It is easy to talk about the challenges that face people with a learning disability as they embark on first relationships – how difficult it can be to just meet someone when you are isolated, how to convince overprotective parents, what to do when leaving the house can involve a risk assessment. Even accessing social venues, like a pub or leisure club, can require careful consideration.
And there’s a perceived minefield of consent – how do I know what to say yes and no to, whether it’s holding hands, having a hug, giving a kiss, or going further if I want? Thinking about sex can be scary and everybody tells me not to do it – I might become pregnant, or get a sexually transmitted infection.
I’ve heard from young men and women who get butterflies in their chest and describe feelings of nervousness and excitement; they’ve told me how fantastic it feels to be in a relationship and how special is it to create memories with a partner.
Miguel Tudela de la Fuente
For the past five years I have been listening to people with a learning disability tell me stories about love and believe me, there are happy endings. I currently manage 'Good sexual health and relationships for people with learning disabilities', a project delivered by sexual health charity FPA in the London borough of Westminster.
Even people with severe disabilities can enjoy moments of affection – maybe a relationship enabled by regular meetings in sheltered accommodation. Many meet through the internet, or maybe through college or a community centre.
Sex and sexuality are central to the human experience, and we all have a right to not only enjoy relationships but to access the information, education and services that can help us make informed choices.
Through the Westminster project we talk about safeguarding, consent, what is appropriate in private and public spaces, and what the differences are between good and bad touch.
Much of it comes back to letting people with a learning disability know that having a relationship is ok and that it can be wonderful and make you happy. And we talk about how it is ok to be attracted to people of the same sex and that not all relationships are between a man and a woman and end in marriage and children.
While we must accept that for people with a learning disability it may always be that little bit harder to embark on a first relationship, there are ways we can make it easier.
Unfortunately, the work we do in Westminster is rare, and there are many people around the UK who don’t have access to the sort of environment where they can talk about sex and relationships, ask questions and gain reassurance.
That’s why it’s so important for professionals – education, health, and social care alike – to keep information and advice as accessible as possible. While I’ve heard happy ever afters, I’ve also heard of first relationships ending because of a lack of support – even for something as simple as going to the cinema.
I look forward to hearing more stories from the young people I work with, of their hearts racing and pumping and beating in their chests. Like the teenager who picked a daisy every day of the spring and gave it to the girl he loved, like the man in a wheelchair who could barely hide how happy he was when the woman he fancied caressed his face, or the young man who asked me for advice about what to do on his first date and was so nervous he forgot her name.
Their stories are just like the rest of ours.
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