Us Too project and Covid-19: online peer education on domestic abuse for girls/women with learning disabilities and/or autism


The Us Too project

Us Too was a user-led project on domestic abuse and sexual violence (DA/SV) for women and girls with learning disabilities and/or autism. Us Too was managed by ARC England and funded by Comic Relief from 2019 – 21.

The project recruited a team of women with learning disabilities, autism or both, who had experience of Domestic Abuse/Sexual Violence. The team used their experiences to write and then deliver training to:

    • Their peers - on how to stay safe.
    • Learning disability professionals - on domestic abuse and how to keep women safe.
    • Generic Domestic Abuse/Sexual Violence services - on access and communication issues.

When coronavirus arrived in the UK and the first lockdown happened the project was on target and evaluating well. Covid-19 restrictions meant that all face-to-face training activity stopped. The team realised that, even once lockdown was lifted, there would be no rapid resumption of live training activity owing to the compromised health of some in the team, and many in our target audience. Hence, a rapid rethink and move to online learning. This was reasonably easily achieved in our workshops for professionals and we had delivered a number of pilot workshops, live webinars and recorded training within three months. However, we identified a number of issues in delivering online peer education on such a sensitive issue. These included the availability and quality of technology (e.g. a decent laptop, software, and adequate and affordable broadband connection/speed) and its use (e.g. participation in Zoom meetings, troubleshooting in the event of IT failure).

The biggest issues, though, were centred on safeguarding. Some of this was concern for the project team’s safety, but mainly for that of our learners. In face-to-face training the team received disclosures of abuse (usually historical) at almost every event, whether the workshop was for peers or professionals. It was critical that any online training could be offered in a way that did not suppress disclosures [of abuse], and ensured that learners were supported by people trained and competent in enabling learning and processing disclosures when necessary.

In face-to-face training situations the training team were skilled in giving permission for disclosures, offering immediate support, processing disclosures and following up. The concern was that, in moving our training online, we would be delegating this task and responsibility to care staff who may lack the skillset to manage disclosures.

There were further concerns that learners, as a result of the workshops, would realise that they were living in abusive situations, or had experienced abuse historically, and had no immediate recourse to support. This could be both traumatising and/or dangerous if they were still living in a household with their abuser. Our experience is that people with learning disabilities rarely recognise abuse that is happening to them until it is directly pointed out.

Owing to this combination of risks the team felt unable to offer their peer training online unless solutions to these complicated problems could be found.

Fortunately, at this point, we were given the opportunity to bid for additional funding from Comic Relief, and were lucky enough to be awarded a grant which enabled us to work with Research in Practice to research the issues thoroughly and develop protocols for putting our peer education online in a way which overcame the hurdles.

The original intention was to work with a group of 8 learners across a range of settings (e.g. care home, supported living, day service, employment project, FE college, special school). However, the ongoing pandemic proved problematic. Services were experiencing practical issues (such as settings being closed down), staff shortages, positive Covid tests, self-isolation, etc. They were difficult to contact, and (give the circumstances) we were not their priority.

Fortunately, one special school was in a position to support eight learners, and it became clear that, though not ideal, this was our one opportunity to complete a pilot programme.

In November and December 2020 we piloted an online workshop with 8 girls/women across five Thursday afternoons.

The experience was positive, and we are hugely grateful to the students and staff at Pathfield School in north Devon who either supported, or were part of, the pilot. Some Covid-related difficulties continued, with a number of the students having to self-isolate at various points, and sessions postponed. However, the commitment and flexibility shown by all led to a successful conclusion.

Although the pilot was conducted exclusively in a school setting, we believe that our approach, and teaching materials, are adaptable for many other situations. We have prepared the resources on this page for generic use and welcome any feedback.

If you have any questions about the Us Too project please get in touch with the Project Lead, Rod Landman.

Project Lead

My Zoom kept cutting out, the sound wouldn’t work, some people had no Wi-Fi!”

(Us Too team member on our first online team meeting)

Us Too Online Training for Peers Resources