Relationships are very important to people with a learning disability

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 (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).

A man and woman with downs syndrome smiling at the camera

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 on what they can and cannot do or say in regard to supporting sexuality (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 , 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) (Wilson et al., 2016; Stoffelen et al., 2018).

Research has found that LGBTQ people with a learning disability face ‘double discrimination ’ 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).

A young man and woman are sat at a table in a community centre smiling at the camera


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