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Monday, June 21, 1999 Published at 10:41 GMT 11:41 UK


Living under the shadow of bullies

People with learning difficulties are much more likely to be bullied than others

Almost nine out of 10 people with learning difficulties have been bullied, according to a Mencap report. News Online talks to one family about their experiences.

Sue Cowperthwaite's 26-year-old daughter Kelly has moderate learning difficulties and lives in her own flat.

She has been called names since she was five.

But in the last nine years, the abuse has got worse and she has even been forced to move home because of it.

The family live in Cockermouth, a small town in Cumbria.

Sue says Kelly has had a table knife thrown at her, been slapped, spat on and bullied for money and cigarettes. A car has even been driven onto the pavement towards her.

Sue said: "She is quite a confident young woman and I have encouraged her to be that way, to be independent.

"But it is as if some people - and you never know who they are going to be - resent her presence.

"I think they are frightened of people with learning difficulties and they react in a very negative way.

"Some people just ignore her, which is fine, but with others, the reaction is so extreme it makes me gasp."


Sue says the most severe bullying comes from a hard core of teenagers who hang around on the streets in groups.

Children mainly call Kelly names, but teenagers attack her, she says.

But even the name calling can have a very damaging effect.

It can range from "cabbage" and "mong" to "slapper", "Lesbian" and "druggie".

"It is any term of abuse, is usually accompanied by the F word and it is always done in public.

"No-one stops or challenges it."

One and a half years ago, Kelly was forced to move house because the bullying became so bad.

Sue says it started with a neighbour who was married to a woman with learning difficulties.

"He was a very controlling chap and, at first welcomed Kelly, but kept telling her what to do.

"He told her not to go out at night, not to go out with this or that person and she eventually told him to mind his own business."

"He then started a campaign of abuse against her, enlisting other children - some with learning difficulties.

"It is as if they resented Kelly's freedom or it gave them a sense of power. I can understand that in a way, but not from people without learning difficulties.

"They banged on Kelly's walls, threatened her, called her names, called the police to complain her TV was too loud.

"It went on for almost a year."

In the end, she had to move to a block of flats where she has been for 18 months.


But now she has problems there. She has had to disconnect her buzzer because children keep pressing it and she gets harassed when she goes out.

Sue says the police have been "somewhat dismissive" of Kelly's problems, not appearing to take them seriously, suggesting 'kids will be kids'.

"We got the impression it was Kelly's fault that she was going out and that they were irritated that we kept complaining."

She feels the police could do more to protect Kelly, particularly under anti-harassment legislation.

Kelly is a gregarious person who enjoys going out to the pub, but the harassment she has endured has led to depression, although she always bounces back.

Sue says she has had to use her energy to fight the bullying, rather than help Kelly with independence skills, such as washing and budgeting.


Sue says she thinks things will change with more people with learning difficulties living in the community and being more visible.

But she adds that, for people being abused on an almost daily basis, more action is needed now.

She and Kelly are hoping to join in a local Mencap campaign to educate children and teachers at school.

Kelly was briefly in special unit at mainstream school, but was taken away because of the attitude of the teachers, says Sue.

Although she would like to see more special needs children in mainstream schools, she says Kelly "thrived as a person" in special school.

Her only support throughout the family's problems has been from Mencap who offer advice on a range of problems.

However, the local family advice service is facing funding problems.

She is not surprised by the Mencap report's findings. "I am just amazed one in 10 people have no problems. It is just not good enough," she said.

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