Safeguarding deaf and disabled children How organisations can protect deaf and disabled children from abuse

Two teenage girls looking at a mobile phone and smilingAbuse can happen to anyone but deaf and disabled children are over 3 times more likely to be abused or neglected than non-disabled children (Jones et al, 2012).

It's vital that professionals working with deaf and disabled children follow best practice to keep them safe and protect them from abuse or neglect.

Why deaf and disabled children are at increased risk of abuse

It's difficult for any child to tell someone they're being abused but deaf or disabled children with speech, language and communication needs face extra barriers.

Messages about what abuse is or how to keep safe are not always made accessible to deaf or disabled children. Without this knowledge children may not recognise that they are being abused or they might not have the right language to describe what's happening to them.

Professionals may have difficulty understanding a child's speech or they may not have the knowledge and skills to communicate non-verbally with a child.

Sometimes professionals rely on parents or carers to facilitate communication with deaf and disabled children or they seek an adult's views instead of the child's. This poses a risk if the child is being abused by their parent or carer or if the adult they are communicating through does not believe the child.

Deaf and disabled children are less likely to have contact with other people than non-disabled children.

They may be further isolated if they:

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

Children and families may have limited access to support systems. Support may not be available or may not be appropriate for the child’s physical, emotional or cultural needs.

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 risk and 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.

Research shows that disabled children are less likely to disclose abuse and more likely to delay disclosure than their non-disabled peers (Hershkowitz, Lamb and Horowitz, 2007).

As with children without disabilities, a disabled child who does disclose abuse may not always get the support they need.

Professionals may not focus on the child's views or understand and respond to their safeguarding needs.

Some adults may not believe the child or communication barriers may prevent them fully understanding what the child is telling them.

If abuse is reported to the authorities, the response and level of care may be affected if professionals lack skills or experience in working with deaf or disabled children.

Disabled children are less likely to disclose abuse and more likely to delay disclosure

Explanation: This study analysed forensic reports of suspected physical or sexual abuse made in Israel between 1998 and 2004 relating to 40,430 children aged 3-14 years.

Just over 12% these children were deaf or disabled. Deaf and disabled children did not disclose abuse and delayed disclosure more often compared to their non-disabled peers.

Spotting the signs of abuse is not always easy. In some cases, professionals may be unable to see past a child's impairment to recognise the signs of abuse.

A child experiencing abuse or attempting to disclose abuse may self-harm or display inappropriate sexual behaviour or other repetitive and challenging behaviours. This may be misunderstood as part of a child's disability or health condition and can prevent others from recognising the signs of abuse and taking action.

Injuries such as bruising may not raise the same level of concern as they would if seen on a non-disabled child. Bruising on a disabled child may be assumed to have been self-inflicted or caused by disability equipment or problems with mobility.

Accessible personal safety programmes, exploration of what is abuse and sex and relationship education are often not available to deaf and disabled children.

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

Our research found children with special educational needs reported poorer understanding of bullying and inappropriate touching than their peers and were less able to keep themselves safe (McElearney et al. 2011).

Deaf and disabled children: learning from case reviews

Lessons from case reviews published since 2010 which have highlighted lessons for working with deaf and disabled children.
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Research on safeguarding deaf and disabled children

Find research studies and reports on protecting deaf and disabled children from abuse and nelgect on our library catalogue.

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What you can do to protect disabled children

Include deaf and disabled children in policies, procedures and training

It's important to consider any needs of deaf and disabled children when you are writing your organisation's safeguarding policy and procedures or looking for child protection training for staff.

Your organisation’s safeguarding policy should:

  • include an equality statement with your commitment to anti-discriminatory practice
  • explicity recognise the increased vulnerability of deaf and disabled children to abuse and neglect and the barriers they may face, especially around communication
  • provide for any additional safeguards needed to protect deaf and disabled children
  • cover any safeguarding issues that are specific to a child’s disability such as intimate care and safe touch.

Writing a safeguarding policy

Guidance on how to set out your organisation's approach in a policy with tips on what to include and an example policy you can tailor to your needs.
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Children with physical disabilities or specific medical issues may need help and support with intimate personal care including going to the toilet and washing.

You should have a separate policy on how intimate care plans are set out and reviewed. The policy should include guidance on developing intimate care plans such as involving children and young people in their development.

It should cover safeguarding concerns around intimate care including:

  • how records of intimate care are kept
  • a statement about the responsibility of all staff to report any child protection concerns arising from intimate care.
  • a statement that recognises that staff carrying out intimate care may be at increased risk of allegations of abuse
  • a statement that recognises that perpetrators of abuse can include members of staff as well as others known to the child
  • how your organisation will respond to allegations related to intimate care.

Everyone working with children should receive regular child protection training.

Training should highlight the reasons deaf and 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 deaf and disabled children.

Child protection training

We offer a range of online and face-to-face training courses for people who work with children to help you gain the skills to act appropriately and confidently to keep children safe.

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Child protection training

We offer a range of online and face-to-face training courses for people who work with children to help you gain the skills to act appropriately and confidently to keep children safe.

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Child protection consultancy

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Empower deaf and disabled children

Attitudes and assumptions about disablity can lower a child's self-confidence and make them feel disempowered.

Building a child’s self-esteem can help to promote their safety. A child who feels empowered is less likely to blame themselves and more likely to seek support.

Help empower deaf and disabled children by giving them:

  • a say in their safeguarding. It’s important to consult a child on their views and wishes about their life and care in order to meet their needs
  • access to advocacy services
  • communication support and opportunities to express themselves
  • a supportive relationship with a trusted person - this can increase a child’s chances of disclosing abuse to that person (Taylor et al, 2015)
  • accessible education on keeping safe, sex and relationships and online safety 
  • access to information in accessible formats such as the Underwear Rule

Resources for deaf and disabled children

Browse our list of books and videos for children with special education needs to learn about keeping safe.

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Watch: the Underwear Rule for deaf children

Recorded with British Sign Language and subtitles, this video aims to teach deaf children about the Underwear Rule and encourages them to share secrets that upset them with a trusted adult.

Use activities and practices to protect disabled children

  • Peer support and social activities
    Opportunities for more recreational and social interaction can help reduce bullying and enable children to explore issues with other young people. Activities can also build on children’s confidence and reduce isolation.
  • Creative therapies
    Activities like art and music can provide children with opportunities to express themselves through indirect and non-verbal means.
  • Building relationships
    Supportive and trusting relationships can help make a child feel safe and confident know that they have someone to talk to.
  • Improving communication
    Clear and regular communication between all the agencies and people who work with or care for a disabled child can reduce signs of abuse being missed and increase consistency of care.

Practice resources for working with deaf and disabled children

Find guides, articles and resources to help you to safeguard deaf and disabled children through activities and practices.

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Safeguard deaf and disabled children in schools

  • Policies
    Check your school's child protection policy specifically highlights the increased vulnerability of deaf and disabled children and children with Special Educational Needs (SEN).
  • Awareness and training
    Ensure all staff are aware about the increased vulnerability of deaf and disabled children and children with Special Educational Needs (SEN). This could form part of the school induction process and continue through regular training.
  • Accessibility statements
    Include clear statements about a child's right to protection and right to accessible safeguarding lessons and resources in your school’s Disability Equality Scheme and Accessibility Plan.
  • Lesson plans
    Adapt personal, social, health and education (PSHE) and sex and relationships education (SRE) lessons to the needs and cognitive development of all pupils.
  • Working together
    Support the joint working of the person responsible for coordinating special educational needs with the person responsible for safeguarding or child protection.

Safeguarding in the performing arts

Advice and guidance for keeping children safe in music, drama, dance, TV and theatre.
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Safeguarding and child protection in schools

Learn more about the information, advice and training we offer to help schools keep children safe from abuse.
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Speak out. Stay safe.

Our programme (formerly Childline Schools Service) supports specially trained staff and volunteers to talk to primary school children about abuse.
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PANTS – resources for schools and teachers

PANTS resources include a lesson plan, teaching guidance, class activities, a Talking PANTS slide presentation and supporting information.
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  1. Hershkowitz, I., Lamb, M.E. and Horowitz, D. (2007) Victimization of children with disabilities. American Journal of Orthopsychiarty, 77(4): 629-635.

  2. 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 July 2012.

  3. Taylor, J. et al (2015) Deaf and disabled children talking about child protection. London: NSPCC.