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Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe



Tech for good - unlocking a ‘needs led’ approach to Learning Difficulties and Disabilities in prisoners

by Helen Arnold-Richardson
Language: EN
Document available also in: FR DE IT PL ES


Learning disabilities word cloud



Learning Difficulties and Disabilities – a challenge in definitions

The number of people with Learning Difficulties and/or Disabilities (LDD) in the Criminal Justice System (CJS) has received increasing attention over the last decade. Various publications including Unlocking Potential - A review of education in prison and The Bradley Report discussed the challenge of measuring the exact numbers of people with LDD in custody. The Coates Review cited at least 1 in 3 people had LDDs in justice settings. Whatever the specific numbers (and this may vary from prison to prison depending on the cohort and gender) these documents gave a call to action not only for the identification of offenders who have LDDs, but also upskilling staff to be able to deliver appropriate and practical support.


Under the umbrella

Different conditions have been included under the umbrella of LDD such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Dyslexia, Dyspraxia (also known as Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD)), Dyscalculia, Developmental Language Disorders (DLD), Tic disorders and Learning Disabilities. Different terms such as developmental disorders/disabilities and specific learning difficulties have also been used, including some and not always all the above conditions. More positive terms highlighting variation in how all our brains work are starting to be used, such as neurodiversity and neurodivergence, rather than focusing purely on disability and impairment.

Much research and practice has till recently focused more on some conditions than others and often screening for single conditions, when the reality is that they all often overlap (one recent study in Youth Offenders Institution found 47% of the young people demonstrated language skills significantly below the population average, with more than 1 in 4 identified as having impairment (Hughes et al, 2017). Each person has their own unique profile.



Orange umbrella in amongst black umbrellas
Outside the umbrella

The pathway for many into the Criminal Justice System can be a ‘messy’ one. Many offenders will have had past adversity, both in child and adulthood, with a greater risk of mental health conditions such as self- harm and suicide attempts.

There is a greater opportunity for some to have had their needs missed, not recognised or fully supported. For example, some may have:

  • been a Looked After Child or Young Person (LACYP). They may have moved from school to school making a referral and follow-up harder to do despite evidence of high levels of learning difficulties.
  • been excluded from school. High levels of undiagnosed LDD in this group, but there remains no mandatory screening for LDDs at present.
  • not had their needs recognised as significant by others e.g. come from social settings where their parents had similar patterns of difficulties but were never diagnosed.
  • come from another country where LDD is less well recognised.
  • been homeless.
  • had other symptoms that need to be considered. There is increasing interest in the association between Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and ADHD. It can be difficult (especially if the question isn’t asked) to know whether attention problems are due to ADHD or to a head injury or potentially a combination of the two. In Williams’ report ‘Repairing Shattered Lives’ he cites evidence from England that up to 60% of young people in custody have reported having experienced a traumatic brain injury. It can also be quite hard determining whether someone has Dyslexia who has left school at a young age and missed out on crucial teaching of reading, spelling and writing skills.


Current approaches can be limiting

Paper-based screening tools are limited as they cannot be consistently delivered, lack of accessibility for those who cannot read or understand English, require person power to enter the information and don’t provide feedback to the person answering the questions. They also often look at one aspect of a person screening for ADHD or Dyslexia for example, but not considering the overlap between conditions. They are limited as they can’t draw information together and integrate results to gather a more complete picture of past and current adversity, as well as the profile of the person. For example, if screening for Dyslexia, there is a need to also ask about English as a second language and school attendance, otherwise it is harder to ascertain Dyslexia from functional illiteracy. Head injury questions are important to ask when considering TBI/ADHD and ASD and ascertaining reasons for learning difficulties otherwise false assumptions can be made.

A lack of confidence and training by non-specialist LDD staff may also limit conversations with offenders and the consequent provision of practical adjustments in educational and work settings within the prison.


Technology can deliver whole person-centred screening with support for the person and educational staff

One accessible tool now used by more than 20,000 people in prisons across the UK is the computer-based system Do-IT Profiler, delivering:

  • a bio-psychosocial approach to identifying the strengths and challenges relating to LDDs and gathering an understanding of the person’s overall needs.
  • assessment tools and resources relating to studying, literacy, numeracy, wellbeing and support in gaining work skills and preparing for resettlement.
  • the ability to have integration of information from multiple sources and analysis of the data in one place through the management information platform.
  • instant person-centred feedback for the individual, as well as guidance for staff, and data for present and future planning.
  • monitoring tools that report evidence of actions and outcomes.
  • screening in multiple languages, also text to speech enabled in the language meaning that many people can be profiled at one time across a prison.


Do-IT Profiler on a computer screen


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Helen Arnold-Richardson

Helen Arnold-Richardson

As the Business Director for Do-IT Solutions in the Criminal Justice System, Helen brings a vast amount of knowledge and experience of neurodiversity in college and offender learning, having worked in a variety of roles from being a law lecturer in college to senior leadership in both the FE and Criminal and Youth Justice sector. It was within these settings that she first encountered Profiler and became a champion of its usefulness even before she worked for Do-IT Solutions.

She has led projects, contracts and teams supporting offenders in custody and through the gate and as a result, gained first-hand knowledge of the challenges offenders and staff face.

She has worked on European projects focused on reducing reoffending and supporting people in custody and has sat on strategic boards and advisory groups to support reducing reoffending through offender learning. Helen is also a trustee of the charity ‘The Key - Unlocking Potential’.


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Amanda Kirby

Professor Amanda Kirby

Amanda is co-founder and CEO of Do-IT. She has an international reputation in the field of developmental disorders and is a qualified GP and holds a part time chair at the University of South Wales. She has worked in the justice sector for 14 years, developing contextually appropriate tools and guidance. She has an international reputation in the field of neurodiversity and a PhD. She is the author of Adult DCD/Dyspraxia checklist, the only recommended checklist in the European Guidelines 2016 for DCD/Dyspraxia.

She developed The Dyscovery Centre, a clinical centre for children and adults with learning difficulties and ran this for more than 15 years and has worked in adult mental health services for several years. She has sat on strategic government bodies e.g. DWP, WG, Autism strategy task force. She helped lead on the development of the DWP ‘Hidden Impairment Toolkit’ and the UK employers website for HING (DWP sponsored group).

Amanda has also published 100 peer reviewed papers and 8 books in the field, translated into 5 languages, and acted as an advisor on accessibility e.g. Harry Potter books /DWP/Autism bodies.


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  • Justin Coleman's picture
    Helen, this is a great blog, sincerely useful and though provoking! Thank you.... talk soon!