TC Media Center from the Office of External Affairs

Section Navigation

Researchers Study Issues Confronting Women with Mental Retardation

Researchers Study Issues Confronting Women with Mental Retardation

Abuse, Social Pressure, and Decision-Making: Researchers Study Issues Confronting Women with Mental Retardation

New York---Though the movement toward inclusion has meant that people with mental retardation are living and working in open community settings, it has also brought up new demands to balance independence with the need for protection in unfamiliar settings. Linda Hickson, Professor of Education and Director of Teachers College's Center for Opportunities and Outcomes for People with Disabilities and Ishita Khemka, Research Associate with the Center, have noted that the incidence of abuse among individuals with mental retardation, especially women, "is alarmingly high." However, with the proper training strategies they can learn to protect themselves against abuse and to interact more positively in social situations. Research Inspired by 1993 Glen Ridge, N.J., Trial The research, according to Hickson, was inspired and triggered by the 1993 Glen Ridge, N.J., criminal case concerning a young woman with mild mental retardation who was lured into a basement of a home by high school athletes and raped. Hickson recalls that the "defense attorneys were taking advantage of the young woman's mental retardation and by leading her to answer in ways that supported their case." Hickson kept bringing her eye-witness accounts of the trial to her seminar students. "In trying to figure out what makes people with mental retardation so vulnerable in situations like Glen Ridge, we found ourselves gravitating more to the social interpersonal area of research." Khemka says that the Glen Ridge case illustrates the fact that people with mental retardation have a difficult time handling social pressure, coercion or abuse. She adds, "The public seemed to be asking whether people with mental retardation were prepared to be on their own and whether we, as educators in the field, were doing the job of providing them the skills they really need?"

People with Mental Retardation Need to Develop Appropriate Responses

Both Hickson and Khemka maintain that part of the problem is that people with mental retardation have not been allowed to make choices and a limited repertoire of appropriate responses, especially in situations involving social conflict. Now that they find themselves out in the community on their own, they need to develop the skills that will keep them safe and enable them to resist social pressure. Khemka emphasizes that their research has shown that "due to a history of learned helplessness and social failure, they [people with mental retardation] don't feel that they have the power to effect change and they have lower perceptions of control and self-efficacy." Decision-Making and Abuse Prevention Hickson says they have been approaching their research from two fronts: focusing on understanding decision-making processes with a goal toward developing a model of decision-making; and designing "effective interventions and supports that can help people with mental retardation make better decisions in a variety of domains like substance abuse prevention and the prevention of sexual, physical and verbal abuse, as well as a wide variety of interpersonal situations." The research, therefore, not only concentrates on the study of abuse prevention but also on empowerment issues among female adolescents and adults with developmental disabilities. Khemka's dissertation, entitled "Increasing Independent Interpersonal Decision Making Skills of Women with Developmental Disabilities in Response to Social-Interpersonal Situations Involving the Potential for Abuse," won her the 1997 dissertation award from the Academy on Mental Retardation. In it, she explores alternative frameworks for decision-making training within the arena of abuse prevention. The Research: Scenarios via Videos How was the research conducted? "In the past," Khemka says, "we interviewed women by telling them about scenarios of problem situations and then asking them what they thought the persons in the situations should do. Now we actually present these scenarios via video and have focused on problem scenarios that involve interpersonal conflict or abuse. We probe for their ability to recommend prevention focused decisions in response to such situations." Khemka looked at situations of sexual, physical, and verbal abuse and evaluated the effectiveness of alternative approaches to training that would lead to better decision making skills for women with mental retardation. She found that an integrated cognitive and motivational strategy, which combined teaching specific decision-making steps along with assisting the women to generate personal values and self-protective goals, was most effective. The other thing the research highlighted was the women found situations of verbal abuse more difficult to handle than situations of sexual or physical abuse. Khemka says, "Abuse is not necessarily inflicted by strangers or people unknown to them. We found that that the participants were having problems of dealing with situations of verbal abuse by family members, friends, acquaintances, and caretakers. Much of the training was geared to helping them understand issues of abuse and that they have a say, even if they are dependent on others." Hickson, speaking about Khemka's contribution to the field of research says, "She [Khemka] is really committed to conducting the research where it will make a difference to the lives of people with mental retardation."

 Support Groups are the Next Step

That means that their next step will be to start a support group of women, some of whom have participated in Khemka's training. According to Hickson, "We will be asking the women to bring in their real-life situations and we will work with them to apply decision-making strategies and monitor the outcomes to fine tune their strategies." They are also going to compare the results of their program to other types of supports and interventions. Khemka is looking forward to support groups and what they may mean to decreasing the rate of abuse of individuals with mental retardation. "We need to prevent the abuse before it actually happens--to be proactive in preventing abuse. I would like to see some of our participants actually speaking up for themselves and increasing their ability to use self-protective strategies."

Teachers College, a graduate school devoted to education across the lifespan both in and out of the classroom, is an affiliate of Columbia University but retains its legal and financial independence. For the last three years, the editors of U.S. News & World Report, have ranked Teachers College as the number one graduate school of education in America. 87/Hickson/Khemka 4/98 For more information about items listed in the News Bureau, contact: Barry Rosen Executive Director of External Affairs 212-678-3176 Mary Crystal Cage Director of Communications 212-678-3771 Nancy Masterson-Newkirk Publications Coordinator 212-678-4147 Diane Dobry Publications Writer 212-678-3979

previous page