A pioneering project has won an award for its work with the neglected victims of sex abuse - women who have learning difficulties. Women's Editor Lindsay Jennings reports.

THE discreet black letters, TRCC, on the A4 sheet of paper give the only signs to the crisis centre's whereabouts. Pinned up on the somewhat clinical, mushroom-coloured walls, an arrow on the sheet points up the stairs to the third floor, which leads to an equally inconspicuous-looking entrance with a buzzer.

Counsellor Sue Howlett opens the door and, with a warm smile, beckons me into the waiting room of the Tyneside Rape Crisis Centre in Newcastle.

Here, in contrast to its outer surroundings, are calming, pale blue walls with prints of Picasso's Sleeping Woman and Peter Severin Kroyer's image of two Edwardian ladies walking along a deserted beach. In Sue's room, where she sees her clients, there are warm lemon walls and colourful mobiles hanging over the windows. Cushions, pebbles, and teddy bears sit on the shelves - most of them artistic tools to help her clients open up about their distressing experiences.

These are the surroundings in which the six women with learning disabilities who took part in a pilot study commissioned by Newcastle Social Services found themselves.

"I think the women felt really valued because the surroundings were nice and it's not a medical centre," says Sue, 37. "Even some of the social workers thought we'd be sitting behind a big desk and wearing white coats."

The aim of the project, run by Sue and social worker Joanne Danby, 36, was to allow women with learning disabilities - from those with Down's Syndrome to those with physical disablities - to explore the use of a mainstream rape crisis service. Six women received six counselling sessions on a one-to-one basis with Sue.

Many women who have been sexually abused or raped have difficulties expressing what has happened to them or how they feel afterwards, says Sue. But for a woman with learning disabilities, the issue can be compounded by her day-to-day difficulties with speech and communication problems. A number of the women involved in the study had been told by their carers or loved ones that it would be best to put their harrowing ordeals in the past, and move on.

'Research has shown that 90 per cent of women who have a learning disability have been subject to rape or some form of sexual abuse," says Joanne.

"They are vulnerable because people know they can target them and they may not be able to speak up. They're not viewed as reliable witnesses because of their learning disabilities, so perpetrators are quite safe in that respect. They often also have physical disabilities, so they can't get away from their abusers, or fight - they may even depend on them for care."

Sue had worked with people with learning disabilities as a support worker and so was ideally placed to work as the project's counsellor. The women were referred to them following visits by Joanne to day centres, women's groups and social services. One of the main reasons the women came for counselling, they found, was because they had no-one else to talk to.

"They tended to have kept it in for a long time or they had told someone and it hadn't been taken any further," says Sue.

"They told me of their experiences, of being in danger, being helpless, not being believed or listened to. They told me of physical, emotional and economic abuse. They told me of the violence they had suffered and witnessed. They told me how difficult it was for them to trust people and to form new relationships and how, as a result of this, they often felt lonely and worthless."

Most, says Sue, had a genuine fear that they were going to be "told off" for talking about their experiences. One was told by her doctor that she had not been raped and that she should simply "get on with it".

"When she told me what had happened, using her words, expressions and gestures, it was clear she had been raped," says Sue.

"For her to have her situation minimised in that way, had, until now, stopped her from being able to tell anyone else exactly what had happened for fear of the same reaction. When I told her I believed her and understood her, she was able to start the process of freeing herself from the blame she had felt in the past."

Another was told by her family and friends that the sexual abuse she suffered had been her fault because she had led her abuser on. She came to the project feeling confused, guilty and hating herself.

"When we met and I said I believed her and it was not her fault, her face lit up," recalls Sue. "She smiled and said, 'honest?' and I said, 'yes'. That is all it took to begin gaining her trust."

Many of the women had also turned to self-harm as a way to release their suppressed emotions. Sue helped them look at other ways of coping.

"One woman in particular worked very hard on this issue and gave lots of thought during and outside of the sessions as to what she could do instead," she says. "She began to draw at home to express her feelings, play music and relax and take a healthy interest in jigsaw puzzles - all of which helped develop healthy coping mechanisms as an alternative to hurting herself.

"Another thing which was quite apparent was the sense of loss in their lives. Whether it was loss of a family because of abuse or the death of someone close."

Only one of the women had difficulties with her speech and Sue slowed down her pace so that she could take time to fully understand her client. Generally, she found she did not need to change her counselling style, but was grateful for the practical support Joanne gave her in the project.

"The main thing was making sure everything was understood," she says. "But that could be said of people who haven't got learning disabilities, because it's such a big subject matter and difficult for anyone to talk about."

As the weeks went by, Sue says she saw significant changes in the women. "I saw them smiling more than at the start," she says. "They were more aware of their own personal boundaries with regards to trust and their self-confidence and self-esteem improved. There was also a recognition that what had happened to them was not their fault."

The project's success was sealed when it won the learning disabilities category of the Community Care Awards 2004 in December - which came with a £5,000 prize which the women have used to fund more counselling hours. The judges said: "This project has taken a mainstream service and opened it up to women with disabilities. It's a great example of inclusivity working in a taboo area."

Joanne says: "It was great because it raised awareness of what can be done.

"When you're a social worker you don't always get to focus on a subject area because you're being pulled from pillar to post, so it was really good to have that depth of focus."

The two women have been contacted by other counselling colleagues across the country and are in the process of trying to secure funding for future work.

In the meantime, Sue and Joanne have the knowledge that they have helped six women move on with their lives.

"I would like to thank the women for being brave enough to take part because without them it wouldn't have been possible," says Sue.

"They never missed a session and they used the time well. It was a fantastic experience and a privilege to be involved."

* The Tyneside Rape Crisis Centre can be contacted on 0191-222-0272.