Latest research on relationships, sex and learning disability

Relationships are very important to people with a learning disability, but there are various barriers to people with a learning disability having the relationships they want.

Personal and sexual relationships are very important to people with a learning disability (Stacey and Edwards 2013; Azzopardi-Lane and Callus 2015; Abbott et al. 2005).

Although some people with a learning disability may not be able to consent to having sex or a relationship, this is the minority. Generally, if they are given sufficient social support and accessible sex and relationships education, many people with a learning disability are able to engage in safe, healthy and happy personal and sexual relationships (Sinclair et al. 2015; Eastgate 2008).

Key facts

Very few adults with a learning disability are in a relationship

There is little current research into how many people with a learning disability are in a relationship, but research from 2005 found that only 3% of people with a learning disability lived as part of a couple, in comparison with 70% of the general adult population in England (Emerson et al. 2005). Although there may have been some change in the last 11 years, it is likely that there is still a significant difference in the proportion of people with a learning disability living with a partner, compared to the general population today.

Just like everybody else, people with a learning disability have sexual rights, which need to be respected

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (WHO 2006; AAIDD 2008) promotes the rights of people with a disability to form relationships and have a family. It also says that people with a disability should have access to the same range and quality of sexual and reproductive health care as everybody else.

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Barriers to relationships

People with a learning disability face a number of barriers to having personal and sexual relationships. For example:

  • Only a limited number of services or support groups offer information and support around sex and relationships for people with a learning disability.
  • Family members or staff carers might not support a person with a learning disability to have a personal or sexual relationship.
  • People with a learning disability may lack self-confidence.
  • People with a learning disability may have negative views of their own sexuality.
  • There is a lack of accessible activities or events where people with a learning disability could potentially meet somebody.
  • People with a learning disability might receive negative reactions from the general public if they are in a relationship or kiss their partner in public.

(Azzopardi-Lane and Callus 2015; Fitzgerald and Withers 2013; Johnson et al. 2001; Keywood 2003; Jones 2009).

For more information about sex education and support for people with a learning disability, visit our FAQs page on relationships and sex.

People with a learning disability can be lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT), just like anyone else.

It is important to recognise that people with a learning disability can be lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

Research has found that many LGBT people with a learning disability face discrimination because of their sexuality or gender. For example, some LGBT people with a learning disability are bullied or harassed. In addition, their family members or service staff might not acknowledge their identities or relationships (LGBT HIP and Lewis 2015; Abbott et al. 2005; FPA 2004).

For more information about LGBT people with a learning disability, including how to better support them, visit our FAQs page on relationships and sex.

Information and support to help people with a learning disability to understand their sexuality and have relationships is lacking within many learning disability services

Sex education for people with a learning disability is often insufficient or provided in an unplanned way (Lafferty et al. 2012; Noonan and Gomez 2011). In addition, there is a lack of accessible resources about sexuality for people with a moderate or severe learning disability, who might need things to be communicated to them using pictures (Grieveo et al. 2007). As a result, knowledge and understanding of sex, sexuality and relationships is often relatively poor amongst people with a learning disability (Sinclair et al. 2015; Fitzgerald and Withers 2013; Healy et al. 2009).

People with a learning disability, especially women, are more likely to be at risk of sexual abuse

Whilst there is a need to protect the rights of people with a learning disability to express their sexuality and have relationships, there is also clearly a need to safeguard people with a learning disability from sexual abuse.

A relatively high number of people with a learning disability experience some form of sexual abuse, especially women with a learning disability (McCarthy 2014; Barger et al. 2009). Research suggests that the sexual safety of people with a learning disability is usually better protected when their sexuality is recognised by learning disability services. For example, teaching people about sex and relationships can help empower them to give or deny informed consent; engage in safe, healthy and happy sexual relationships; and teach them the language with which to describe and report experiences of sexual abuse (Acton 2015; Keywood 2003; Sinclair et al. 2015).

For more information about sexual abuse, or how to support somebody with a learning disability who has experienced sexual abuse, visit our FAQs page on relationships and sex.

References

  • AAIDD (American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities) (2008) Position on Sexuality. Available online (accessed 12/02/16).
  • Abbott, D., Howarth, J. and Gyde, K. (2005) Secret Loves, Hidden Lives? A Summary of what People with Learning Difficulties said about being Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual. Norah Fry Research Centre, University of Bristol. Available online (accessed 11/01/16).
  • Acton, D. (2015) ‘Striking a balance between safety and free expression of sexuality,’ Learning Disability Practice, 18(6): 36-39.
  • Azzopardi-Lane, C. and Callus, A-M. (2015) ‘Constructing sexual identities: people with intellectual disability talking about sexuality,’ British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 43: 32-37.
  • Barger, E., Wacker, J., Macy, R. and Parish, S. (2009) ‘Sexual assault prevention for women with intellectual disabilities: a critical review of the evidence,’ Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 47(4): 249-262.
  • Eastgate, G. (2008) ‘Sexual health for people with intellectual disability,’ Salud Pública de México, 50(2): 255-259.
  • Emerson, E., Malam, S., Davies, I. and Spencer, K. (2005) Adults with Learning Disabilities in England 2003/4, Available online (accessed 17/02/16).
  • Fitzgerald, C. and Withers, P. (2013) ‘“I don’t know what a proper woman means”: what women with intellectual disabilities think about sex, sexuality and themselves,’ British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 41: 5-12.
  • FPA (2004) Sexual Health and People with Learning Disabilities. FPA Factsheet. Available online (accessed 18/02/16).
  • Grieveo, A., McLaren, S. and Lindsay, W. R. (2007) ‘An evaluation of research and training resources for the sex education of people with moderate to severe learning disabilities,’ British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 35: 30-37.
  • Healy, E., McGuire, B. E., Evans, D. S. and Carley, S. N. (2009) ‘Sexuality and personal relationships for people with an intellectual disability. Part I: service-user perspectives,’ Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 53(11): 905-912.
  • Johnson, K., Hillier, L., Harrison, L. and Frawley, P. (2001) Living Safer Sexual Lives Final Report. Melbourne: Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University.
  • Jones, C. (2009) ‘Friendship, romance and possibly more,’ Learning Disability Practice, 12(2): 8-13.
  • Keywood, K. (2003) ‘Supported to be sexual: developing sexual rights for people with learning disabilities,’ Tizard Learning Disability Review, 8: 30-36.
  • Lafferty, A., McConkey, R. and Simpson, A. (2012) ‘Reducing the barriers to relationships and sexuality education for persons with intellectual disabilities,’ Journal of Intellectual Disabilities, 16(1): 29-43.
  • LGBT HIP (Health Inclusion Project) and Lewis, M. (2015) LGBT Identity and Learning Disabilities Round Table Report. Available online (accessed 23/02/16).
  • McCarthy, M. (2014) ‘Women with intellectual disability: their sexual lives in the 21st century,’ Journal of Intellectual and Developmental Disability, 39(2): 124-131.
  • Noonan, A. and Gomez, M. T. (2011) ‘Who’s missing? Awareness of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people with intellectual disability,’ Sexuality and Disability, 29(2): 175-180.
  • Sinclair, J., Unruh, D., Lindstrom, L. and Scanlon, D. (2015) ‘Barriers to sexuality for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities: a review,’ Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 50(1): 3-16.
  • Stacey, J. and Edwards, A. (2013) ‘Resisting loneliness’ dark pit: a narrative therapy approach,’ Tizard Learning Disability Review, 18(1): 20-27.
  • WHO (World Health Organisation ) (2006) Defining Sexual Health. Report of a Technical Consultation on Sexual Health. World Health Organisation. Available online (accessed 17/02/16).

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