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).

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.

What sexual rights do people with a learning disability have? 

Just like everybody else, people with a learning disability have sexual rights, which need to be affirmed, defended and respected (WHO 2006). These rights were enshrined in UK law by the Human Rights Act (HM Government 1998). The UNCRPD explicitly enshrines the rights of disabled people to a family and the Mental Capacity Act (2005) supports the rights of people with a learning disability to engage in consensual 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).

What barriers do people with a learning disability experience in having relationships? 

Sex Education

Many people with a learning disability may not have been taught about sexual health, contraception, LGBTQ relationships, masturbation and legal and emotional aspects of sex. They often do not receive accessible sex education information (Sinclair et al, 2015). 

Sexual Abuse

Poor knowledge of sex and relationships can lead to people engaging in unsafe sexual practices, and lack of awareness to report sexual abuse (Champagne, 2014). 

Socio-Cultural Barriers

People with a learning disability often are not given the privacy to pursue personal and sexual relationships (Hollomotz and The Speakup Committee, 2008).  

Bullying / Harassment

LGBTQ people with a learning disability may experience bullying or harassment and may not be welcomed at LGBTQ spaces (LGBT HIP and Lewis, 2015). 

Heteronormativity

Sex education resources and campaigns for people with a learning disability may not be designed with the specific needs of lesbian, gay or bisexual people in mind, and instead treat everybody as heterosexual (Abbott and Howarth, 2007).

 

 

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.

 

Research references

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

Research references

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