The Learning Post: insights from UK Aid Match

Inclusive safeguarding: an interview with Sense International

Episode Summary

In this episode, we speak to Sarah Jane Dowling, Safeguarding Lead at Sense International, about some of the key safeguarding challenges when working with people with deafblindness and multi-sensory disabilities and how the organisation has been able to mitigate them

Episode Transcription

Chinedu Okonkwo (00:10):

Hello, my name's Chinedu Okonkwo. I'm a grants officer for UK Aid Direct and UK Aid Match. Today, we are joined by Sarah Jane Dowling, who is a Programme Manager and Safeguarding Lead for Sense International.


Chinedu Okonkwo (00:22):

Hi, Sarah. How are you doing?


Sarah Jane Dowling (00:24):

I'm good, thank you. How are you?


Chinedu Okonkwo (00:25):

Yeah, I'm really well, thank you. Thanks so much for joining us today on The Learning Post. I guess we'll go straight into the first question. Can you briefly outline some of the key safeguarding challenges when working in the communities you typically target with your interventions?


Sarah Jane Dowling (00:40):

Sure. Sense International works with people with deafblindness and multisensory disabilities in eight countries around the world. People with deafblindness have varying degrees of hearing and sight impairment, and due to the complex nature of their disabilities they're often among the most marginalised people in the world. It's commonly known that people with disabilities are sadly statistically far more likely to experience abuse than people without disabilities. According to UNICEF, children with disabilities are four times more likely to experience abuse and three times more likely to experience sexual abuse than children without disabilities.


Sarah Jane Dowling (01:19):

The people we meet have different ways to communicate, often involving lipreading or sign language and/or tactile forms of communication. They may not have many people around them who know how to communicate with them, and this, of course, increases isolation and their vulnerability and risk of abuse, as they may very likely find it harder to report abuse.


Sarah Jane Dowling (01:42):

Some of the people we work with may have very severe disabilities, which sometimes makes it harder to understand, to recognize, to process and to share abuse, whilst not of course lessening their pain or trauma. Due to the increased risk I've described, parents can also naturally be more protective of their children with deafblindness and even more fearful in engaging in conversations around safeguarding and abuse than we might otherwise see under other circumstances, as they want to protect their children from even hearing about such things.


Sarah Jane Dowling (02:14):

People in their communities might have high levels of stigma towards people with deafblindness and misunderstandings about the disability, which mean they can see abuse towards the people we support as less serious or less shocking than elsewhere in the community. They might not believe that people with severe disabilities have the same rights or experience the same emotions or pain as others in the community, making it less likely to recognize abuse. For example, neglect. We sometimes, sadly, see that children with deafblindness are not being fed sufficient amounts of food, but that is not recognized as neglect.


Sarah Jane Dowling (02:49):

The stigma and fear of stigma can also mean that those aware of abuse against a person with deafblindness might be less likely to report. They often fear local referral authorities might not protect the person with deafblindness in the way that they should.


Sarah Jane Dowling (03:03):

All of these many challenges make the conversations around safeguarding even more difficult and the likelihood of concerns being reported to us less likely, and, of course, the importance of the safeguarding work even more significant


Chinedu Okonkwo (03:19):

Giving these challenges, can you describe the steps taken by Sense International towards inclusive safeguarding in recent years?


Sarah Jane Dowling (03:25):

I think the first thing to say here, and the thing I always say, is that safeguarding is a journey for us all, and perhaps one that never ends. We are certainly still on that journey and reflecting along the way. Sense International recognises the importance of safeguarding in the light of the challenges that I just described to you, and we've been working with an increased focus and priority in this area for the last four years.


Sarah Jane Dowling (03:51):

We have a right space approach to safeguarding, meaning we recognise the fact that everyone we work with and everyone who works with or for us has a right to be safe. We have revised and refreshed all of our key safeguarding policies, including the code of conduct. We have reconsidered the way we recruit and implemented a new training regime for people who work for us and with us. We have designated staff safeguarding focal points in each of our teams and on each of our national boards. We work with our partners to help improve their safeguarding measures, and we work with our communities to learn from them about safeguarding and to help them learn more about ways to stay safe.


Sarah Jane Dowling (04:33):

We are a small team facing high risks, as I described to you, and so we use a risk-based approach to safeguarding, to prioritise resources where the risk is highest. We're working with our teams to implement safer programming where safeguarding and risk is considered in partnership with our communities at every stage in a project's life cycle.


Chinedu Okonkwo (04:55):

How do you ensure safeguarding is accessible for your beneficiaries? Do you have any examples of adapting safeguarding materials for your beneficiaries?


Sarah Jane Dowling (05:03):

Yeah. Recently, in Kenya, under the FCDO-funded COVID rapid response and UK Aid Direct programs, we provided safeguarding information to 132 parents of children with complex disabilities through videos that were loaded up onto Android tablets, potentially reaching 660 family members. These videos use Kenyan sign language, plain language captioning and recorded speech, so someone being videoed to communicate our safeguarding messages as clearly as possible.


Sarah Jane Dowling (05:38):

Another example, colleagues in India adopt an educational approach to preventing abuse and include sexual education in individual education plans to ensure children are taught, obviously in an appropriate way according to each child's situation, but taught to recognise abuse and to share concerns all the way through. They also work with the parents on the same concepts, and they have pictorial posters and easy-to-understand resources explaining the safeguarding policies and naming designated points of contact.


Sarah Jane Dowling (06:13):

Unfortunately, we know that, due to the communication barriers and stigma around disability, the people we support are statistically far less likely to report abuse to us, as I mentioned before. That doesn't mean that we will stop trying to break down those barriers, but that we need to do more and we need to be diverse in our tactics to try and ensure information is coming in.


Sarah Jane Dowling (06:38):

As well as working on improving safeguarding, understanding directly with the people we support with beneficiaries, we also do a lot of work with the people around them. This might be parents or carers, support workers, teachers, key members of the community. We do work with them on key safeguarding messages and signs of abuse and building trust, as we know that these people are statistically more likely to pass on concerns.


Sarah Jane Dowling (07:07):

Again, as I said, it is a journey and there are lots of challenges, as I've described as well. It is important to keep reflecting on the risks and learnings of others and to keep consulting with our partners and the people we support to do the best we can to ensure people we work with and people who work for us are safe.


Chinedu Okonkwo (07:28):

Awesome. Thank you so much, Sarah, I appreciate that.


Chinedu Okonkwo (07:34):

To find more examples of good safeguarding practice, head over to the learning and resources section of the UK Aid Direct website at Don't forget to subscribe to The Learning Post so you don't miss any future episodes. Thank you for listening.