d/Deaf or disabled it can be even more difficult to express what is happening in a way that others understand. It's essential that anyone working with children and young people is able to spot the signs of abuse and act on any concerns. But we also need to find more creative ways to empower and support these children and young people, making sure they feel confident in recognising and indicating when something is wrong. And we need to ensure that we're giving them the time they need when they do express that something in their lives is making them unhappy.
Understanding children's needs
The term ‘disabled’ covers a range of very different conditions and identities which can include physical disabilities like cerebral palsy or visual impairment, learning disabilities, being d/Deaf, having a condition such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or a long term illness. But this is far from an exhaustive list and each child or young person's needs and experiences will be different.
d/Deaf and disabled children and young people are at more risk of abuse and neglect* and there is a range of factors that impact on this - communication barriers, isolation, dependency on others, lack of adequate support. Yet instead of focusing on this vulnerability, we need to increase awareness about how we can better protect disabled children and young people, prevent abuse and neglect and take action where it's needed.
Increasing awareness and observation
Schools need to ensure they're doing everything they can to protect every child and young person in their care. As part of this, it's essential your school's safeguarding policies and procedures cover children with disabilities. You may also need to provide additional training and awareness to people who work or volunteer in your school.
Teachers, support staff and others need to be proactive in finding ways to enable d/Deaf and disabled children and young people to feel empowered and confident in expressing their concerns. They need to ensure that children and young people feel supported and know that they will be taken seriously. This doesn't mean that teachers and support staff need to know everything about every single type of disability or be a fluent British Sign Language (BSL) user, but they do need to be able to recognise any changes in behaviour and that's something teachers are highly skilled at doing already.
This is especially important when a d/Deaf or disabled child or young person has limited communication skills. So if a child is constantly pointing at his chest, he may have been hurt where restraints are being pulled too tightly. Or if a young person suddenly becomes very disruptive in class, maybe she is trying to tell you that something is wrong.
Thinking creatively about communication
There are lots of ways that we can be creative about communicating with d/Deaf and disabled children and young people - one size does not fit all. Flash cards, pictures and drawing are great ways of enabling expressive communication. Using a tailored "communication passport" which sets out the best ways of communicating with a child can also help teachers and other support staff know the best approaches to use.
Taking the time to think creatively means we can empower children and young people. By putting young people at the centre and involving them in decisions about the best communication methods, we can start to provide better support. And by doing that, we can begin to remove some of the things that get in the way of d/Deaf and disabled children and young people disclosing abuse. It's a small step, but one that could make a big difference.