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New study examines the connections between cognitive impairments and exploitation

Monday, 05 September 2022

Modern slavery experts are set to investigate whether people who experience cognitive impairments as a result of mental ill-health, learning disability or memory loss could be more susceptible to exploitation.

The academics, from the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham – the world’s largest group of modern slavery researchers – alongside experts from the schools of Sociology and Social Policy and Health Sciences, are being funded by the Nuffield Foundation to examine the relationships between different types of vulnerability and exploitation.

A pilot study in Nottingham by the research team from April 2020 until March 2021, found that 31 per cent of the 147 cases of adult exploitation involved a person with a diagnosed impairment. More than a quarter of cases (26 per cent) recorded evidence of undiagnosed impairment.

Exploitation can include legal, physical, economic, social and psychological pressures used to limit the choices and infringe the rights of others. This includes actions ranging from human trafficking and slavery, to situations that may cause distress or harm but are not currently offences in UK law.

The connection between forms of cognitive impairment and vulnerability to exploitation is often anecdotally acknowledged but poorly evidenced. Through this ground-breaking research, we hope to shed light on how these issues intersect, helping to improve existing policy and practice, and providing important information and resources for those who may be at risk.
Dr Alison Gardner, Associate Director of the Communities and Society Programme at the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab

Dr Gardner, Assistant Professor in Public Policy and Administration in the School of Sociology and Social Policy, continued: “Our work with the Ann Craft Trust and Human Trafficking Foundation will ensure this research engages with those who have direct experience of these issues.”

In order to better understand the personal, social, and cultural factors that can increase the risk of exploitation, the team will examine statistical data and interview people with cognitive impairments who have experienced exploitation, their friends and family members, and frontline professionals who have witnessed exploitation or supported exploited people. This will, in turn, help the experts to identify points when preventative action could have stopped exploitation as well as better ways to support individuals who are being exploited.

Over the two-year study, the research team aim to provide insights into potential causative relationships. Current policy and practice responses will be investigated and explored with practitioners and people with lived experience to determine areas for improvement.

We know exploitation can be one of the biggest challenges faced by young people and adults who may have additional complex needs but at the same time difficult for practitioners, families and the person concerned to recognise. Through our involvement with experts and partnership working, we will establish preventative ways of working empowering those who may be exploited whilst raising awareness of indicators.
Lisa Curtis, Head of Safeguarding Adults and Young People at the Ann Craft Trust

Story credits

More information is available from Dr Alison Gardner in the Rights Lab and the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham at

The Nuffield Foundation is an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance social well-being. It funds research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare, and Justice. It also funds student programmes that provide opportunities for young people to develop skills in quantitative and scientific methods. The Nuffield Foundation is the founder and co-funder of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the Ada Lovelace Institute and the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory. The Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. Visit

The Ann Craft Trust (ACT) is a national charity which exists to minimise the risk of abuse of disabled children and adults at risk. Through pioneering training, practice reviews and contributing to world-leading research, we support organisations to safeguard disabled children and adults at risk and minimise the risk of harm. Our training is developed based on our research findings and the latest guidance. We have also been involved in the development of new and innovative training for professionals across the UK. Visit

Katie Andrews - Media Relations Manager for the Faculty of Social Sciences
Phone: 0115 951 5751

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About the University of Nottingham

Ranked 32 in Europe and 16th in the UK by the QS World University Rankings: Europe 2024, the University of Nottingham is a founding member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. Studying at the University of Nottingham is a life-changing experience, and we pride ourselves on unlocking the potential of our students. We have a pioneering spirit, expressed in the vision of our founder Sir Jesse Boot, which has seen us lead the way in establishing campuses in China and Malaysia - part of a globally connected network of education, research and industrial engagement.

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