Picture book helps learning-disabled deal with domestic abuse

By Emma Tracey
BBC News, Ouch

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Two picture books about domestic abuse have been published for adults with learning disabilities. But how do you communicate serious issues without words?

Picture books are usually created with children in mind and so tend to be brightly coloured with happy scenes. But a new book entitled When Dad Hurts Mum is different. It has drawings with muted colours and depicts adult situations - a mum with a bruise on her face for example, and a father getting arrested. The seriousness of the subject matter is reflected in the characters' facial expressions. Nobody is smiling, they are mostly sad and stern, drawn with furrowed brows and pursed lips. There are no words but it's clearly not for children.

Baroness Hollins, co-author and publisher of the books, says adults with learning disabilities need educational materials which are age-appropriate and books previously hadn't been there for those who can't read text at all. "Easy read" titles which sit alongside pictures with simple language, were unhelpful and children's picture books don't deal with "adult feelings".

So where and when did the idea begin? Baroness Hollins has a son with learning disabilities and, when he was nine, she created a comic strip about an upcoming family holiday to help him know what to expect. She saw how well it worked and applied it to adults she was working with at the time. That was 25 years ago and she has been publishing her work ever since.

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Her first two picture-only publications, which are both about grief, are on their fourth print edition. There have now been 42 in the series, covering topics like going to prison, physical assault and getting married.

The crossbench peer, who is also emeritus professor of psychiatry of disability at St Georges, University of London, says: "If you can't read and words are presented to you, they remind you of all those horrible years trying to learn."

The two most recent books in the series, When Dad Hurts Mum, and Finding a Safe Place From Abuse, deal with domestic violence. The first is from the perspective of a young person, Katie, whose mum is being beaten by her dad. The second follows Katie as an adult, when she finds herself in a violent relationship. They were co-written by Baroness Scotland, who is the patron of the Corporate Alliance Against Domestic Violence and were funded by the Department of Health.

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"Women with learning disabilities are far more likely to end up in relationships where they are abused and exploited," says advisor on the books, Dr Noelle Blackman, CEO of Respond, a charity which helps children and adults with learning disabilities who have been through abuse or trauma. She says she has struggled to find suitable ways of helping her learning disabled patients understand and deal with domestic abuse over the years.

"Many get lonely easily and are often pleased that they are in any sort of relationship," she says. "They are therefore slow to open up about what's happening to them."

Though a Women's Aid study from 2007 found that disabled women are twice as likely to experience domestic abuse as the rest of the population, there is no direct research about women with learning disabilities.

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"Domestic violence is such a hidden crime," says Dr Blackman. "[People with learning disabilities] may not always recognise that relationships should not be as bad as the one they are in."

She says the books will help readers understand their situation and assist them to tell their own story. They are designed to be read in conjunction with a support worker or someone close and have all been developed with help from people with learning disabilities who have been through these difficulties.

The images have been designed specifically for people with learning disabilities and the process took months. The illustrator Anne-Marie Perks worked closely with experts to ensure that the pictures were clear and could be immediately understood.

Clubs run by volunteers for learning disabled people who want to get together to read and discuss the books, are growing in number with 13 running in Kent alone.

When one club read a picture book about prison it revealed that some members had experienced a stop-and-search by police, and others had relatives in prison.

After they finished reading the book, a local policeman met up with them and they were given the opportunity to visit a police station and learn more about the criminal justice system first hand.

When Dad Hurts Mum is out now and A Safe Place from Domestic Abuse will be published in January 2015.

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