Change that leads to better lives

Guest blog from Chris Sherwood at Relate

Chris Sherwood, director of policy, communications and digital services at Relate, gave a fascinating presentation at our Learning Disability conference in January. So we asked him to write a blog to share his thoughts more widely.

Chris relate

Opening up access for people with learning difficulties to sex and relationships

We all tend to want similar things in life: good relationships with family; a good job; good friends; good quality romantic relationships; a satisfying sex life. The difference lies not in the things we want, but in our access to them.

Although we all face common strains on relationships, people with learning difficulties may need additional support, or face barriers to what are universal aspirations. In Relate’s survey of the nation’s relationships last year, for example, we found that one in ten adults in the UK don’t have a close friend. This contrasts with the finding from qualitative research in 2012 that one in four people with learning difficulties didn’t have any close friends. (i)

We’ve seen some significant progress over the past thirty years– inclusion of people with learning difficulties has significantly increased in society, but there is still much more to do. The Winterbourne View scandal reminds us that many people with learning difficulties continue to be isolated in institutional settings, which inhibit their ability to sustain relationships with family and friends who may live far away, as well as to develop new relationships including sexual ones. Too often, these institutions failed to provide their residents with respect for their relationships, as well as protection from abuse. (ii)

In an environment sometimes dominated by risk-aversion and fear of headline-hitting scandals, we don’t always get the balance quite right between safeguarding vulnerable people and supporting the right of all people to conduct their own relationships.

And attitudes of families, carers and professionals can also sometimes present barriers. Sex can still be taboo, and some still regard people with learning difficulties as in need of protection, rather than as people with the same needs and desires – including sexual desires – as everyone else. Despite the changes over the last 30 years, even in 2010, sexual contact still continued to take place behind the backs of carers.(iii) We should also ask ourselves how many people with learning difficulties have access to Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transsexual magazines, for instance, let alone pornographic material.

In addition, the current climate of fiscal constraint has impacted on social care services for people with learning difficulties. In 2012, Mencap found that one in four adults with a learning difficulty were stuck at home and spent less than one hour a day outside due to cuts to day services across England, and nearly a third of local authorities have closed day services in the last three years.(iv) This has the effect of reducing opportunities for forming or maintaining relationships.

The rise of digital technology also presents challenges, particularly around safeguarding. While technology impacts on all of our relationships, it can present particular issues for young people, who are often the most digitally connected. Last year, Relate commissioned IPPR to undertake research with young people about their relationships in the digital age.(v) Perhaps unsurprisingly, accessing pornography was seen as typical. But also significant were the increasing opportunities for not only accessing pornographic material, but also for producing such content via webcams, text message, ‘Snapchat’, etc. – giving rise to increased opportunities for abuse and bullying. Almost half (46 per cent) of young people agree that sending sexual or naked photos or videos is ‘a part of everyday life for teenagers nowadays’.

On the other hand, technology also has a positive role to play in opening up access to sex and relationships for people with learning difficulties. It brings more possibilities for staying in touch with friends and accessing information, which can have a positive impact on wellbeing. Technology also opens up the possibilities for finding love, dating and sexual encounters for disabled people including those with learning difficulties. We know from our survey last year that people with an impairment or long-term health condition are almost twice as likely as those without to report being dissatisfied with their sex lives.(vi)

It is education and information which can make the difference between technology being a threat and empowering people with learning difficulties to exercise choice and control in their relationships. Valuing People (DoH) stressed the need for services to 'help people with learning disabilities develop opportunities to form relationships, including ones of a physical and sexual nature', and highlighted that it is important that people can receive accessible sex education and information about relationships and contraception.

Opening up access to good-quality relationships, including sexual relationships, starts in schools. Good-quality Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) is important for providing education and information to help young people learn about choice, control and consent to help them form healthy and fulfilling relationships. However, more often than not, sex and relationships education focuses on biological aspects and places inadequate emphasis on relationships.

And the picture is even worse for young people with learning difficulties, who are much less likely to have access to good RSE because of attitudes towards disability and sexuality, lack of accessible resources and lack of professionals qualified to provide the appropriate support. Research carried out in Northern Ireland in 2009 by the Family Planning Association found two-thirds of people with learning difficulties wanted to know more about sex and relationships.(vii)

We also need to challenge negative stereotypes. People with learning difficulties often get negative messages about sex, and there can be a lot of anxiety around giving the right amount of information or pitching it at an appropriate level. Imagery is important. Channel 4’s controversial show The Undateables, whilst provoking anger at its offensive title and sensationalist marketing, also arguably helped to raise the profile of relationships and dating for people with learning difficulties.

We need to recognise the diversity of human sexuality. Services ought to be relational – i.e. designed and delivered in a way that recognises the importance of people’s relationships – and sex-positive in their approach. Of course we need to be aware of safeguarding, but we can still support managed risk-taking, recognising – as the Mental Capacity Act 2005 stipulates – that everyone has the right to make unwise decisions. It can be difficult to strike a balance between protecting people with learning difficulties from risks and encouraging them to explore and develop wider personal and social relationships. But it’s important that we try to get the balance right, and we need to challenge risk-averse, protective attitudes and look at how managed risks can be taken.

Finally, organisations such as Relate and others in the business of supporting people’s relationships need to ensure that their services are accessible and welcoming to people with learning difficulties.

Our aspirations to satisfying and fulfilling relationships and sex are universal. At Relate, we believe that good-quality relationships are vital for all people’s wellbeing and happiness. Everything we do is focused around helping people to build, maintain and enjoy healthy, fulfilling relationships in every aspect of their lives. As a society, we can’t continue to leave some people deprived of access to the same fulfilling relationships that most of us are fortunate enough to enjoy.

(i) Lemos & Crane (2012), Loneliness and Cruelty

(ii) McCarthy & Thompson, 1997, A prevalence study of sexual abuse of adults with intellectual disabilities referred for sex education, Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities

(iii) Lesseliers J et al (2010) Supporting relations – lessons from what people with learning disabilities say. In: McCarthy M and Thompson D (eds): Sexuality and Learning Disability: A Handbook. Brighton: Pavilion


Additional note: Relate speaks of people with ‘learning difficulties’ in place of ‘learning disabilities’

Subscribe to NDTi News

Thank you for taking the time to subscribe.