Relationships are very important to people with a learning disability
Although some people with a learning disability A learning disability is to do with the way someone's brain works. It makes it harder for someone to learn, understand or do things. may not be able to consent Consent is when you say yes to something, like an operation, or Mencap using your photo for a story. You may have to sign something to say yes. If you can't make your own decisions, someone else can say yes or no for you. They must think about what is right for you. to having sex or a relationship, this is the minority.
Generally, if they are given sufficient social support and accessible Accessible means something is easy for people to use or join in with. For example: Accessible writing means the writing is easy to read and understand. sex and relationships Relationships are about the people in your life. You might have different types of relationships like friendships, family relationships, or a boyfriend or girlfriend. education Education is when you learn things. When you fill in a form to get a job, education means you write where you went to school, college or university. , many people with a learning disability are able to engage in safe, healthy and happy personal and sexual relationships (Darragh et al., 2017; Black & Kammes, 2019).
Many people with a learning disability have the same aspirations for loving relationships as those without a learning disability (Lane et al., 2019). The companionship that a partner provides is important to people with a learning disability (Bates et al., 2017a; 2017c; Retzik et al, 2021).
However, there are various barriers to people with a learning disability having the relationships they want. Many people with a learning disability are not given appropriate support needed to engage in loving and sexual relationships with others. (NIHR, 2020).
The role of caregivers and their support
Support workers and family members can play a large role in supporting or preventing people with a learning disability in developing and sustaining relationships (Azzopardi-Lane, 2017; Charitou et al., 2020; Oloidi et al., 2020).
For example, support workers are often a key source of advice as well as emotional and practical support for people with learning disabilities. (NIHR, 2020).
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 Guidance means being given clear instructions to be able to do something well. on what they can and cannot do or say in regard to supporting sexuality Sexuality is how you feel about yourself and your body. It is about finding out and knowing what feels right for you. (Sitter et al., 2019).
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 (Bates et al., 2017b; Maguire et al., 2019).
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 A lesbian is a woman who fancies other women. , gay Gay means a man who fancies other men, or a woman who fancies other women. , bisexual A bisexual is someone who fancies men and women. and transgender Transgender means someone who feels like they have the wrong body. This could be someone who has the body of a man but feels they are a woman, or the other way around. Some people who feel like this have an operation to change their body. .
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) (Wilson et al., 2016; Stoffelen et al., 2018).
Research has found that LGBTQ people with a learning disability face ‘double discrimination Discrimination is when someone is treated differently (usually in a bad way) because of things like their disability or their religion Religion is to do with the things you believe about the world. For example you may believe there is a god or something else. Examples of religions are Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. . ’ because of their sexuality or gender (Snell, 2018).
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 (Dinwoodie et al., 2016; Toft et al., 2019).
Evidence suggests some LGBTQ people with a learning disability have concealed their sexuality to avoid expected negativity (Miller et al., 2019; Bates 2020).
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 disabilities 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 (Reynolds, 2019; Sala et al., 2019).
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 (Whittle & Butler, 2018; Ferrante & Oak; 2020; Spyropoulou, 2020).
Consequently, they are at higher risk of negative sexual experiences, contracting sexually transmitted infections or unwanted pregnancies (Baines et al., 2018).
RSE serves as a way to increase the autonomy of people with a learning disability by equipping them with the tools of knowledge around sex and relationships (Daly et al., 2019).
To do this, RSE must be provided in an appropriate and accessible way. RSE programmes should be designed and developed with people with a learning disability to ensure content is appropriate and accessible (Frawley & O’Shea, 2019).
Azzopardi-Lane, C. (2017). Intimate relationships and person with learning disability. Tizard Learning Disability Review, 22(1), 24-27.
Baines, S., Emerson, E., Robertson, J., & Hatton, C. (2018). Sexual activity and sexual health among young adults with and without mild/moderate intellectual disability. BMC Public Health, 18(1), 667.
Bates, C., Terry, L., & Popple, K. (2017a). The importance of romantic love to people with learning disabilities. British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 45(1), 64-72.
Bates, C., Terry L., & Popple, K. (2017b). Supporting people with learning disabilities to make and maintain intimate relationships. Tizard Learning Disability Review, 22(1), 16-23.
Bates, C., Terry, L., & Popple, K. (2017c). Partner selection for people with intellectual disabilities. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 30(4), 602-611.
Bates, C. (2020). “It's Nothing to be Ashamed of, I'm Like, I'm Bisexual and I Love Women, I Like Men” - Being a Bisexual Person with an Intellectual Disability. Journal of Bisexuality, 20(4), 493-513.
Black, R., & Kammes, R. (2019). Restrictions, Power, Companionship, and Intimacy: A Metasynthesis of People With Intellectual Disability Speaking About Sex and Relationships. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 57(3), 212-233.
Charitou, M., Qualye, E., & Sutherland, A. (2020). Supporting Adults with Intellectual Disabilities with Relationships and Sex: A Systematic Review and Thematic Synthesis of Qualitative Research with Staff. Sexuality and Disability, 39(1), 113-146.
Daly, A., Heah, R., & Liddiard, H. (2019). Vulnerable subjects and autonomous actors: The right to sexuality education for disabled under-18s, Global Studies of Childhood, 9(3), 235-248.
Darragh, J., Reynolds, L., Ellison, C., & Bellon, M. (2017). Let’s talk about sex: How people with intellectual disability in Australia engage with online social media and intimate relationships. Journal of Psychological Research on Cyberspace, 11(1), 44-51.
Dinwoodie, R., Greenhill, B., & Cookson, A. (2016). ‘Them Two Things are What Collide Together’: Understanding the Sexual Identity Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans People Labelled with Intellectual Disability. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 33(1), 3-16.
Ferrante, C., & Oak, E. (2020). ‘No sex please!’ We have been labelled intellectually disabled. Sex Education, 20(4), 383-397.
Frawley & O’Shea (2019). ‘Nothing about us without us’: sex education by and for people with intellectual disability in Australia. Sex Education, 20(4), 519-539.
Lane, C., Cambridge, P., & Murphy, G. (2019). Muted voices: The unexplored sexuality of young persons with learning disability in Malta, British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 47(3), 156-164.
Maguire, K., Gleeson, K., & Holmes, N. (2019). Support workers’ understanding of their role supporting the sexuality of people with learning disabilities. British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 47(1), 59-65.
Miller, R., Wynn, R., & Webb, K. (2019). “This really interesting juggling act”: How university students manage disability/queer identity disclosure and visibility. Journal of Diversity Diversity means people from all different cultures and backgrounds. in Higher Education, 12(4), 307-318.
Oloidi, E., Northway, R., & Prince, J. (2020). ‘People with intellectual disabilities living in the communities is bad enough let alone…having sex’: Exploring societal influence on social care workers' attitudes, beliefs and behaviours towards support for personal and sexual relationship needs. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 1(2), 122-167.
Retznik, L., Wienholz, S., Höltermann, A., Conrad, I & Riedel-Heller, S. (2021). “It tingled as if we had gone through an anthill.” Young People with Intellectual Disability and Their Experiences with Relationship, Sexuality and Contraception Contraception are things you can use or take to try to stop a woman getting pregnant when she has sex. Examples of contraception are condoms and the pill. , Sexuality and Disabilty, 39(2), 421-438.
Reynolds, K. (2019). Relationships and sexuality education for children with special educational needs and disabilities. Journal of Health Visiting, 7(2), 233-255.
Sala, G., Hooley, M., Attwood, T., Mesibov, G., & Stokes, M. (2019). Autism Autism is a disability. Autistic people find it difficult to understand what other people think and feel. They also find it difficult to tell people what they think and feel. Everyone with autism is different. and Intellectual Disability: A Systematic Review of Sexuality and Relationship Education, Sexuality and Disability, 27(2), 353-382.
Sitter, K., Burke, A., Ladhani, S., & Mallay, N. (2019). Supporting positive sexual health for persons with developmental disabilities: Stories about the right to love. British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 47(4), 255-263.
Snell, J. (2018). Ending bigotry faced by LGBT people with learning disabilities. Learning Disability Practice 21(1), 8-11.
Spyropoulou, K. (2020). Sex and relationships education: How can children with a learning disability be a part of it?. European Journal of Special Education Research, 6(4), 117-138.
Stoffelen, J., Schaafsma, D., Kok, G., & Curfs, L. (2018). Women Who Love: An Explorative Study on Experiences of Lesbian and Bisexual Women with a Mild Intellectual Disability in The Netherlands. Sexuality and Disability, 36(2), 249-264.
Toft, A., Franklin, A., & Langley, E. (2019). ‘You're not sure that you are gay yet’: The perpetuation of the ‘phase’ in the lives of young disabled LGBT + people. Sexualities, 23(4), 516-529.
Whittle, C., & Butler, C. (2018). Sexuality in the lives of people with intellectual disabilities: A meta-ethnographic synthesis of qualitative studies. Research in developmental disabilities, 75(2), 68-81.
Wilson, N., Macdonald, J., Hayman, B., Bright, A., Frawley, P., & Gallego, G. (2016). A narrative review of the literature about people with intellectual disability who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex or questioning. Journal of Intellectual Disabilities, 22(2), 171-196.