Relationships are very important to people with a learning disability.

However, there are various barriers to people with a learning disability having the relationships they want.

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). Many people with a learning disability have the same aspirations for loving relationships as those without a learning disability (Bates et al., 2017a; 2017b; Whittle & Butler, 2018).

The companionship that a partner provides is important to people with a learning disability (Bates et al., 2017a; 2017b). Intimate relationships can fulfil needs and have a positive impact on mental health and well-being (Rushbrooke et al.,2014). In some instances, having a partner can replace the potential need for support staff (Bates et al., 2017a).

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. As such, sex education resources and campaigns for people with a learning disability should be designed with the specific needs of lesbian, gay or bisexual people in mind, rather than assuming that all people with a learning disability are straight (heterosexual) (Abbott and Howarth, 2007).

Research has found that many LGBTQ people with a learning disability face discrimination because of their sexuality or gender. For example, some LGBTQ people with a learning disability are bullied or harassed. In addition, their family members or service staff might not acknowledge their identities or relationships (LGBTQ HIP and Lewis 2015; Abbott et al. 2005; Harflett & Turner, 2016). Evidence suggests some LGBTQ people with a learning disability have concealed their sexuality to avoid expected negativity (Rushbrooke et al. 2014).

What are the barriers and enablers to people with a learning disability developing and sustaining relationships? 

The role of caregivers

Support workers and family members can play a large role in supporting or preventing people with a learning disability in developing and sustaining relationships (McCann et al. 2016; Brown & McCann, 2018; NDTI, 2019). For example, people with a learning disability may rely on family members or support workers to help them to attend social events, where they can meet potential partners (NDTI, 2019). In some cases, support staff have reportedly been instrumental in helping the development of relationships, especially for those with higher support needs (Bates et al., 2017a).

However, evidence suggests some support workers see their role as limited and report a lack of guidance on what they can and cannot do or say in regards to supporting sexuality. This issue is further exacerbated by tensions between trying to enable positive relationships and trying to protect the person with a learning disability from abuse or exploitation (Harflett & Turner, 2016; Maguire et al., 2019).

 

Relationships and Sex Education (RSE)

Information and support to help people with a learning disability to understand their sexuality and have relationships is lacking within many learning disability services. If information and support is given, it may be provided in an unplanned way, be insufficient or inappropriate for people with a learning disability (Lafferty et al. 2012; Noonan and Gomez 2011; Schaafsma et al., 2017). As a result, people with a learning disability often hold incomplete or inaccurate knowledge of relationships (including LGBTQ relationships), sexual health and the legal and emotional aspects of sex (Jahoda & Pownall, 2014; Sinclair et al, 2015; Whittle & Butler, 2018). Consequently, they are at higher risk of negative sexual experiences, contracting sexually transmitted infections or unwanted pregnancies (Baines et al., 2018).

RSE must be provided in an appropriate and accessible way. Research suggests that visual materials work better than verbal explanations for teaching people with a learning disability about sexuality (Rowe & Wright, 2017). RSE programmes should be designed and developed with people with a learning disability to ensure content is appropriate and accessible (Dukes & McGuire, 2009; Frawley & Bigby, 2014).

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. Research suggests that children and adults with a learning disability are at a higher risk of sexual abuse than their non-disabled peers (Byrne, 2018). However, the sexual safety of people with a learning disability is usually better protected when their sexuality is recognised by learning disability services.

Research shows that people with a learning disability are often willing to take part in RSE and enjoy learning from each other. RSE can produce positive outcomes such as increased self-esteem, positive feelings about sex and improved knowledge of sexuality issues (McCann et al., 2019).

 

Opportunities for meeting potential partners

People with a learning disability often are not given the privacy to pursue personal and sexual relationships, and many people with a learning disability have limited opportunities to meet potential partners (Brown & McCann, 2018; NDTI, 2019).Some clubs and social events for people with a learning disability exist but accessing them can be problematic due to lack of transport, money and support to go out (NDTI, 2019). In addition, people with a learning disability are not always treated like adults who have equal rights to relationships (Whittle & Butler, 2018; Maguire et al., 2019; NDTI, 2019).

For further information about people’s rights and supporting sexuality and relationships, visit our FAQs page on relationships and sex.

 

Research references

Here you'll find full referencing for the Mencap research and statistics pages.

Research references

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