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Safeguarding d/Deaf and disabled children and young people

Last updated: 28 Feb 2022

Protecting d/Deaf and disabled children and young people from abuse

d/Deaf and disabled children and young people are at an increased risk of being abused compared with their peers who are not d/Deaf or disabled (Jones et al, 2012; IICSA, 2022). They are also less likely to receive the protection and support they need when they have been abused.

Professionals sometimes have difficulty identifying safeguarding concerns when working with d/Deaf and disabled children (NSPCC, 2016; Taylor et al, 2014). It is vital that everyone who works with d/Deaf and disabled children understands how to protect them against people who would take advantage of their increased vulnerability. A child having a disability, being d/Deaf or needing additional support should never stop someone acting on child protection concerns.

Some children may not identify as being d/Deaf or disabled and some may use different language to describe themselves and their needs. You should always ask what terms they would prefer and use these when talking to them.

This information is aimed at professionals and volunteers working with children and young people with a range of very different conditions and identities. This includes children who:

  • are d/Deaf
  • have a learning disability
  • have visual impairment
  • have a long-term illness
  • have a physical disability such as cerebral palsy
  • are neurodiverse, such as being on the autistic spectrum or having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

> Find out more about safeguarding children with special educational needs

Risk and vulnerability factors

Who is at most risk of abuse?

Disabled children at greatest risk of abuse are those with behaviour or conduct disorders. Other high-risk groups include:

  • children with learning difficulties/disabilities
  • children with speech and language difficulties
  • children with health-related conditions
  • d/Deaf children

(Miller and Brown, 2014).

Why are disabled children at greater risk of abuse?

There are several factors that contribute to disabled children and young people being at a greater risk of abuse.

Communication barriers

Children and young people with speech, language and communication needs (including those who are d/Deaf, or have a learning disability or physical disability) face extra barriers when it comes to sharing their worries and concerns.

  • Adults may have difficulty understanding a child’s speech so they may not realise when a child is trying to tell them about abuse.
  • Adults may not have the knowledge and skills to communicate non-verbally with a child, which can make it harder for children to share their thoughts and feelings.
  • Communicating solely with parents or carers may pose a risk if the child is being abused by their parent or carer.
  • It can be difficult to teach messages about what abuse is or how to keep safe to children with communication needs. Without this knowledge children may not recognise that they are being abused or won’t know how to describe what’s happening to them.

Misunderstanding the signs of abuse

It’s not always easy to spot the signs of abuse. In some cases, adults may mistake the indicators of abuse for signs of a child’s disability.

  • A child experiencing abuse or attempting to disclose abuse may self-harm or display inappropriate sexual behaviour or other repetitive and challenging behaviours. If this is misinterpreted as part of a child’s disability or health condition rather than an indicator of abuse, it can prevent adults from taking action.
  • Injuries such as bruising may not raise the same level of concern as they would if seen on a non-disabled child. Adults may assume that bruising was self-inflicted or caused by disability equipment or problems with mobility.

Lack of education on staying safe

Personal safety programmes and relationships and sex education (RSE) are not always made accessible to d/Deaf and disabled children, and not always taught in special schools. This can be for a number of reasons:

  • teachers may not realise they need to teach RSE to children with disabilities
  • parents and professionals may think young people with learning disabilities shouldn’t have relationships or sex
  • teachers may feel they need more training about how to deliver RSE to children with disabilities
  • school governors may not approve RSE being taught in a different, more accessible way
  • the school may prioritise other subjects over RSE
  • sex and relationships education may not be taught in a way that makes sense to young people with learning disabilities

(Garbutt et al, 2010).

As a result, a disabled child may not know how to recognise abuse or who to tell.

> Find out more about sex and relationships education for children with special educational needs

Increased isolation

Disabled children may have less contact with other people than non-disabled children, because they have:

  • fewer out of school opportunities than their peers
  • fewer opportunities for spontaneous fun with friends
  • less access to transport
  • less provision for appropriate toilets and changing facilities
  • difficulty finding out about accessible events

(Franklin, 2016).

This means they have fewer people to turn to if they need help or support.

They may be further isolated if they:

  • need carers to take them out
  • have restricted independence because they use a wheelchair or require a sign language interpreter
  • live away from home at a residential school.

Disabled children and their families may have limited access to support systems. Support may not be available due to lack of funding or it may not be appropriate for the child’s physical, emotional or cultural needs. This can make it difficult for parents to provide the care their child needs and add to the pressure of caring for a disabled child.

Dependency on others

Children with disabilities may have regular contact with a wide network of carers and other adults for practical assistance in daily living including personal intimate care. This can increase the opportunity for an abusive adult to be alone with a child.

If a child is abused by a carer they rely on, they may be more reluctant to disclose abuse for fear that the support service will stop.

Caring for a child with little or no support can put families under stress. This can make it difficult for parents to provide the care their child needs and can lead to a child being abused or neglected.

Inadequate support

It can be difficult for any child who has experienced abuse to get the support they need, but disabled children may face extra problems.

  • Disabled children are less likely to tell someone about experiencing abuse and more likely to delay telling someone than their non-disabled peers (Hershkowitz, Lamb and Horowitz, 2007).
  • Adults may not understand or respond to a disabled child’s safeguarding needs.
  • Communication barriers may prevent adults fully understanding what the child is telling them.
  • Some adults may not focus on a disabled child’s views.
  • If abuse is reported to the police and/or children’s social care, the response may be affected if professionals lack skills or experience in working with disabled children.

Taking an intersectional approach

d/Deaf and disabled children, like all children, have diverse identities. As well as experiencing prejudice or bias related to their disability, they might experience challenges relating to other parts of their identity, such as:

  • ethnicity
  • sexuality
  • gender
  • mental health
  • having been in care
  • where they live, how much money they have and how much access they have to education.

The way these challenges interact is known as intersectionality.

It can be difficult for children to cope with this, and it can have a negative impact on their welfare.

“I have ADHD and have been diagnosed with depression. I’ve been having a hard time at school, which has got worse since I came out as gay. The guys who bully me do it in the playground and online in the evenings when I’m trying to relax. When I get stressed, I make sudden movements and shout out things, which I can’t control. Sometimes I also hurt myself when I act like this.”

Childline counselling session with a boy aged 14

> Listen to our podcast episode on intersectionality in social work practice

Learning for practitioners: understanding the child

When you’re working with a child, consider all the factors that might influence their safety and wellbeing. Take the time to get to know them, understand their lived experience and how they might face risks due to how others might perceive their identity.

You could consider creating safe spaces for children who have similar identities or come from the same community. This might help them talk about their experiences and get peer support.

Find out more about:

Safeguarding policies and procedures

Safeguarding policies and procedures

The needs of all children with a disability should be incorporated into safeguarding policies and procedures.

Safeguarding policy statements should:

  • include an equality statement with a commitment to anti-discriminatory practice
  • recognise the increased vulnerability of disabled children to abuse and neglect and the barriers they may face
  • include additional safeguards to protect disabled children
  • consider the need of d/Deaf or disabled children in making it easier for them to report abuse to a trusted adult
  • cover any safeguarding issues that are specific to a child’s disability such as intimate care and safe touch.

> Find out more about writing a safeguarding policy

Intimate care

Children with certain disabilities or medical issues may need help and support with intimate personal care including going to the toilet and washing.

> Find out more about providing safe intimate care


Some children and young people with disabilities may need medication. Schools and residential care settings should have a policy in place on administering medication.

A medication policy should cover:

  • how medicines will be stored
  • how children will access their medication
  • how records will be kept of any medication administered or refused
  • what training those administering medication need to have
  • how your organisation will receive medicines

You can find specific guidance on administering medication in different settings in the legislation and guidance tab.

Where appropriate, children and young people should be encouraged to take responsibility for their own healthcare, including administering medication.

> Read more about assessing children and young people’s competency


Everyone working with children should receive regular child protection training.

Training should highlight the reasons disabled children are at increased risk of abuse and neglect and why additional safeguards are needed to protect them.

It should provide guidance on what to look out for and how to respond early to the needs of disabled children.

> Take our Safeguarding d/Deaf and disabled children training

> Find out more about how our specialist consultants can provide support to your organisation

> Discover how often child protection training should be refreshed in each UK nation

Direct work

Direct work


In any assessment of a disabled child professionals should assess all the needs of the child and their family, not just those related to the child’s disability.

  • Professionals should ensure that parents understand and are supported to meet the additional needs of caring for a disabled child.
  • Professionals across all agencies should be aware of safeguarding issues for disabled children.
  • Professionals should be aware of the range of services available to families and disabled children. Families and children should be referred to these services accordingly (NSPCC, 2016).

Best practice

Learning from case reviews about disabled children emphasises the importance of child focused practice, highlighting the need for a holistic approach to supporting disabled children and their families (NSPCC, 2016).

> See the learning from case review briefing

Listening to the child

  • Make sure the child’s voice is heard. Where there are safeguarding concerns, speak to children alone and don’t use parents as interpreters.
  • If a child’s disability means verbal communication is difficult or impossible, make every attempt to communicate by other means.
  • Consider how a child may communicate through their actions. Consider whether distressed or disruptive behaviour is due to the child’s disability or if the child is upset for another reason.
  • Tailor tools and resources to the child’s needs. Check that the child has understood what you’ve told them and is able to apply it – don’t make assumptions about what they have understood.

Information sharing

Professionals should have a shared understanding of the nature of a child’s disability, the services their family are receiving and the risk of harm. This information should be used by all agencies to distinguish between disability and child protection issues.

Interagency cooperation

  • Specialist disabled children services should be embedded within wider support services and children and families.
  • Every family should be designated a lead professional to coordinate work across services and provide a single point of contact (NSPCC, 2016).


Every child and family is different and has their own complexities and needs.

As part of assessing a family’s needs it’s essential to establish a d/Deaf or disabled child’s preferred method of communication. They may use:

  • British Sign Language (BSL)
  • Makaton
  • Widgit
  • Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)
  • some signs with speech
  • speech, lip reading and gestures.

Establish how the child communicates with their family and others. Find out if there are any trusted adults that the child or young person communicates directly with. This could be:

  • another member of the family
  • a teacher
  • a youth club leader.

There is no ‘ideal’ way to facilitate communication between safeguarding professionals and d/Deaf and disabled children and young people.

  • Consider whether a child protection assessment or discussion is better with or without a third party. Would the child rather communicate directly with a trusted individual or have a third party in the room?
  • Reflect on your own language limitations and don’t assume you can communicate “well enough”. Even when a child can use spoken language this may not be the method of communication they’re most comfortable with.
  • Find out about parents’ preferred communication method. Parents need to be given every opportunity to communicate in their own language.
  • Always prioritise the child’s strengths, requirements and needs, regardless of whether you’re working with an interpreter or not.

Working with British Sign Language interpreters

Discuss the need for a British Sign Language interpreter with the child and their family and make sure one is found as soon as possible if needed.

It’s likely that sign language interpreters will be more familiar with d/Deaf culture than safeguarding practitioners. Their cultural knowledge can help you gain optimal understanding of a situation and encourage children and families to open up.

Sign language interpreters are highly skilled professionals, but may not be used to working in safeguarding and child protection situations. You should meet with the interpreter in advance to help them understand the issues and make sure they are able to explain all the necessary concepts to the child and their family.


Staff and volunteers in schools should be aware of the additional vulnerabilities children with disabilities or special educational needs face and understand their responsibilities for keeping children safe. Teachers and other school staff should also work to empower children and help them feel able to speak out if they have any worries.

> Read more about empowering children with special educational needs and disabilities

Legislation and guidance

Legislation on safeguarding d/Deaf and disabled children

Statutory guidance across the UK highlights the responsibility of those in education, community and care sectors to safeguard all children from all forms of abuse and neglect.

The statutory guidance in all nations includes sections on safeguarding disabled children and young people. Find out more about child protection in:

See also Key guidance for schools in the UK.

Key legislation and guidance

The key legislation relating to the safeguarding of d/Deaf and disabled children in England is the Children and Families Act 2014. Part 3 establishes help for children with special educational needs and disabilities, including a single assessment process and personal budgets.

Under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989, local authorities in England must also safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need. A child in need is a child who is unlikely to achieve or maintain, or have the opportunity to achieve or maintain, a reasonable standard of health and development without any support provided by a public authority. This may include having a disability.

In Northern Ireland, The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 sets out how children in need and their families are supported, including giving information about the assessment of carers of disabled children.

In Scotland, Sections 23 and 24 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 refer specifically to disabled children. The Act requires local authorities to give disabled children the opportunity to lead lives which are "as normal as possible". It also requires local authorities to promote the welfare of children in need.

The Scottish Government has published guidance on supporting disabled children, young people and their families. This guidance includes information and advice on disabled children’s rights, supporting their mental health and wellbeing and child protection (Scottish Government, 2019).

In Wales, Section 15 of the Social Services and Well-Being (Wales) Act 2014  requires local authorities to minimise the effects of disabilities on disabled people.

The Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011 embeds the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into Welsh law, including giving disabled children the right to protection, participation and service provision.

> Read more about the legislation and guidance relating to children with special educational needs


In England, Scotland and Wales, the Equality Act 2010 provides protection from discrimination against disabled people, requiring service providers to make sure their service is accessible for disabled people to the same standards as non-disabled people.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 provides protection from discrimination against disabled people in Northern Ireland. Schedule 8 prohibits discrimination against disabled people relating to goods and services.

Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 requires public authorities to promote equality of opportunity between disabled and non-disabled people.

Medical care and health conditions

There is guidance on administering medication and providing medical care for schools and residential settings in each UK nation.

In England mainstream schools should follow the Department for Education (DfE) guidance on supporting pupils at school with medical conditions (DfE, 2015b). There is separate guidance for residential special schools (DFE, 2015a) and children’s homes (DfE, 2015c). 

Schools in Northern Ireland should follow Supporting pupils with medication needs (DoE and DHSSPS, 2009). Children’s homes must meet the Minimum standards (DHSSPS, 2014).

In Scotland, the key guidance relating to medication in schools is Supporting children and young people with healthcare needs in schools (Scottish Government, 2017). There is a section on medication in the National care standards for children’s homes (Scottish Government, 2011).

In Wales, schools should follow Supporting learners with healthcare needs (Welsh Government, 2017). There are National minimum standards covering medication for residential special schools (Welsh Government, 2003) and children’s homes (Welsh Government, 2002).

Special measures for disabled child witnesses

Across all four nations in the UK, there are statutory ‘special measures’ that can be used for the purpose of taking evidence from a vulnerable witness, including disabled children.

These include:

  • screening the witnesses from the accused
  • giving evidence by live link
  • giving evidence in private.

If a young witness is disabled, they may have particular difficulties attending court and giving evidence.

In England and Wales, the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 introduced a range of measures to help children in these circumstances. Section 16 specifies the grounds on which a child may be eligible for assistance.

The Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1999 makes provision for assistance such as communication for witnesses who are disabled. The Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 raised the maximum age for eligibility for assistance from 17 to 18.

The Vulnerable Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2004 defines and outlines the provisions for vulnerable witnesses in Section 1.

> Sign up to CASPAR to stay up-to-date with new legislation and guidance

References and resources

References and resources


Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel (2023) Safeguarding children with disabilities in residential settings. [Accessed 27/04/2023]

Department for Education (DfE) (2015a) Residential special schools: national minimum standards (PDF). London: Department for Education (DfE).

Department for Education (DfE) (2015b) Supporting pupils at school with medical conditions: statutory guidance for governing bodies of maintained schools and proprietors of academies in England (PDF). London: Department for Education (DfE).

Department for Education (DfE) (2015c) Guide to the Children’s Homes Regulations including the quality standards. London: Department for Education (DfE).

Department for Education (DfE) (2022) Residential special schools: national minimum standards[Accessed 18/04/2023]Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) (2014) Minimum standards for children’s homes (PDF). Belfast: Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS).

Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) (2014) Minimum standards for children’s homes (PDF). Belfast: Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS).

Department of Education (DoE) and Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) (2009). Supporting pupils with medication needs (PDF). Bangor: Department of Education (DoE).

Franklin, A. (2016) Friendship opportunities for disabled children and young people. Coventry: Children and Families Research, Coventry University.

Garbutt, R. et al (2010) Final report: talking about sex and relationships: the views of young people with learning disabilities (PDF). Leeds: CHANGE.

Independent Inquiry Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) (2022) The Report of the Independent Inquiry Into Child Sexual Abuse. [Accessed 30/01/2023].

Hershkowitz, I. Lamb, M.E. and Horowitz, D. (2007) Victimization of children with disabilities. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 77(4): 629-635.

Jones, L. et al (2012) Prevalence and risk of violence against children with disabilities: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. The Lancet, 380(9845): 899-907.

Miller, D. and Brown, J. (2014) ‘We have the right to be safe’: protecting disabled children from abuse. London: NSPCC.

NSPCC (2016) Deaf and disabled children: learning from case reviews. London: NSPCC.

Social Workers with Deaf Children and Professionals group (2022) Guidance for safeguarding partners (England): deaf children, young people and their families (PDF). London: National Deaf Children’s Society.

Scottish Government (2019) Supporting disabled children, young people and their families: guidance. [Accessed 08/04/2021].

Scottish Government (2017) Supporting children and young people with healthcare needs in schools: guidance for NHS boards, education authorities and schools (PDF). Edinburgh: Scottish Government. 

Scottish Government (2011) National care standards: care homes for children and young people. Edinburgh: Scottish Government.

Taylor, J. et al (2014) An investigation into the relationship between professional practice, child protection and disability (PDF). Edinburgh: The Scottish Government.

Welsh Assembly Government (2003) National minimum standards for residential special schools (PDF).  Cardiff: Welsh Assembly Government.

Welsh Assembly Government (2002) National minimum standards for children’s homes (PDF). Cardiff: Welsh Assembly Government.

Welsh Government (2017) Supporting learners with healthcare needs: guidance (PDF). Cardiff: Welsh Government.


If a child or young person needs confidential help and advice direct them to Childline. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can also contact Childline online or read on the Childline website. d/Deaf children can also contact Childline via Sign Video.

You can also download or order Childline posters and wallet cards.

Further reading

For further reading about disabled children, search the NSPCC Library catalogue using the keywords "children with disabilities"; "children with multiple disabilities"; "children with physical disabilities"; "deafness"; "safeguarding".

> Find out more about the Library and Information Service

Related NSPCC resources

Read our leaflets specifically for d/Deaf adults on recognising and reporting concerns if a child is being bullied or abused:

Our summary of learning for improved practice from case reviews working with d/Deaf and disabled children provides several key findings.